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Who Won and Lost 2016’s First Presidential Debate?

Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Presidential Debate
AP Photo/Evan Vucci

It wasn’t all leaked emails and tax returns.

Nearly 100 million viewers watched or streamed the first presidential debate Monday night. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump took the stage at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, where they bandied talking points on economy, trade, foreign relations, security, and civil unrest. There were a lot of winners and losers from the night's debate beyond the two candidates, however, as more than a year of primary and general election campaigning came to head.

Let's walk through some of the high and low points of the debate.

Won: Hillary Clinton

Let's go ahead and call this. Clinton showed up to this debate ready not only to talk solutions, but also to wade into the gutter and drag Trump out of it if she had to. Monday night, both candidates had their first chance to articulate their message to the general voting public. While Trump went with fears of foreign powers and woes of a past American glory now gone, Clinton worked to convince voters that the answers to employment and security were within our reach.

Won: Economic policy

One of the night's three themes was "achieving prosperity," where moderator and "NBC Nightly News" host Lester Holt prodded the candidates on their plans to improve the American economy. The campaign started here in safe territory, with Clinton focusing on jobs, profit-sharing, and equal pay and Trump zeroing in on trade deficits and corporate taxation. While Trump's points weren't the strongest or most optimistic, he at least was able to speak about the very real problems of currency devaluation and disadvantages in U.S. trade relations. But this isn't high school pre-calculus. Trump may have shown his work, but the answers were way off.

Lost: All other policy

The debate's only good leg was economic policy, and the candidates both cut that off rather quickly. As soon as talk shifted to Trump's tax returns and Clinton's emails, there really wasn't much room left to talk about how they would govern as president. Clinton does get credit for trying to steer everybody back on course, but when your opponent is trying to rewrite history with each word, there's only so much you can do. Usually, these debates are light on policy, but compared to what Trump gave us, Clinton gave a buffet.

Won: Lester Holt

No one is going to be totally happy with how the debate was moderated. Trump supporters are already crying that Holt let Clinton off easy; the Clinton camp says Holt should have interrogated Trump harder and kept him from interrupting. But Holt acknowledged the enormity of his task before he started and navigated his questioning through the mudslinging from each candidate. As The Atlantic's Matt Ford said, Holt "navigated that Scylla and Charybdis well."

Lost: Everyone who "cybers"

Trump had a lot of verbal missteps, but maybe the most telling was his constant harping about "cyber"--as a vocal shorthand for cybersecurity and cyberterrorism. The candidate was speaking to millions via live-streaming and social media, and he talks about digital technology with the same vocal acumen as a great uncle trying to talk to his niece who's texting at the dinner table. Not to mention the frankly tired stereotype of the "400-pound" hacker.

Tie: Addressing racism in the U.S.

When Clinton spoke the words "systemic racism"--when she said that "implicit bias is a problem for everyone"--that was a big nod of acknowledgement to the dangers facing America's people of color. When a presidential candidate will indicate the bias that has trapped and killed black and Latino Americans throughout local and state governments, that should mark a turning point. Unfortunately, that moment was swiftly followed by Trump's support of stop-and-frisk and the baffling account that his support of the birther conspiracy actually helped President Barack Obama. The two candidates, and the two Americans they represent, could not have been more embarrassingly dissimilar than when they addressed race in this country.

The second presidential debate will be held Oct. 9.

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