The expectations for Trump were set in the basement. The mainstream media dutifully reported Trump team spin that they were worried about Trump fidgeting: Would there be a "Fidgetgate" or would Trump triumph by managing simply to stand still for an hour and a half? (As it happens, he couldn't scale even that low bar.) For Clinton, the usual minefield had been prepared: would she smile wrong? would she frown? would she cough? would she be too loud? would she be strong enough? would she be too bossy? would she seem folksy? would she seem like a know-it-all? would she be authentically inauthentically authentic? On and on and on and on and on.
And then... the debate. Not only did Hillary Clinton not lose the debate, or lose despite winning it on the substance (as long experience has taught me to fear), she won and won so conspicuously and by so many separate measures that she is even seen to have won. The reason Trump's defeat may have longstanding impact on the race is that it played out in ways that accord well with the Clinton campaign's preferred narratives -- he was and is unprepared, she was and will be prepared to be President, she was solid and informed and he seemed erratic and ignorant and unfit to be President. She even managed to get in a few words about her larger vision -- supporting working and struggling families by raising the minimum wage, ending student debt, providing paid family leave, investing in new and renewable energy, transportation, communication, water treatment infrastructure providing millions more jobs, recognizing and battling systemic racism in policing, housing, education, making rich one-percenters pay their fair share in taxes and regulating business to stop its abuses (themes nicely illustrated by her opponent as a bonus).
I hope but do not expect the polls to shift to reflect this event [added, a few days later, they have indeed shifted--d], as I trust at least some of the conventional wisdom about organization and substance still matters even in the aftermath of the Great Sort (party polarization and regionalization baking in Party ID and making straight ticket voting the norm) and social networks scrambling assumptions about fundraising and narrative management. The Culture Wars have been won by the left in ways that seem too often to make the left complacent and divisive (there's still too much Purity Cabaret getting performed by people who, like me, have political convictions to the left of the Democratic Party which must nonetheless be a primary vehicle for our aspirations and must be supported to win to do so even as it inevitably disappoints us) as it makes the right more disciplined and defensive (just turning on the television is enough to make them think every election is the last battle before they are compelled to live in the laid back tolerant multicultural secular progressive world that will fill them with existential panic right up to the second it prevails and they start enjoying the life it affords).
Again, American voters are sorted into their parties: and this is a base mobilization election. I think the Clinton campaign has always known all this -- watch Clinton's announcement video and speech, the themes were already clear -- but their strategy of making a spectacle of the support of Republican moderates and eminences grises to attack Trump's fitness without going personally negative and also to build a governing mandate in the face of likely unprecedented obstruction seems to have softened some base support. I think narratives foregrounding this softening are overblown, I think it is not only wrong but insulting to pretend young people and people of color don't know or won't vote in their obvious interest, but the polls aren't where I would like them to be and facts are facts.
The so-called "values voters" are consolidating behind the man who debauches their every value because he is a Republican. This is not only their usual hypocrisy (I'm a gay man who has faced their hateful love first hand growing up and then as an activist in the South, so I know what I am talking about when I glibly declare so many of them hypocritical) since the Supreme Court really is their last hope to survive the existential threat of demographic diversification and secularization. If Trump loses Clinton appointments to the Court will indeed bring this branch in line with the diverse, secular, equitable, sustainable assumptions and aspirations of the REAL real America of the coalition of the ascendant that already elected Obama twice and grows by the day, and this may break the back of politicized Christian fundamentalism and invite separatist retreats and re-connection to community service priorities that prevailed prior to the organization of the moral majority (never a real majority, any more than Nixon's silent majority was one, but that is another story for another day), which may come to seem a doomed and demoralizing detour from evangelical principles orchestrated by cynical opportunistic businessmen looking for dupes to vote against their interests in order to swell the treasure piles of the rich with precious tax cuts.
Obama repeatedly pined for "the fever to break" in a Republican Party appealing to its paranoid-aggressive war-mongering gun-loving white-supremacist patriarchal science-denialist base in the face of electoral defeats by the Obama coalition (the famous Republican Autopsy report provided a wan and premature glimpse of that future). Though Donald Trump makes a ridiculous spectacle of himself when he makes his ugly and impossible promise to "build a great and beautiful wall" it is true that the Great Sort is the geopolitical firewall (gerrymandered House districts and Red State disenfranchisement schemes and refusals to accept Medicaid support for their own citizens are concrete symptoms of this demographically and geographically partisanized ideological firewall) that has made a nearly unprecedentedly awful candidate a plausible one for the Presidency. There is good reason to think that breaching the wall would be a tipping point taking it down once and for all in the face of overwhelming demographic and economic realities. Obama's second victory didn't manage the trick and Clinton's first victory might not either (especially if Democrats can't manage to win back the Senate or chisel into the GOP's House majority). But the tide is turning (and has been since 2006), the breaking of the fever is before us, the crumbling firewall will fall, and then possibilities for unprecedented changes for the better become possible where before they were impossible. The stakes are high, we stand on a knife-edge, things can go badly wrong, despair is well-warranted but it is not an option.