When we talk about a political debate’s “winner” and “loser,” we assume general agreement about the objectives sought by the candidates. To wit: advancing the cause of winning the election, a zero-sum game in which one or the other must have made more progress. 

That’s not always the case. In 1984, Walter Mondale surely understood as he stepped out for the first Presidential debate that he could not overcome Ronald Reagan’s 18-point polling lead in the final month. Mondale's strong performance that night, however, helped buck up the Democratic Party enough to maintain its numbers in the House and Senate even as Mondale himself got routed. 

So, when I say that Donald Trump “won” Sunday night’s debate, I assume that Trump was not trying to get closer to winning next month’s election. Rather, Trump's goal was to reassure his base while simultaneously forestalling the full-fledged party rupture that appeared imminent that afternoon. 

The 48 hours leading up to the debate was among the strangest periods in modern political history. A tape of Trump’s egregious casual misogyny, combined with an expanding Clinton polling lead, had triggered a cascade of intra-party defections unseen in recent American politics. Republican officeholders, candidates, prominent figures, and donors retracted their endorsements of Trump or called on him to leave the race.  Many others were reportedly waiting to do the same if Sunday night’s debate didn’t reassure them—including, by some claims, his running-mate Mike Pence. 

Trump’s many millions of supporters, however, were mostly unmoved from that allegiance, and appeared ready to turn against the entire GOP establishment—a rebellion Trump actively encouraged. Sunday morning, Rudy Giuliani made the rounds of the talk shows denouncing the “feckless” Republican leaders. Trump joined in, tweeting angrily against the “self-righteous hypocrites” turning against him, and predicting that they would see their poll numbers drop, and lose their elections. 

It truly appeared that the GOP was on the verge of splitting entirely, into one group trying to help down-ballot Republicans by refusing to help Trump, and another refusing to help those down-ballot Republicans and voting only for Trump. 

That’s a recipe for a catastrophic, humiliating drubbing at all levels. 

An awful debate Sunday night might have brought that about—and it sure seemed like awful was on order, as Trump spent the day signaling that he would pull the pin on the political grenade of old sexual allegations against Bill Clinton. 

In the event, Trump did awkwardly allege that the 42nd President “was abusive to women,” but held back from going much further. He had far more confrontational and controversial lines of attack over the course of the 90 minutes, most notably a promise to have a special prosecutor investigate Clinton and send her to jail.  

Trump also repeated numerous long-debunked falsehoods, including—in his response to a Muslim woman pleading for respectful treatment—his fabrication that numerous Muslim neighbors had seen but failed to report bombs in the San Bernardino terrorists’ home. His remorseless explanation of his misogynistic attitude more likely reinforced the problem than dissipated it. He confirmed that he had used a massive 1995 financial loss as an offset to avoid paying federal income taxes for years. He whined repeatedly that the moderators were unfair. He displayed a stunning lack of understanding of world events, declaring that Russia has a more advanced nuclear weapons program than the U.S., that Aleppo has already fallen, and that Mosul should have been taken by “sneak attack.” 

So, in all, exactly the sort of performance that has turned off some 60 percent of the country, and will do nothing to win any of that 60 percent over. 

But, Trump was also mostly calm and measured, not getting rattled or angry the way he did his first debate with Clinton. He hit most of his marks when attacking her, on the Obama administration’s foreign policy, her email server scandal, and her long tenure as part of the Washington seen from outside as the source of problems, not the needed change. 

That discipline should sufficiently reassure the GOP establishment fence-sitters. And indeed, post-debate tweets and statements from Pence, GOP chairman Reince Priebus, and others suggested it had. 

Meanwhile, the promise to jail Clinton, along with the usual broadsides about immigrants, African-Americans, taxes, and other popular targets should keep his followers pumped up, and assuage any fears they might have that their hero would kowtow to those feckless GOP leaders. 

It’s not a balancing act just anybody could pull off, and I’d call it a clear win for Trump. 

It does nothing, however, to close what appears to be a comfortable, safe lead that Clinton is sitting atop. Which is why, by having a perfectly fine, if uninspiring performance, Clinton remained on track to win the election. So, it’s clearly also a win for her. 

For the rest of us, it was hardly a winning experience. But, not much has been in this long election cycle.