Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton shakes hands with Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump after the presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. (Joe Raedle/Pool via AP)
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It was a tale of contrasting preparations. People thought Donald Trump was gaming expectations when he said he had not spent much time working on the first presidential debate. It turns out he was telling the truth. Mr Trump set his bar as low as possible yet was still unable to clear it. It did not seem as if he even tried.

If he expected to be asked about his role in stoking the Obama birther theories, he did not betray it. His answer was rambling and self-congratulatory. The same applies to what he said about his unpublished tax returns. As is her wont, Hillary Clinton not only prepped intensively but happily owned up to it.

“I prepared for this debate,” she said, after Mr Trump observed that she must have. “And I am prepared to be president.”

Pundits joked it would be like the high school president debating the wisecracking jock. Take away the wisecracks and they were not far wrong.

But any Trump performance, however bad it seems, should come with skyscraper health warnings. Time and again in the Republican primary debates what appeared disastrous to some went down swimmingly with others. In a country as polarised as America, viewers filter different realities. It is not only the screen that is split but the perceptions.

Mr Trump’s poll numbers may not bear out what was a poor debate on style and substance. But he is unlikely to receive a boost. He needed to pull off what Ronald Reagan did against Jimmy Carter in 1980: appear calm, presidential and likeable. Unlike Reagan, Mr Trump will get two more bites at the apple. But his first attempt was hectoring and overbearing.

It was also weak on facts. He clearly had no idea what a “no first use” nuclear posture meant, for example. He flailed badly when Mrs Clinton challenged him on his business record. If they outsourced Trump fact checking to Bangalore, it could become a successful cottage industry.

Yet few voters bother with earnest fact checking. If something feels right — and a candidate captures their sentiments — they can be swayed. Mr Trump’s summary of US trade policy was factually contentious. But his claim that the North American Free Trade Agreement was the worst trade deal in history would strike a chord with millions of Americans. So too would his anger in talking about China, Mexico and other US trading partners.

One of Mrs Clinton’s weakest moments came in her response to Mr Trump’s claim that she had done nothing in 30 years to stem the export of industrial jobs. It may have been unfair and Mr Trump repeatedly spoke over Mrs Clinton’s attempts to answer. But his point will have hit home with many Americans. They may not care less about Mr Trump’s business leverage ratio, or the true estimate of his net worth. They feel enraged and pessimistic and he channelled it.

Will Mrs Clinton receive a debate bounce? After several weeks of bad news, a pneumonia diagnosis and a gaffe about “deplorable” Trump supporters, she is certainly due for one.

The polls have been steadily tightening in the past two weeks. She ought now to recover a modest lead. But opinions are too hard set on both sides for Mrs Clinton to run away with the race.

In the first debate she came across as collected and impervious to provocation and had clearly done her homework. She also seemed in good health and comfortably batted off Mr Trump’s claim that she suffered from a lack of stamina. But there are two debates and countless public events left to go.

Among her supporters, the pendulum has swung from panic to complacency and back again since the July conventions. In the next six weeks it will probably keep on swinging.

Edward.Luce@FT.com

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