In order to truly judge who won or lost a presidential debate, one must understand where the status of the race is, and what strategically each candidate needs to accomplish.
Entering the first debate on Tuesday, President Donald Trump was behind nationally by approximately 7 points on average, and was behind by similar margins in nearly every target state to win the Electoral College. The president was also viewed by a majority of the country negatively, and had a significant disadvantage to Joe Biden in terms of favorability.
Thus the strategic goal for Trump was to upset the current status quo, to improve his standing with the American public, to cut the margin he was behind Biden on the ballot, and to alter his disadvantage on personal favorability. Biden’s strategic goal was to lock in his advantages and keep the status quo generally the same, with him at a significant advantage over Trump.
In debate one, Trump lost, and Biden won.
The president moved no numbers that would change where the race stood going in, and Biden solidified his lead. In fact, the first series of polls out after the debate showed Biden actually improving his position on favorability over Trump. In an Ipsos poll done for FiveThirtyEight, Trump went into the debate with a 37% favorable rating and a 60% unfavorable -- a net 23-point negative. Biden went into the debate with a 49% favorable rating, and a 47% unfavorable -- a net 2-point positive. Therefore, Biden had a total of a 25-point net favorable advantage.
After the debate, Ipsos showed a slight worsening for Trump, and a slight improvement for Biden. Post-debate, Trump now has a net 26 negative and Biden has a net 7 positive, which means Biden now has a 33 net favorable advantage. So not only did Trump not make things better, he actually made things worse by his performance. And Trump may suffer even more in the aftermath of the debate, as Americans reflect on what they just saw and talk to their neighbors.
Immediate post-debate surveys by CBS and CNN also showed that the American public believed Joe Biden was the winner of the debate. For an incumbent behind, with few opportunities left to alter the race, this spells real trouble for Trump. Will Joe Biden gain in the ballot position post-debate? Unlikely, because of the polarization of the election, but he may gain a point or two in the polls we see in the days ahead.
Last night on ABC I said this debate was an embarrassment, not only among the international community, but among our domestic fellow citizens. There was nothing for any of us to be proud of in how the debate unfolded. This debate wasn’t embarrassing because of Chris Wallace the moderator; it wasn’t embarrassing because of Joe Biden; it was embarrassing because of Donald Trump. And the American public seems to have had the exact same reaction as I did.
Could Biden have done a better job at the debate? Sure, and I am sure his campaign will course-correct for the next debate, which will be fundamentally different because it will be a format with the public asking questions in a town-hall setting. But we must not blame how this debate unfolded on Joe Biden. When a bull comes in a wrecks a china shop, you don’t blame the shopkeeper or fellow customers who attempt to go by norms and follow rules.
Up next is the vice presidential debate, which I am quite sure will not be conducted in the same manner as this first presidential debate. And it again is one of the few opportunities left for the Trump-Pence campaign to try to alter this race.
We shall see if that will happen, or if Kamala Harris is able to maintain the status quo with only weeks left till Election Day.