The Winners & Losers of the Final Presidential Debate

Joe Biden (left) and Donald Trump (right) take to their lecterns at the start of the debate at the Curb Event Center at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, with Kristen Welker (center) of NBC moderating. | Jim Bourg | Credit: AP

Winners:

Kristen Welker & The Mute Button — After a chaotic and unproductive first Presidential debate, an evasive Vice-Presidential debate, and a canceled second Presidential debate, the third and final Presidential debate was surprisingly calm and illuminating. Moderator Kristen Welker, a White House Correspondent from NBC News, managed to do the seemingly impossible. She was well prepared with tough questions and important follow-ups for both candidates and was unflappable in enforcing the rules from the start just as a moderator should do. This second-time moderator showed the veterans how moderating should be done, and that is why she was the biggest winner of the debate.

As skillful as Welker was at moderating, she might have to share some credit with the mute button, or just the threat of the mute button that is. Tens of millions will watch any given Presidential debate, but viral moments will stick out in our memory and will also dominate the post-debate coverage for the next news cycle. The threat of having a recorded moment of being cut-off is potent given how easy it would be to use that moment against the candidate in an emotionally humiliating manner. Given this threat, perhaps that could partially explain why both candidates were much more civil tonight. Even though it virtually wasn’t used, the mute button appeared to be the winning solution that the Commission on Presidential Debates has been seeking during these past few turbulent weeks.

Joe Biden — In a night that largely has been judged to be perhaps a draw, that translates to a win for the candidate in the lead. The former Vice President may not have the lead he once had back in the end of July, but the race is not as tight as it was after the conventions in late August. He is consistently leading in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, and he is competitive in Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, Georgia, Iowa, and Arizona. Many of Trump’s leads in polls from Texas are within the margin of error too.

Biden’s lead is more than mere top-line horse race numbers as well. A look at the crosstabs finds that he is a much stronger candidate than Trump’s previous rival in Hillary Clinton. Not only does Biden have a net positive favorability rating, but he is rated as much more honest than Trump or Clinton. In addition to that, Biden has a stronger advantage with women, has taken the lead on traditionally GOP-majority demographics of both 65+ voters and college educated white voters; and is more competitive with whites broadly, whites without a college degree, and men. Though Trump may be doing nominally better with Hispanics and black men, that is not enough to offset the daunting strength of the Biden coalition that has ate into part of Trump’s 2016 coalition. It is also important to note that Biden has the lead with Independents and voters who dislike both candidates which were two segments of voters that Trump carried back in 2016.

With all the strength of Biden’s current lead laid out, the subject returns to what did the debate do for the state of the race. With far fewer remaining undecided voters this point in the cycle, approximately 7% compared to 15% at this time four years ago, and a race that has proven to be so stable despite how unstable 2020 has been, the effect of the debate is likely to be small. Undecided voters probably found reasons to come home to either candidate they were leaning for, but it is likely that will not be equal and there is reason to believe that Biden will take the larger share.

First and foremost, Biden won the topic that affects everyone and everything this year: the pandemic. Despite still not delving into the specifics of his pandemic plans, Biden at least was honest about the state of the pandemic and displayed empathy for those who have died or lost loved ones.

Biden made several strong retorts during this section of the debate. When Trump said, “We’re learning to live with it,” referring to COVID-19, Biden shrewdly replied to the claim with, “People are learning to die with it.”

When Trump argued, “I want to open the schools. The transmittal rate to the teachers is very small, but I want to open the schools,” Biden put a fine point on what that ultimately means saying, “And by the way, all you teachers out there — not that many of you are going to die, so don’t worry about it. Don’t worry about it. Come on.”

Finally, Biden reminded voters about Trump’s purposeful and dishonest downplaying of the pandemic while eviscerating Trump’s defense of preventing panic by arguing, “Americans don’t panic. He panicked.” A strong performance on the biggest issue of the campaign will prove helpful for Biden.

The pandemic was not the only subject that worked in Biden’s favor. During the section of the debate that was dedicated to the scandals, real or not, surrounding the candidates, Biden was swift and authoritative while on defense, and, most importantly, Biden was quick to go back on the offensive. Unlike Trump who waded into the details while on defense like when he reminded viewers about pleasing the wishes of his accountant regarding the release of his continuously audited tax-returns, Biden remained above the fray reminding voters that the debate between the candidates is “about your family” and that “your family’s hurting badly” under the Trump administration. President Trump can call the line “typical,” but the line probably resonated with many voters who did not know what to make of that more gossipy part of the debate.

Biden also deflated dishonest arguments that the Trump campaign has routinely made about the former Vice President. When Trump falsely claimed that Biden was attempting socialized medicine, Biden responded, laughing, saying, “He thinks he’s running against someone else. He’s running against Joe Biden. I beat all those other people because I disagreed with them. Joe Biden, he’s running against.”

In the same breath, Trump also claimed Biden would be “totally destroying” Medicare and Social Security to which Biden credibly replied, “…this is the guy that the actuary of Medicare said, ‘If in fact’ — and, social security — ‘If, in fact, he continues to withhold his plan to withhold the tax on Social Security, Social Security will be bankrupt by 2023, with no way to pay for it. This is a guy who’s tried to cut Medicare.”

Biden concluded his thoughts with, “So I don’t know. I mean, the idea that Donald Trump is lecturing me on Social Security and Medicare? Come on.” Surely, bringing up a sore subject that is critical to senior citizens is not helpful for wooing the demographic back to Trump.

Trump also repeated the false claim that Biden too had used the “Super Predator” language that Hillary Clinton had on the subject of the 1994 crime bill. Biden was able to flip the charge on its head by reminding that Trump had said, “The problem with the crime bill, there’s not enough people in jail. There’s not enough people in jail.”

Biden’s debate performance also included some important low lights. Despite the questionable strength of Trump’s debate strategy, the central point was that Joe Biden has not accomplished enough in his nearly half century political career to justify his bid for the Presidency. While it is poor debate form to take your opponent’s frame and stay in defense, you have to say something in order to swat away an accusation. Biden should have been better prepared for that challenge. His lack of a succinct answer allowed the President to use that as a constant refrain the whole night to no end. That was perceptually damaging for Biden.

Biden also gifted Trump a more legitimate bludgeon for the remaining duration of the campaign when he failed to clearly communicate his long-term prospects for the oil industry. Biden already undermined his credibility on the subject by misrepresenting his inconsistent communication on the issue of fracking. By not detailing the time period in which he would move the country away from oil, some industry employees could fear for their job security should he be elected. The balance between energy and economic needs with sustainability and environmental stewardship is delicate and precision is required. On the debate stage, Joe Biden lacked the necessary precision that topic demands.

The edge of victory that Joe Biden had in this debate was nominal at best, but that is okay for the candidate who was leading going into the debate. Perhaps the debate sealed a Democratic electoral college landslide out of reach, but it did not diminish Biden’s solid advantage which is what ultimately matters most.

Losers:

Donald Trump — President Trump’s more civil performance and Biden’s inability to shut down Trump’s “all talk no action” schtick reassured some queasy Republicans and brought home some potential Trump voters that were on the fence, but with how behind Trump lags in the polls, that is not enough. Trump needed a debate performance that would have significantly altered the race, but that did not happen much to his chagrin. The central facets of his debate failure were his dishonesty, lack of empathy, and, chiefly, his inadequate debate strategy.

Donald Trump has said he runs on his instincts. Those instincts appear to have led him to believe that he can campaign against Joe Biden just as he did against Hillary Clinton, but the data are clear that Joe Biden is not like Hillary Clinton. Trump approached this debate as if he were still the outsider challenging the incumbent party, and he did so just as he did four years ago with a race to the bottom. Both of those aspects to his approach were unwise to select for this debate given the real dynamics of the race.

Voters are not going to look at him as a challenger anymore — because he is not one. They are going to factor his promises with his record as President. To that end, the President needed to tout his successes and connect that to his vision for what he would do in a second term. That is the best way to take an election from a referendum on your Presidency into an election of two choices. President Trump almost mentioned no accomplishments as he obsessed over muddying up Biden’s perceptions during each topic. He was just as vague as the Republican National Convention’s platform was to what his second term would entail offering no specifics. This strategic misstep during the final debate ensures the campaign will remain, till the end, a referendum on his Presidency.

President Trump was also foolish to engage in a race to the bottom approach again. It worked four years ago because Hillary Clinton was almost as unfavorable as Trump himself was and voters who disliked both preferred him. The fact that neither of those are the case with Joe Biden makes this mathematically an absurd strategy, Trump is already at the proverbial bottom. Instead of incessantly demonizing Biden, Trump also needed to make the case for himself. He needed to define what mattered in this election and to convince voters that he was better suited to deliver on what matters, but he failed to make that case on the debate stage by opting to just focus on Biden.

To anyone who is watching the pandemic statistics closely or is medically on the front lines of this pandemic, Trump’s gaslighting on the state of the pandemic is not just ridiculous and distasteful but is utterly disrespectful to the daily lived experience of those on the front lines. The fact remains that no matter how many times he says, “We are rounding the curve,” it simply is not true. The data are clear that we are trending in the wrong direction as it gets colder outside, and this trend is showing no signs of stopping. Trump may have said that he “take[s] full responsibility,” but that starts with being honest about the state of the pandemic and not minimizing how deadly it actually is. Taking responsibility also means you understand the pain behind the rising death count, something he declined to do as well.

Trump’s tendency of dishonesty and deflection to a demonization of the other side also backfired when he struggled to answer about the search for the parents of 545 separated children at the border. Trump first tried to falsely blame the separation of the children on “coyotes,” individuals who smuggle children across the Southern US border, before exaggerating how many miles of border wall he built. When pressed by Biden that it was Trump’s policy to separate the children at the border, Trump attempted to revise history. At no point did the President accept responsibility for this issue as a leader whose policy created the issue nor did he offer any solution. For voters looking for strong leadership, Trump punted at an opportunity to demonstrate his capability of it.

No moment was more awkward and unpleasant than when President Trump trotted out his tired, “I am the least racist person” claim again onstage. In a CNN focus group of undecided voters in North Carolina, it was the lowest rated moment of the debate and for good reason. It does not matter whether you are partial to agree or disagree with the claim because at best it is an absurd superlative claim regardless of whether one finds it contradictory with reality. Even worse is the fact that he is wasting time in a very bad defensive frame. The time spent judging the efficacy of the statement given who could be in the audience only made it worse.

Sandwiched between both times he made the claim was one of the few achievements he cited, Opportunity Zones and the First Step Act. He would have been so much better off had he skipped the painfully awkward hyperbole and stuck with real accomplishments spending no time in the frame of whether he is racist or not.

Perhaps the roots of President Trump’s ill debate strategy stem deeply into his approach to his Presidency. Perhaps this was the best way he could play the hand he dealt himself that night. Regardless, a dishonest, race to the bottom devoid of empathy likely will not prove to be a successful debate strategy as an embattled incumbent with a net negative favorability rating. This was not the race redefining moment the Trump campaign desperately needed.

The Legislative Process — When debating over a possible stimulus package, Trump said, “Nancy Pelosi doesn’t want to approve anything,” and Biden said, “You know, the Republican leader in the United States Senate said he can’t — he will not pass it.” Now, it is fine that Presidential candidates argue about their vision for legislation given they have the constitutional role for signing it into law, but these statements reflect a truth of our times that is not constitutionally well. They were both right to point out how much power the leaders of both chambers of Congress have in simply introducing legislation.

What about the other 533 Representatives and Senators? The framers never intended that the negotiation of legislation would be consolidated between just two legislators and the President. Congress was supposed to be a deliberative body, and it was the strongest branch because of how many people power would be divided between. One cannot help but think that had it been the case that what had been said on stage was false, then perhaps a sensible stimulus solution would have been reached months ago.

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University of Cincinnati MS marketing graduate who is deeply fascinated by persuasion and politics. I enjoy writing occasional political & business analysis.

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Justin Katt

Justin Katt

University of Cincinnati MS marketing graduate who is deeply fascinated by persuasion and politics. I enjoy writing occasional political & business analysis.

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