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Will Such A Cacophonous Debate Change Any Minds?

Welcome to a special, post-debate edition of FiveThirtyEight’s politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.


sarah (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): Last night marked our first real opportunity to see President Trump and Joe Biden go head-to-head, but it was very much unclear who was in control of the debate, given the interruptions and sniping. But let’s discuss what our takeaways are…

What surprised you the most?

geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, elections analyst): I guess I expected interruptions and “Trump to be Trump,” but the degree to which the debate couldn’t proceed without constant interruptions was pretty remarkable … er, tiresome.

julia_azari (Julia Azari, political science professor at Marquette University and FiveThirtyEight contributor): I’m surprised that I — and seemingly a lot of other people — are surprised. Trump did nothing out of character based on what we know. But somehow in a debate setting it rattled us. Norms are eroded, but we still, out of habit, expect something different in a debate.

geoffrey.skelley: Julia, that’s a fair point. Trump memorably crossed some lines in 2016, including in a town hall debate when he loomed behind Hillary Clinton while she was speaking. So I guess we should have taken what we expected to be the worst possible debate and then gone lower.

What’s the headline takeaway from this debate?

lee.drutman (Lee Drutman, senior fellow at New America and FiveThirtyEight contributor): The standard debate format has outlived its usefulness, at least for a while.

julia_azari: After years of people saying debates don’t really have a point, this one kind of really didn’t. There weren’t even coherent exchanges. The idea that I keep coming back to is that Trump used that chaos to keep the debate on his own terms.

geoffrey.skelley: Well, until the end when Trump once again refused to say he’d accept the results of the election, I would say it was the exchange about race relations that was headline grabbing for me. Chris Wallace, the moderator, asked Trump to condemn white supremacists and right-wing militias, and Trump instead said, “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by,” a reference to a white supremacist group.

That organization is apparently very happy to be mentioned by the president, too, and may view it as a call to arms ahead of the election.

lee.drutman: Geoffrey, I think “exchange” is a generous term for what was happening.

julia_azari: Trump reframed the question on race so completely that nothing substantive was said about structural racism. Trying to push Biden to defend the Obama administration and take positions that might divide Democrats didn’t really work. That said, I think it does show that Trump’s one area of success might be in shaping how people talk about politics and what the salient issues are.

The fact that he’s the incumbent president at a time when 200,000 people are dead from the coronavirus means it’s a feat that the entire debate is not devoted to his record on that alone.

Did Trump help his case?

lee.drutman: Trump’s case, as I understand it, is that Biden and the Democrats represent a radical left threat to America. He tried to goad Biden into that, but Biden didn’t take the bait. So in that respect, I don’t see how Trump helped his case.

geoffrey.skelley: I think the fundamental problem for Trump is that he’s down by 7 points nationally and trails in most of the swing states. So Trump needs to expand his base by winning over some undecided voters — who probably weren’t watching, but will hear about the debate tomorrow — or convert some Biden supporters.

He certainly tried to argue that Biden is a leftist or that he’s in league with radical socialists. He also tried to attack Biden on “law and order” by claiming that Biden wants to defund the police. But Trump’s campaign has been trying these lines for months without much apparent success, including at the GOP convention. Why would it work now?

Perhaps more people are paying attention now and some lower-information voters could be brought in by his appeals, but even then I’m pretty skeptical.

Did Biden lose any ground tonight?

lee.drutman: No, I don’t think we’ll see any movement in the polls. These are two candidates who are extremely well-known at this point, and everyone knows their strengths and weaknesses, and nothing we saw did anything to change those deeply-held views.

julia_azari: I think Biden’s temperament and demographic profile allowed him to get a bit angrier than, say, Hillary Clinton could when facing off against Trump in 2016.

I wouldn’t say that debates have been Biden’s best format in the 2020 cycle, but he came off more or less as expected.

lee.drutman: And if you are an undecided voter from a cave just tuning in, you went back into your cave and planned to hibernate for another four years.

julia_azari: I saw some Twitter grumbling about Biden’s statements about the police, but his position on those issues are well-known, so the fact that he didn’t strike a more progressive stance wasn’t particularly surprising.

geoffrey.skelley: Biden was pretty weak early on, but at the same time, it wasn’t all that different of a performance from the ones he had in most primary debates, either. And like Lee said, things are pretty baked in at this point. Moreover, challengers have tended to gain after the first debate, so if the polls do move, it’s possible that Biden might gain instead of Trump.

Did you learn anything new?

julia_azari: I don’t think I learned anything new, but this feels like a new low. Debates are an important exercise in legitimate opposition, and the norms that candidates follow seemed unimportant … until they were gone.

lee.drutman: My priors going into tonight were: 1) Biden is sluggish and sometimes incoherent; 2) Trump is often all over the place; and 3) American democracy is in a dark place in 2020. I’m not sure that changed after tonight, to be honest.

geoffrey.skelley: I don’t think we can entirely rule out some poll movement, but I’d be pretty amazed if it shifted the state of the race to a noticeable degree. And even if it does, that might be ephemeral. Our forecast model anticipates that a post-debate change might be temporary and that the polls could return to the pre-debate equilibrium. So I think we’ll have to wait and see.

Julia Azari is an associate professor of political science at Marquette University. Her research interests include the American presidency, political parties and political rhetoric. She is the author of “Delivering the People’s Message: The Changing Politics of the Presidential Mandate.”

Lee Drutman is a senior fellow in the Political Reform program at New America. He’s the author of the book, “Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America.”

Geoffrey Skelley is an elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s politics editor.

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