Doug Schoen: First Presidential Debate — Here’s who won on style and substance



The first presidential debate between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden has concluded. Following the night, the biggest takeaway is that there were no surprises, and nothing happened that will change any attitudes, cause either candidate to gain or lose any votes, or move any undecided voters one way or the other.

Indeed, while the debate was contentious, and at times became personal, it lacked any real substance that could change attitudes in any meaningful way.

Given the level of back-and-forth between the candidates, the substance of the candidates’ answers was often lost and took a back seat to their style of argumentation and command of the room.

Though, in terms of style, in my view, President Trump was the clear winner—Trump was in command of the conversation, in control of the discussion, and if not presidential, certainly more in command.

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Biden, on the other hand, became exasperated at times in the face of Trump’s stop-at-nothing strategy—as the president spoke over both Biden and the moderator—and Biden even leveled personal attacks on Trump, calling him a “liar,” and a “clown.”

In terms of actual substance, however, the night was a draw.

President Trump was weakest on the topic of the coronavirus, which is unsurprising. The pandemic is a clear political vulnerability for the president, given that most public polls show that a majority of Americans disapprove of Trump’s handling of the virus.

Likewise, Biden was strongest during the coronavirus discussion. Biden landed solid attacks on Trump for downplaying the threat of the coronavirus early on, which he argued has contributed to 200,000 Americans dead from the coronavirus pandemic and the U.S. doing dramatically worse than the rest of the world.

Trump struggled to communicate a compelling case on the coronavirus pandemic and flailed and veered off topic when Biden attacked Trump for his failure to lead on the pandemic, at one point calling Biden stupid and questioning his college record.

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However, as the conversation shifted away from the coronavirus, Trump’s performance on substance slowly improved, whereas Biden’s slowly tapered off.

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On the issue of the economy, which followed the coronavirus segment, Trump improved from the prior discussion. And then by the time the conversation had evolved into a discussion of race relations and law-and-order, Trump was in complete command of the discussion, and this was a clear weak point for the former Vice President.

Indeed, Biden had trouble defining himself outside of the “anti-law-and-order” framework that Trump boxed him into, and struggled to respond to Trump’s attacks on violence and riots in Democratic-led cities.

Thus, in terms of the impact that the debate will have on the race, in my view, neither candidate likely persuaded any undecided voters one way or the other.

Though, while Trump’s performance will likely help him solidify Republican support, Biden’s performance likely did not move Democrats in any meaningful way.

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However, Biden was able to hold his own through much of the debate, and if nothing else, his performance largely invalidated the president’s prior attacks on Biden’s mental acuity and cognitive abilities.

Ultimately, with the election close to one month away, and with thousands of Americans already having voted, this debate made it clear that the race is closer than many might think, and is far from over.

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