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Scorecard: Grading the debate performances of Donald Trump and Joe Biden

Scorecard: Grading the debate performances of Donald Trump and Joe Biden
James Pindell: It was the worst general election presidential debate in American history.

It was the worst general election presidential debate in American history.

There were huge, important topics on the table: the future of the Supreme Court, a raging pandemic still killing Americans, the fragile state of the economy, a movement for racial justice, and whether this election will end American democracy as we know it.

The 90-minute event was a chance for the candidates to show a clear contrast, describe their plans, and convince Americans they can do the job.

But for much of the debate, only two things were evident: Former vice president Joe Biden is actually quite old and President Trump isn’t presidential.


No one won this debate, and the loser was clearly the United States of America.

To be sure, heading into the event there were few undecided voters. Most of those watching know who they are voting for, but hoped to cheer for their side. Here is the thing: There was nothing to cheer for.

The grades below are based on two factors: how each candidate did, including the substance and resonance of their responses, and whether they accomplished what they needed to in the context of their campaigns.

Biden, for example, has led every poll over Trump all year. He just needed to seem plausibly presidential — and not mess up — for this debate to be a non-event. Trump, meanwhile, needed the debate to alter the trajectory of his campaign and give him momentum for the first time all year.

Top moments from the first presidential debate
Heckling and interrupting Biden, Trump causes chaos in first presidential debate.

Former vice president Joe Biden, Democrat

Grade: C

Biden had to do two things in this debate. First, he had to project that he could do the most stressful, complicated, and important job in the world. Second, he had to make sure that this debate didn’t change his significant lead over Trump.

On the first point, Biden wasn’t able to instill confidence that he is up for the job. Some of this wasn’t his fault: Trump kept interrupting Biden so much that he couldn’t speak. But some of this was Biden’s fault. While he didn’t get rattled, the former vice president often struggled to find his own lines throughout the debate. He seemed tired and unsure what to do. He was not crisp.


But Biden and his supporters have to be happy. In the end, this hot mess of a debate is not likely to change a single poll. This is a win for Biden, and it is the only reason why he gets a significantly better grade than Trump.

President Donald Trump, Republican

Grade: F

Team Trump has to be so thankful the coronavirus has canceled the post-debate spin room. What were they supposed to say about his unpresidential performance?

Trump needed a game-changing debate to turn around his campaign that appears to be headed for defeat in a month. He didn’t get that.

A lot will be made of Trump’s constant — constant — interrupting. It might have been just his personality, but it appeared like a concerted effort with some thought behind it. Anyone reviewing the Democratic primary debates would see that Biden didn’t like being interrupted, would regularly concede the floor to those who challenged him, and then whine about his own debate time being limited.

Trump may have tried to rattle Biden hoping he would make some bad gaffe that could change the campaign.


But he never rattled Biden.

So all we are left with was Trump being a bully. Polling is clear on why this is bad. Trump is losing women, independents, and the suburbs because they are tired of his antics. Even his own supporters wish he would tone it down.

Trump needs those groups to come around to his side. He only gave them more reasons to pick something new.

Consider this: A sitting president of the United States in 2020 couldn’t even condemn white supremacists when asked.

Join me for a virtual event, ‘About That Presidential Debate: A Q+A For Globe Subscribers,’ on Wednesday at 10 a.m. Hear Globe political reporters discuss the first presidential debate and what we can expect in future debates between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Sign up at

Trump repeatedly interrupts Joe Biden during the debate
Trump interrupted Biden more than 10 times during a 3-minute debate over health care.
Trump avoids condemning white supremacy in presidential debate
Trump avoids condemning white supremacy in presidential debate

James Pindell can be reached at Follow him @jamespindell and on Instagram @jameswpindell.