“I looked for the debate on television last night, but I couldn’t find it,” said Tom, a Democrat from North Carolina. “Instead, I watched a program where an older gentleman was trying to have a conversation with an immature child having a temper tantrum.”
Most of the 150 voters on my 500-person panel who weighed in on the first presidential debate Tuesday night, independent of party, agreed, using the word “embarrassing” to best describe the debacle we watched last night. The chart below lays out the responses; the larger the word, the more frequently it was mentioned.
About 70 percent of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s supporters felt their candidate had won, particularly because he stayed calm in the midst of the chaos. “I thought he did pretty well, considering how absolutely intolerable it is to have someone tell lies about you whenever they open their mouth,” said Kathryn, a Democrat from Massachusetts. Thirty percent of Democrats thought it was impossible to pick a debate winner. Democrats did report that Biden seemed flat, missing opportunities to look into the camera and remind Americans that they were watching their leader.
Independents were not impressed, with many reporting they turned their televisions off after watching two angry candidates flinging barbs at each other. “I guess if I were a school kid, I would say that ‘Trump started it!’ because Trump went on the attack and never stopped,” said Joel, an independent from upstate New York. Joel doesn’t plan to watch any more debates, but he says he will probably vote for Biden.
Although some voters in President Trump’s base believed that their candidate was strong and dominating — in a good way — about half were unhappy with the president’s performance. Lynn, a Republican from Pennsylvania, called him “agitated” and “too hostile,” while Katie, a Republican from South Carolina, said, “The entire evening consisted of name-calling and interrupting — especially by Trump. He was rude and immature.” Lynn and Katie haven’t changed the way they will vote, but they’re hopeful the next debate will be better and more informative.
Many voters believed Biden’s best line was about Trump’s performance: “Under this president, we have become weaker, sicker, poorer, more divided, and more violent.” As Dan, an independent from Michigan, noted, “Biden probably should have just repeated that line all night long, interspersed with reminders about the two key metrics we should keep in mind: $750 and 200,000.”
Diane Hessan is an entrepreneur, author, and chair of C Space. She has been in conversation with 500 voters across the political spectrum weekly since December 2016. Follow her on Twitter @DianeHessan. See her methodology at https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/5979231-Diane-Hessan-Methodology.html