In what was probably his last presidential debate ever, there were aspects of President Trump’s performance that were familiar: He seized the lead role, he went on the attack, and he told a lot of lies.
But there was also something new: restraint.
Heading into the debate, every poll told the same story: In less than two weeks, Trump was about to be the first incumbent president in 28 years to not be reelected.
Thursday night’s event was Trump’s last chance to do or say something to shock American politics and change the trajectory of the race.
Yes, it was an improbably high bar, but if anyone in American politics today could pull it off, it was Trump, the ultimate showman.
And, it turned out, he largely didn’t.
But for most Americans, the debate itself was notable just because it was a refreshing change from the first one, which was so full of Trump interruptions it was simply unwatchable. This time there were new debate rules, including the unprecedented muting of microphones when the other candidate spoke at the beginning of each topic. For that, the debate organizers get good grades for at least stepping in. The best grade of the night, by the way, goes to debate moderator Kristen Welker of NBC News.
As for the candidates, their own grades for this debate are based on two criteria: first, the raw debate performance from the candidate; second whether the candidate did what he needed to do in the context of the election. For example, with his commanding lead, Joe Biden just needed to shuffle his way through. Trump, by all appearances on track to lose, needed to do quite the opposite: tap dance his way to a different presidential race.
Let’s get to the grades:
Former vice president Joe Biden, Democrat
Gaffes and all, one of the best traits of Joe Biden the politician over the decades is that he can speak authentically, articulately on a major stage, and connect with Americans. That Biden no longer exists.
Let’s be honest: During this entire 2020 presidential campaign, Biden has struggled to put together sentences, paragraphs, coherent descriptions of his ideas. People watching him can — and usually do — infer what Biden means and where he is going, but many of his sentences are garble. Because Donald Trump blew up the first debate with his constant interruptions, Americans didn’t see the new Biden. They did, however, on Thursday night.
The new debate rules really harmed Biden. When Trump’s microphone was muted, Biden was alone and often not giving clear, clean answers.
The most head-shaking part of his performance: During a conversation about race (seemingly a good topic for Biden), the former vice president demanded to go back and talk about attacks on his own family (seemingly a bad topic for Biden).
But, in addition to performance, these grades take into account the context of the campaign. Biden entered the debate winning. Over 48 million Americans have voted. It is a contest that is about how people feel about Trump, not Biden. And while Biden wasn’t great in this debate, he didn’t commit some devastating, game-changing error. There were even moments where Biden had heart, especially in his closing statement. This debate was not great for Biden, but it was fine.
President Donald Trump, Republican
As president of the United States, Trump gets a lot of opportunities to have a good moment and turn things around. And basically every single opportunity of all of 2020, from his impeachment to the State of the Union to COVID arriving to even him getting COVID himself, Trump failed to pivot in a way that helped himself politically.
But in this final debate, Trump actually did help himself. He kept Biden on the defensive. He lied a lot, sure, but he just plowed through Biden’s pushback. And he raised a lot of questions about Biden, who didn’t rebut forcefully enough.
It was one of the best moments, if not the best moment, Trump has had in politics since the 2016 campaign.
This is not to suggest it was a flawless performance. In fact, the critical first part of the debate was about COVID where Trump spoke of a future where there won’t be “a dark winter” and said that the country was “turning the page” and that there will be a “vaccine in a few weeks” — things that appear to be in a fundamental disagreement with the reality that most Americans see as they prepare for another lockdown.
However good his performance was, it was probably not good enough to change the campaign. Does it mean that maybe he doesn’t lose Republican states like Texas? Sure. Does it mean he is now on track to win 270 electoral votes?
No, it does not.