When it comes to leaders debates, there is always the same question asked at the end: Who won?
In the case of Wednesday’s first US presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, that question is probably the wrong one.
“You just can’t do that this year,” says Dr David Smith from the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. “Because every convention of rule-based debate was essentially thrown out by Trump.
“In previous years you can make that assessment based on engagement from the audience and how each candidate answered questions ... But there is really no judging who actually won this debate.”
That’s because it was widely considered a disgraceful train wreck as the US president Donald Trump repeatedly interrupted and spoke over his opponent and the moderator.
The chaos of the night aside, the small victories likely went to the Democratic challenger as Mr Trump has spent months setting a low bar for his opponent’s performance by accusing him of cognitive decline.
“I don’t think anyone really wins out of the absolute chaos of that debate. It was such a mess, it was so incoherent,” said Dr Emma Shortis a research fellow from RMIT University who co-hosts a weekly US politics podcast.
“On balance, Biden came out of that debate as best as he could have expected,” she told Yahoo News Australia.
“He managed to refute all those ridiculous claims about his stamina and his mental abilities which Trump has been talking about ... I think the Democrats will see that as a positive.”
The big myth of this debate
While these events are often framed as trying to reach undecided voters, that’s not really the reality anymore.
The question of who won “depends on who you think the audience is,” Dr Shortis said. “While undecided voters might be important in some swing states, they’re kind of a myth. This is a mobilisation election. It’s about mobilising people [to vote].”
And that’s where Mr Trump’s performance may have backfired.
“I think some of the pretty terrifying stuff such as Trump declining to condemn white supremacy is potentially motivating for a lot of Democratic voters because it is just so undeniable how deeply racist Trump’s base is,” she said.
The president has made no secret of his efforts to engage in voter suppression as a higher voter turnout is expected to favour the Democrats this year. “I think some of Biden’s strongest moments were when he was looking at the camera and speaking explicitly to the American people saying; ‘go out and vote, your vote matters’,” Dr Shortis said.
Early in the debate Mr Biden sought to make the case that Republicans were coming for the rights of voters to affordable healthcare and abortion, “but I think a lot of that got completely lost in the kind of farce of this debate. The fact that it was just three old guys shouting over each other,” she said.
Trump spoke Fox News language
While only three years older, “Biden certainly came off as old,” Dr Smith said. “But a lot of people certainly aren’t going to mind that at all given what the alternative is.”
For him, key points in the debate came towards the end. He also pointed to the president’s refusal to condemn white nationalist groups when he was explicitly asked to do so as a memorable moment that likely won’t help him.
“There was another moment when Biden was talking about his son Beau who had fought in the Iraq War and Trump started claiming that his other son Hunter had been dishonourably discharged from the military. While that’s not true, Biden turned it around.”
That attack on Hunter Biden was beyond pale and another lie. He failed a drug test as a newly commissioned Reserve office. He was Administratively Discharged not Dishonorably. We have an opiod crisis and the President is smearing a recovering addict for political points.
— Fred Wellman (@FPWellman) September 30, 2020
Interrupting Vice President Biden's comments about his son Beau to pivot to lies about Hunter Biden should alone totally disqualify Donald. What a disgrace. What a traitor.
— Mary L Trump (@MaryLTrump) September 30, 2020
Mr Biden went on to say Hunter had a drug problem which he has since tackled and overcome. “In terms of drawing sympathy from the audience, I think it was quite effective,” Dr Smith said.
“The overall impression is that Biden at least has normal levels of decency and Trump hasn’t.”
All in all, it’s unlikely the president attracted many new undecided voters.
“A lot of what Trump was saying, you would not have even be able to follow if you didn’t watch Fox News,” Dr Smith said. “He was really speaking directly to his base.”
In fact, one poll conducted by CBS following the debate showed that 48 per cent of people thought Mr Biden won, while 41 per cent said Trump won, with the rest saying it was a tie. That split matches up almost exactly with how the national polls have looked for months, suggesting there is little movement among voters.
“The only thing that poll suggests is this debate didn’t change anybody’s mind,” Dr Smith said.
The CBS viewer poll result wasn’t a surprise for Dr Luis da Vinha, a lecturer in International Relations and Politics at Flinders University who said the debate was very unlikely to have an impact on how most people will vote.
“Considering that prior to the debate, nine in 10 registered voters said they were already certain on who they would vote for, the debate will contribute very little to the election result. If anything, it just confirms the polarised and dysfunctional nature of the current American political environment,” he said.
The one thing the debate might have helped is Mr Biden’s fundraising efforts, according to his deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield. She told reporters the campaign broke its single-hour fundraising record immediately following the debate by raising $3.8 million (A$ 5.3 million).
‘National humiliation’ raises questions about future debates
Many in the US media were quick to blast the spectacle in unusually scathing language with the Washington correspondent for The Guardian describing it as a “national humiliation”.
“It was a really unedifying spectacle,” Dr Smith told Yahoo News Australia.
“That debate was so bad it actually puts the future of presidential debates in question. I don’t know why the Biden camp would even agree to do any more debates after that. Certainly any debate which happens in the future needs to have a kill switch on the microphones of candidates.
“I’ve seen it described as the lowest point in US democratic history, I wouldn’t go that far but it was pretty bad. It was certainly the worst debate I have seen in my life and I was a high school debate moderator.”
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