Who won the first US presidential debate?

By and

In this two-part overview, and offer insightful analyses of the first presidential debate and tackle the question: who is the stronger candidate?

“That was a hot mess, inside a dumpster fire, inside a train wreck… it was a disgrace” 

These words, courtesy of CNN’s Jake Tapper, are surely the most accurate description of the disastrous first presidential debate. Devoid of any meaningful policy discussion, the ‘debate’ – if one is generous enough to afford Tuesday nights calamity such a title – was truly exhaustive viewing, not least because it began in the early hours of Wednesday morning. It can be said with little doubt that it was the worst presidential debate in US history. 

So, what were the highlights – or perhaps, lowlights – of the evening? Who emerged the victor, who the defeated, and what does it mean for Novembers election?


The lengthiest topic of the night was Covid-19, which has now claimed the lives of 209,000 Americans. Unsurprisingly, Trump utilised a potential vaccine as political bait, assuring voters the nation were “weeks” away from production, as well as baselessly suggesting Biden would have allowed millions to die. Biden navigated – though not always successfully – through the fog of misinformation Trump cast over the discussion. Crucially, he attempted to speak directly to the American people, asking:

“You folks at home, how many of you got up this morning to an empty chair at the kitchen table because of Covid?”

For Biden, there has not been one solitary empty chair, but several. In 1972, his 13-month-old daughter Naomi and wife Neilia were tragically killed in a car crash while Christmas shopping. Beau Biden, his eldest son, who survived the crash, died in 2015 after battling with brain cancer. Make no mistake, Joe Biden is no mesmerising orator –far from it. Yet the indescribable loss Biden has faced in his lifetime imbue his words with a dreadful familiarity and understanding that adds emotional gravity whenever he speaks about loss, a gravity that commands attention and respect. 

White Supremacism 

In another baffling sequence Trump was asked to denounce white supremacy. He failed to do so. Not only did he fail to disavow white supremacist groups, he actively enthused them, suggesting the Proud Boys– a vicious men-only neo-Fascist group should “stand back and stand by.” Make of that what you will.

Meanwhile, Biden condemned the violence on both sides of recent protests in keeping with his consistent efforts to resist the narrative that criticising looting and rioting is symbiotic with betraying the movement for racial justice. 

Still, in what was doubtless Trumps strongest sequence, he attacked Biden over his lack of Police Union support, a truth among a barrage of falsehoods that left Biden struggling for an answer. 

The Verdict

Now, one week after the debate, polls have indicated that Joe Biden emerged the victor; a post-debate CBS poll revealed a 48% to 41% win for the Democrat nominee.With his weapons-grade falsifications, dizzying interruptions and callous personal attacks, the President appealed solely to the staunchest of his advocates, surely failing to win over the white women of suburbia who will likely sway the election.

Biden’s poling lead has been remarkably stable, and Trumps performance did nothing to disrupt this pattern. In fact, Biden has recently risen in the polls. That said, Biden’s performance was mediocre. But mediocrity, when the other side you have dubbed you as cognitively dissonant and senile, can mean victory. Trump set the bar low bar, and Biden jumped it with ease.

Ultimately, Tuesday’s shameful debate was symptomatic of the dire and dangerously polarised state American politics finds itself, less than a month before voter’s head to the polls amid a global pandemic and continued social unrest. 

Biden may have won the debate, but the true loser was the American people and the Republic itself.

Where to start with this one? The first US presidential debate has been described as “the worst in American history” (Smith-Guardian), a “national humiliation” (Smith-Guardian), “a disservice to democracy” (Cillizza- CNN) and at times “literally unwatchable” (Cillizza- CNN). In these unprecedented times, the West has never needed effective leadership and sound communication more, sadly neither candidates displayed this.

Entering the debate, Trump knew he had to change the tides back in his favour. He was approximately seven points down on average across national polls and behind by similar margins in nearly every target state to win the electoral college (IPSOS). Also, Biden had a 25-point net favourability advantage over Trump. (IPSOS) Trump needed a big win in this debate to change things. He did not win. Neither candidate did really, and America certainly didn’t win. Trump dominated this debate, effectively bullying the moderator Chris Wallace. 

A presidential debate is supposed to be a battle of great minds and ideas. However, neither candidate covered themselves in glory as they engaged in a number of pointless arguments, which did nothing to inform the public. It was like watching two school kids arguing over who cut the queue. Whether that be Trump saying, “there’s nothing smart about you Joe” or Biden complaining Trump is unable to let him finish a point, to which Trump interrupted smugly “you’d be surprised, you’d be surprised”. (pointless!)

It is very unlikely Trump will be able to alter the election outcome with these debates.

Despite being the lesser of two evils on the night, Biden often gave slow, uninteresting and sometimes bad responses. He provided no real specifics that we didn’t already know and was rather embarrassingly caught out by Trump when he forgot what number point he was on. However, it was not all bad for Biden. He impressively shrugged off the “far-left” tag, stating he “was the democratic party right now” when pushed on other democrats wanting to abolish private healthcare and handled himself well when speaking on the Covid-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, too often, Biden was dragged down into the gutter calling Trump a “clown” and telling him to “shut up”. Not what you expect to hear at a presidential debate.

Quite frankly, unless Trump alters his personality to resemble some level of competence and potentially goes after Biden more effectively for being “far left” or casts doubts on his mental capacity, it is very unlikely Trump will be able to alter the election outcome with these debates. All Biden needs to do is avoid any significant embarrassments or mistakes and it should (in theory) mean a smooth ride to the White House.

The verdict

The debate achieved very little in informing the public about both candidates and or changed people’s minds and under normal circumstances this would spell real trouble for Trump. However, we are not in normal circumstances. It remains to be seen how Trump’s admittance to the Walter Reed Medical Centre for Covid-19 could impact this election. Which combined with the fact five states in the US are limiting postal voting (Sky News), means it is still too soon to say that Trump has no chance to turn around his fortunes.

Illustration by Amber Conway

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