Welcome to a special post-debate issue of FiveThirtyEight’s politics chat. The transcript below has been edited slightly.
Sarah (Sarah Frostenson, Politics Editor): Last night was our first real chance to face President Trump and Joe Biden against each other, but it was very unclear who was in control of the debate the interruptions and the sniper. But let’s discuss what our takeaways are …
What surprised you the most?
geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, Election Analyst): I think I was expecting interruptions and “Trump is Trump”, but the extent to which the debate could not continue without constant interruptions was quite remarkable … um, tiring.
julia_azari (Julia Azari, Professor of Political Science at Marquette University and contributor to FiveThirtyEight): I am surprised that I – and apparently many other people – are surprised. Trump didn’t do anything out of character based on what we know. But somehow it shook us in a debate. Norms are being undermined, but we are still used to expecting otherwise in a debate.
geoffrey.skelley: Julia, that’s a fair point. Trump memorably crossed some lines in 2016, including in a town hall debate when he appeared behind Hillary Clinton as she spoke. I think we should have taken the worst debate we expected and then gone down.
What is the headline of this debate?
lee.drutman (Lee Drutman, Senior Fellow at New America and contributor to FiveThirtyEight): The standard debate format has outlived its usefulness for at least a while.
julia_azari: After years of people saying there was no point in debating, this one type really doesn’t make sense. There wasn’t even a coherent exchange. The idea I keep coming back to is that Trump used this chaos to lead the debate on his own terms.
geoffrey.skelley: Well, until the end, when Trump again refused to say he would accept the election results, I would say it was the racial exchange that made the headlines for me. Chris Wallace, the host, urged Trump to condemn white supremacists and right-wing militias, and Trump instead said, “Proud guys, stand back and stand by,” a reference to a white supremacist group.
This organization is apparently very pleased to be mentioned by the President as well and could see this as a call to arms before the elections.
lee.drutman: Geoffrey, I think “exchange” is a generous term for what happened.
julia_azari: Trump reworded the question of race so completely that nothing substantial was said about structural racism. Trying to get Biden to defend the Obama administration and take positions that could divide the Democrats has not really worked. However, I think this shows that Trump’s only area of success could be in shaping the way people talk about politics and what the main topics are.
The fact that he is the incumbent president at a time when 200,000 people have died from the coronavirus means that it is an achievement that the entire debate is not devoted to his recording of it alone.
Did Trump Help His Case?
lee.drutman: Trump’s case, I understand, is that Biden and the Democrats pose a radical left-wing threat to America. He tried to get Biden to do it, but Biden didn’t take the bait. So I don’t see how Trump helped his case.
geoffrey.skelley: I think the fundamental problem for Trump is that he’s down 7 points nationally and is lagging behind in most swing states. So Trump needs to expand its base by winning some undecided voters – who probably weren’t watching but will hear about the debate tomorrow – or to convert some Biden supporters.
He has certainly tried to argue that Biden is a leftist or that he is allied with radical socialists. He also tried to attack Biden on “law and order” alleging that Biden wanted to disappoint the police. But Trump’s campaign has been trying these lines for months without much apparent success, including at the GOP Congress. Why should it work now?
Perhaps more people are paying attention now and some less informed voters could be addressed by his appeals, but even then I am quite skeptical.
Has Biden lost ground tonight?
lee.drutman: No, I don’t think we’ll see any movement in the polls. These are two candidates who are very well known at this point, and each one knows their strengths and weaknesses, and nothing we have seen has changed anything about these deeply ingrained views.
julia_azari: I think Biden’s temperament and demographic profile allowed him to get a little angrier than Hillary Clinton, for example, could when she took on Trump in 2016.
I wouldn’t say Debates was Biden’s best format in the 2020 cycle, but it came about more or less as expected.
lee.drutman: And if you’re an undecided voter from a cave that is just turning on, you went back to your cave and wanted to hibernate for another four years.
julia_azari: I’ve seen some Twitter grumbling about Biden’s statements about the police, however His position on these issues is well knownHence, the fact that he was not adopting a more progressive stance wasn’t particularly surprising.
geoffrey.skelley: Biden was pretty weak to begin with, but at the same time it wasn’t all that different from the performance he had in most of the main debates. And like Lee said, things are pretty much done at this point. In addition, challengers tended to gain after the initial debate. So if the polls shift, it’s possible Biden will win instead of Trump.
Did you learn something new?
julia_azari: I don’t think I’ve learned anything new, but that feels like a new low. Debate is an important exercise in the legitimate opposition, and the norms the candidates follow seemed unimportant … until they were gone.
lee.drutman: My priorities for tonight were: 1) Biden is sluggish and sometimes incoherent; 2) Trump is often everywhere; and 3) American democracy is in a dark place in 2020. I’m not sure if that changed after tonight, to be honest.
geoffrey.skelley: I don’t think we can completely rule out a polling move, but I would be pretty amazed if that changed the state of the race in any noticeable way. And even if so, it could be ephemeral. Our forecasting model assumes that a change after the debate could be temporary and that the polls could return to equilibrium before the debate. I think we’ll have to wait and see.