If you are reading this, it has been several days since the first presidential debate began in Cleveland on Tuesday night. If you are lucky, you have already forgotten most of it. Alas, I am paid to pay attention to these events — and therein lies the problem with understanding what it means.
There is a systemic bias in political analyses of how big events like conventions or debates will affect public opinion. Political analysts are steeped in politics; the public is not. It is next to impossible for those of us who have paid attention to consider how those citizens who do not pay attention process events like Tuesday night’s debate — an event that veteran Washington Post political correspondent Dan Balz described as “the worst presidential debate in living memory.”
The mudfest was so discouraging that it is tempting to walk away from it with a “pox on all houses” take. Indeed, it could be argued that to the extent President Donald Trump had a strategy, it was to make Joe Biden fight in the mud.
Then there were the contrarians who believed that Trump’s constant interruptions of both Biden and moderator Chris Wallace were demonstrations of . . . something. Trump acolyte Dan Bongino characterized the president as an “apex predator.” Andrew Sullivan said he was “dominating.” You get the idea. As an international relations professor, the thought of foreign audiences watching this spectacle made me want to curl up in a fetal position.
That said, the day after the day after the debate, it is clear that the night went badly for Donald Trump.
Consider the data. FiveThirtyEight partnered with Ipsos to do before-and-after debate polls: “The topline is clear: Americans were not impressed with the president’s performance.” That was confirmed by the snap polls. CBS had Biden winning by 48% to 41%; DataProgress’s results had Biden winning 52% to 39%; CNN’s snap poll showed an even wider lead for Biden at 60% to 28% — an improvement of four points from respondents’ pre-debate expectations.
There were also focus groups, and Vox’s Andrew Prokop summarizes the findings of Frank Luntz’s group quite nicely:
Asked to describe Trump in one word or phrase, the responses were: “horrid,” “chaotic,” “unpolished,” “crackhead,” “ehh,” “puzzling,” “un-American,” “unhinged” ... “classic Trump,” “forceful,” “unhinged,” “bully,” “arrogant,” arrogant,” “typical.”
Then, asked to describe Biden, the responses were: “I was surprised at how well he did,” “better than expected,” “definitely more professional than Trump and I think he’s more a people person,” “competent,” “politician,” “showed restraint and compassion,” “politician,” “predictable,” “nice guy but lacking vision,” “coherent,” “leader,” “attentive and rehearsed,” “somewhat evasive,” “humanity and integrity,” “predictable,” “presidential.”
Simply put, these are not the findings you want if you are the guy trailing the front-runner by more than seven points with less than five weeks to go.
The final data point suggesting that Trump bombed was the degree to which even his supporters and sympathizers criticized his performance. On CNN, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, R, acknowledged that Trump had done poorly; conservative commentator Scott Jennings said, “He went from being on offense to just being offensive.” On ABC, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, R — one of the guys who helped Trump with debate prep — acknowledged that he was “too hot.” Ed Rollins, who fronts a pro-Trump super PAC, refused to comment on Trump’s performance.
A day later, The Washington Post, Politico, the New York Times and Vanity Fair all had stories chock-full of Republicans fretting about the president’s performance. Trump’s boorish behavior clearly hurt him, but even beyond that, National Review’s Michael Brendan Dougherty got at a deeper problem: Trump presumes that everyone watches as much cable news as he does:
“Trump’s most self-defeating habit in these debates is to refer to stories rather than tell them. He speaks as if he’s talking to people who, like himself, spend hours a day watching Fox News and have a shared folklore of scandal stories that can be referred to in shorthand. He refers to events, like ballots found in a wastepaper basket, but doesn’t tell the story of where they happened, or why they matter.”
In other words, Trump’s problem is that he lacks the theory of mind to realize that not everyone is as tuned into politics as he is.
Politico’s Ryan Heath noted that allies and adversaries interpreted the debate as “yet another sign of the decline in American democracy.” There is a nonzero chance that they are right.
On the other hand, Donald Trump just whiffed at his biggest opportunity to change the narrative between now and Election Day. If he loses by as much as is currently projected, the takeaway lesson will not be the weakness of American democracy, but its strength. Trump will have been the head of a party that will have been thrashed in every election since 2016.
If the lesson is that breaking norms winds up also breaking the party you ephemerally lead, the republic will be stronger for it.