The reviews are in for last night’s battle in Cleveland where the rules and time limits went out the window from the first question onward. Moderator Chris Wallace tried multiple times to reign in President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden but failed spectacularly at maintaining a modicum of order.
Full Video: Watch the first Trump-Biden debate
How you perceive a “winner” and “loser” in such a contest is difficult since both sides take away the best lines from their candidate and ignore the rest.
Here is a cross-section of what various media outlets are saying this morning about the “sh*tshow,” as CNN labeled it last night:
CNN’s Jake Tapper: "That was a hot mess, inside a dumpster fire, inside a train wreck.”
CNN’s Dana Bash: “That was a shitshow.”
CNN’s Abby Phillip: “It was a complete disaster.”pic.twitter.com/t1y1fTiK6b
— Breaking911 (@Breaking911) September 30, 2020
There is some question as to how rough CNN would have been on the debate if it were one of their journalists at the moderator table instead of a Fox News personality.
The reviews started from there last night and continued to go downhill this morning.
NPR started their analysis by plainly stating this might have been the “worst debate in American history”:
This was maybe the worst presidential debate in American history.
If this was supposed to be a boxing match, it instead turned into Trump jumping on the ropes, refusing to come down, the referee trying to coax him off and Biden standing in the middle of the ring with his gloves on and a confused look on his face.
1. Even for Trump, he went too far
For part of the debate, Trump looked like he was controlling the stage. He interrupted constantly and tried to distract, deflect and interject. That’s fairly typical Trump behavior, but a few things in particular were egregious.
2. Trump likely did nothing to expand beyond his base
Trump’s base will probably love his performance. But coming into the debate, Trump was behind in the polls. That’s no secret.
3. Biden missed opportunities
This was not Biden’s cleanest debate. He was not crisp, was often flummoxed — as was moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News — by Trump’s antics.
“Will you shut up, man?” said Biden while trying to make a point. He also called Trump a “clown” more than once.
4. Trump tried to tie Biden to the far left, but it didn’t work
Trump tried his darndest to paint Biden as a socialist, or at least beholden to the “radical left.” But on issue after issue — “Medicare for All,” defunding the police, the Green New Deal — Biden disavowed policies the Trump campaign has tried to lasso to him.
5. Trump’s response on his handling of COVID-19 was more of the same
More than 200,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, and coronavirus cases are spiking again in some parts of the country.
And yet Trump’s tactic when defending himself on his management of the pandemic was to insult Biden’s smarts.
6. Good luck to the next moderator
Before the debate, Wallace said his goal was to be “invisible.”
By the end, he might have wished he was. The role was no easy task, and the next presidential debate, Oct. 15, is set to be moderated by the far more mild-mannered Steve Scully of C-SPAN.
NPR hits on several key points and several key takeaways. What was clear throughout the night was Biden’s time spent preparing for the expected lines of attack. As NPR notes, the President tried to tie Biden to Bernie Sanders and other far-left members of the Democratic Party on topics such as health care and public safety. Biden seemed prepared for those attacks, or he did a good job off the cuff of shutting them down before they could gain traction.
NBC News called the debate a “slugfest”:
The first debate between President Donald Trump and Joe Biden was a slugfest led by the president’s incessant interruptions and misinformation, with scattered moments of substantive discussion.
CBS highlighted the night as a “chaotic series of bitter exchanges”:
The first presidential debate between President Trump and Joe Biden featured a chaotic series of bitter exchanges and name-calling, with the president repeatedly speaking over his Democratic rival and the moderator struggling to maintain control of the 90-minute affair.
USA Today said that watching the full 90 minutes would have made the viewer “dumber” than before they tuned in:
In the midst of a deadly coronavirus pandemic, economic distress and racial turmoil, American voters deserved a serious exploration of the nation’s problems and the range of solutions. Instead, they got a chaotic insult fest that was like one of those awful 90-minute movies that leave the audience dumber than when it went into the theater.
Frank Luntz, a longtime GOP pollster and regular on the cable news circles to offer thoughts on political debates said the event may simply dissuade people from voting and stifle turnout:
“I have never had a session blow up where the participants were disappointed on both sides, where everyone was embarrassed and everyone was upset about what had happened,” Luntz said on “Squawk Box,” while agreeing with the participants’ assessment.
“They felt like they didn’t get the policy they were looking for,” such as on economic issues, Luntz said, referring to the more than dozen participants in his debate focus group.
“They felt like the candidates behaved as though they didn’t deserve to be president,” Luntz added. “It actually makes them less likely to vote for any candidate.”
Luntz said the debate made him recalibrate some expectations about voter participation in the election. “I would have said to you, we’re going to have the biggest turnout ever. What happened last night absolutely encouraged people not to vote.”
Luntz argued that his focus group participants thought the President was the aggressor, but Biden didn’t do himself any favors. If that’s the case, this debate ends basically in a stalemate, failing to move the needle for either candidate.
The one bright spot for President Trump? A poll of Spanish-speaking Telemundo viewers asked participants who won the debate. The results swayed heavily toward the President, according to Newsweek:
While the question of who won Tuesday’s presidential debate between President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden lies in the court of public opinion, Spanish-speaking viewers of Telemundo gave their support to Trump.
In a poll after the debate, 66 percent of participants told Telemundo they believed Trump won the debate. Only 34 percent of poll participants thought Biden made a better showing in Tuesday’s debate.
On the flip side, a poll of CNN views said just about the opposite, that Joe Biden was the winner on Tuesday:
Six in 10 debate watchers said former Vice President Joe Biden did the best job in Tuesday’s debate, and just 28% say President Donald Trump did, according a CNN Poll of debate watchers conducted by SSRS.
In interviews with the same voters conducted before the debate, 56% said they expected Biden to do the better job while 43% expected that Trump would.
The post-debate result is about the same as the outcome of a post-debate poll in 2016 after the first debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton. In that poll, 62% thought Clinton won the debate, 27% said Trump did.
For anyone entering last night expecting a quiet and subdued affair, one would have to ask if they’ve been paying attention for the past four years. Donald Trump doesn’t do quiet and subdued. Neither does Joe Biden when debating, for that matter, just ask Paul Ryan.
Chris Wallace as debate moderator is taking boatloads of criticism this morning for losing control and never really taking it back. There wasn’t much Wallace could do short of sending each candidate to their corner for timeout.
Some samples from the most cutting Wallace criticism:
Chris Wallace: "I'm going to take back the moderator's role."
Er, no, Chris. With respect, you never assumed that role.
— David Rothkopf (@djrothkopf) September 30, 2020
Chris Wallace…I don't mean to be rude but
You are really terrible at this.
— Don Winslow (@donwinslow) September 30, 2020
#ChrisWallace, this is a disgrace. A moderator enforces the rules. That’s the point of having a moderator.
— Sherrilyn Ifill (@Sifill_LDF) September 30, 2020
— Dr. Jack Brown (@DrGJackBrown) September 30, 2020
Who's debating, here?
Chris Wallace or Joe Biden?
— Students For Trump (@TrumpStudents) September 30, 2020
Chris Wallace effectively pausing debate to plead with Trump to stop breaking the rules.
— Ari Melber (@AriMelber) September 30, 2020
In the end, the message for future would-be debate moderators is to pass along a hearty “No, thank you,” and move on with their careers. It is a thankless job, and Wallace could do no right and would’ve taken criticism for being too soft if he simply ignored the interruptions.
The Vice Presidential debate is set for Oct. 7, with Susan Page of USA Today serving as moderator. The second Trump-Biden debate, if it takes place will happen on Oct. 15 with Steve Scully filling the moderator desk. Follow the debate schedule page for more details.