President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden participate in the final debate at Belmont University on October 22 in Nashville, Tennessee. | Jim Bourg/Pool/Getty Images
Joe Biden was a winner — as was moderator Kristen Welker.
The first debate was a chaotic disaster thanks to Trump’s constant interruptions; the second one didn’t happen because Trump refused to agree to debate virtually while he had Covid-19 (they had dueling town halls instead). This time around, better moderation and the handy use of a mute button allowed both candidates to express their thoughts — leading to a mix of actual substantive policy exchanges and less-than-coherent mudslinging about families and personal finance.
The format seems to have suited Biden, who seemed energized and on-target — getting in a number of strong attacks on Trump’s record on Covid-19, health care, and family separations. Trump was also better than he was in the first debate, where he came across as an unfit bully, but was outclassed on policy and unable to tell a particularly cogent story on the question of why Americans should care about Hunter Biden’s emails.
A deeper analysis follows of who won and who lost — and not just candidates.
Winner: Joe Biden
During the primary and general election, Biden hasn’t particularly shined on the debate stage. His answers meander and he mixes up words in ways that take the sting out from attack lines. But on Thursday, Biden was sharper and more on target, allowing his strong qualities — his command over policy and his ability to connect with ordinary Americans — to shine through.
During the first segment of the debate about the pandemic, for example, Trump said, “we’re learning to live with it.” Biden responded with a possibly rehearsed, but nonetheless devastating, line — “He says that we’re learning to live with it, people are learning to die with it.”
He continued needling Trump about his refusal to take responsibility for pandemic policy, provoking the president into the most embarrassing stumble from either candidate in the entire debate: “I take full responsibility. It’s not my fault that it came here. It’s China’s fault.” It’s a line that you can bet will be in anti-Trump attack ads in very short order.
Biden was like this for much of the debate, clever and empathetic and even a little feisty.
He got emotional about family separations (“violates every notion of who we are as a nation”), sounded a populist note on Trump’s obsession with markets (“‘the stock market is booming’ is his only measure of what’s happening”) and effectively hit Trump on his tenuous relationship with the truth (“I don’t know where he comes up with these numbers”). He even got in his favorite catchphrase — “there’s a reason why he’s bringing up all this malarkey.”
Was it an all-time great debate performance? No, I don’t think so.
But it was solid: strong when it really needed to be and certainly better than his opposition. With a lead of nearly 10 points in the national poll averages, that’s more than enough to call this a win for Biden.
Loser: Donald Trump
It is perhaps telling that any praise of President Donald Trump’s performance on Twitter during Thursday night’s debate involved terms like “well-tempered” and “composed,” an indication that the biggest hurdle Trump faced was himself.
Trump appeared to take notes during the debate. He managed to avoid interrupting Joe Biden quite as much as in the last round. He was coherent and, as opposed to the first debate, he did not seem entirely out of control. This is the lowest of bars to clear, but he cleared it.
Still, far too many of his references only made sense if you watch a lot of Fox News and/or spend a lot of time on right-leaning Twitter. There are viewers to whom “the Big Man” is obviously Joe Biden and “the laptop from hell” is clearly a device that allegedly belonged to Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden (who is not, as far as we know, running for the White House), but most of these obscure references to the Trump campaign’s attacks on Hunter Biden likely flew over most viewers’ heads.
Trump could still win reelection. But currently, he is losing, in the polls and in the eyes of the public, as Covid-19 begins to surge (again) and stimulus negotiations falter (again). “Well-tempered” and “composed” aren’t enough to get it done — especially when the subjects Trump most wishes to discuss are ones largely disconnected from those that matter most to voters.
Winner: Kristen Welker
The first time Donald Trump was challenged on national TV by a female journalist this fall — by Savannah Guthrie, at his town hall on October 15 — he and his allies responded by throwing a massive temper tantrum. The second time, when CBS News’s Lesley Stahl attempted to interview him, he shut down the interview prematurely after using much of it to complain about her tough questioning.
In sports, this is known as “working the refs.” If you yell at the refs, or in this case the media, enough, maybe they’ll back down and refuse to ask tough questions, or fact-check, or ask meaningful follow-ups. They’ll give you a break.
It didn’t work with moderator Kristen Welker, despite Trump’s attacks on her before the event.
Welker, aided by a mute button (see below) whose absence made the first debate such a disaster, was able to deftly move the debate between different topics. She allowed each candidate ample time to speak, without letting the debate devolve into the unstructured cacophony that Chris Wallace presided over in the first debate.
And she actually challenged the candidates when their responses didn’t add up. When Trump insisted a vaccine for Covid-19 will be ready by the end of the year, she pointed out, “Your own officials say it could take well into 2021,” and asked him to clarify. When Joe Biden criticized Trump’s diplomacy with North Korea, she asked, “You said you wouldn’t meet with Kim Jong-un without preconditions. Are there any conditions under which you would meet with him?”
That’s how you run a useful, informative debate, and basically everyone watching applauded. Journalists including Steve Inskeep, Philip Rucker, and Yamiche Alcindor were full of praise. So were progressive viewers. And while conservatives criticized Welker for not allowing Trump more time to bring up Hunter Biden-related attacks, even people like Ben Shapiro and Trump lawyer Jenna Ellis had positive reactions. Perhaps the strangest endorser was Trump himself, who told Welker, “I respect very much the way you are handling this.”
Moderating a debate with as mendacious a liar as Trump is almost impossibly difficult, and Welker wasn’t perfect at holding him to account. But she did quite well overall, and managed to perform in a way that both Biden and Trump supporters agreed was fair — an almost miraculous achievement.
Winner: The mute button
The first presidential debate didn’t go well. Pundits and journalists’ reviews ranged from “the worst presidential debate I have ever seen in my life” to “a shitshow.” And it was mostly due to Trump, who spent the entire debate interrupting Biden — making it impossible for Biden to get a point in and stifling any semblance of a coherent conversation.
In response, the presidential debate commission decided to use a mute button. The Associated Press explained the setup:
A representative of the Commission on Presidential Debates — not the moderator — is supposed to ensure each candidate has two full minutes of uninterrupted time to deliver opening answers on six major topics, according to debate commission chair Frank Fahrenkopf. A member of each of the Trump and Biden campaigns was expected to monitor the person who controls the mute button backstage, Fahrenkopf told The Associated Press, noting that the button would not be used beyond the first four minutes of each topic.
That this was necessary at all was a testament to Trump’s disregard for basic norms. In previous presidential debates, from primaries to general elections, the candidates would disagree, but they would at least let each other speak. Trump shattered that basic decorum, leading to a disaster of a debate last month.
Still, the mute button worked. Thursday’s debate was much more productive and substantive (to the extent any debate with Trump can be). At the very least, both candidates had a chance to voice their respective visions for America, and the public was able to follow what was going on.
“I support private insurance.”
Biden was unequivocal. He’s not the Medicare-for-all candidate Trump is looking for.
The president tried to turn the health care tables on Biden again, accusing the Democratic nominee of supporting “socialized medicine.” He wanted to lump Biden together with the more progressive Democrats who support a single-payer health care system.
The former vice president wasn’t having it. He wanted to remind voters he’d beaten several candidates — including the godfather of Medicare-for-all, Sen. Bernie Sanders — by promising to preserve private insurance.
“The reason why I had such a fight with 20 candidates for the nomination was I support private insurance,” Biden said. “Not one single person with private insurance would lose their insurance under my plan, nor did they under Obamacare.”
To be clear: Some Americans had a private plan canceled when the ACA’s new rules took effect (but most of them qualified for new coverage); Biden’s plan as written would allow people who get private insurance through their work to enroll in a government-run public option, but only if they choose.
But it is certainly true that Biden was running as the candidate who wanted to build on the current system, not replace it.
Trump has tried to turn Medicare-for-all into an election-year bogeyman, part of his strategy to make Biden look like a stalking horse for the left. But Biden keeps rebutting that argument with a simple truth: He doesn’t support Medicare-for-all. He wants to build on Obamacare with a plan that the Urban Institute estimates would provide insurance to every legal resident in the United States, including 25 million currently uninsured people.
At Thursday night’s debate, he said he’d even have a name for it: “Bidencare.”
Winner: New York
Trump would like you to think that New York is very, very bad, always and including during Thursday’s debate.
“If you go and look at what’s happened to New York, it’s a ghost town. It’s a ghost town,” Trump said during the debate. He said the city that he was born and raised in was “wonderful” for so many years, but now it’s “dying,” because everyone’s leaving New York.
So here’s the thing: New York certainly has had its problems, and like anywhere, it’s not perfect. But at least judging from the view from my Brooklyn apartment, things are kind of fine?
New York City was hit hard early on in the pandemic in a way that was painful and heartbreaking. But the city and state have gone to great lengths to get the virus under control and, by and large, have been successful. New York has flattened the curve, and it’s stayed there, with leaders now focusing on so-called “hot spots” where cases are spiking.
On the economic front, yes, it’s difficult, and there’s no denying businesses are being hit hard. But the city is resilient. That said, cities and states across the country, red and blue, need economic help from the federal government right now — help the president could make happen.
During the pandemic, we’ve seen a lot of finger-pointing. If only this state had acted faster, this mayor. And early on in the outbreak, New York was deemed the “bad place.” Now, the city’s doing better, but it’s heartbreaking to see it spread to places like Wisconsin and South Dakota. Maybe if we hadn’t treated this like a New York problem and instead, a United States problem early on, could things have been different?
On Thursday, Biden brought home the important point that it doesn’t matter which state people are in, to gauge how good or bad they’re doing on the pandemic or how much people should care about them. “They’re all Americans,” he said.
It’s a lesson the president should learn.
Loser: Senate Republicans
Biden made a pointed observation about the reality of stimulus negotiations: Despite Trump’s repeated claims that he wants to “go bigger” on more aid, he hasn’t even been able to get his own party on board.
When pressed about why there wasn’t another stimulus package even as millions of Americans grapple with unemployment, evictions, and business closures, Trump said that he wanted to get an expansive bill done — and tried to cast blame on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats.
Biden, however, had a ready retort.
“The Republican leader in the United States Senate said he can’t pass it,” Biden said plainly. “He will not be able to pass it. He does not have Republican votes. Why isn’t [Trump] talking to his Republican friends?”
Biden’s statement spoke to one of the pervasive dynamics of the ongoing stimulus impasse. Throughout it, not only has Trump been an unreliable negotiator — even calling off talks via Twitter at one point — he’s never gotten the full backing of his party.
Senate Republicans earlier this summer were already dismissing a comprehensive stimulus option out of concern about adding to the national debt — and potential backlash from base voters down the line. More recently, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has tried to discourage a larger compromise prior to the election.
Biden’s remarks were a forceful reframing of the blame game over the stimulus.
Loser: Social justice
Biden and Trump effectively avoided answering nearly every question about race and the Black Lives Matter movement at the debate. Instead of taking a moment to discuss how they’d combat inequality, the candidates pointed fingers in a game of “who’s more racist than whom.”
“I can’t even see the audience … but I am the least racist person in this room,” Trump said, staring out into the dark.
“He pours fuel on every single racist fire,” Biden retorted, after defending his role in crafting the 1994 crime bill and clarifying that he did not use the term “super predators” to describe young Black men.
Since late May, millions of Americans have rallied in protest of police brutality and systemic racism following the police killings of Black people including Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, making Black Lives Matter likely the biggest protest movement in American history. Though protesters have called for the defunding of the police, this rhetoric has not made its way to the debate stage. Instead, Trump has emphasized law and order in response to the protests and Biden has simplified the problem of systemic racism in policing to “a few bad apples.”
Though asked why he called Black Lives Matter a “symbol of hate,” Trump was given space to keep pushing the lie that he’s been the best president for Black America since Abraham Lincoln. He also claimed that the first time he heard about the Black Lives Matter movement was when protesters apparently chanted “pigs in a blanket” in response to police officers — the only moment in the debate when the president acknowledged the movement.
Biden, to be fair, tried his best to articulate his newfound vision of criminal justice — people not being locked up for drug use, and fully-funded community policing — but it felt like too little, too late.
The question of which candidate would be tougher on China has been a constant through line in this election. That was on full display at the debate.
I mean, really, China came up a lot. You’d think that would make it a winner, but if anything it showed how the next president’s likely biggest foreign policy challenge has become a punching bag.
President Trump is much of the reason China got a lot of airtime. It feels like years ago (well, this summer) when he tried to make “Beijing Biden” a thing, but Trump has tried to make his tough-on-China policies a centerpiece of his campaign. Among those, he touts his trade war with China and his pushback on China’s handling of the coronavirus.
Biden, meanwhile, tried to make the case that his administration would get China to play by the international rules. “Not like he has done,” Biden said of Trump. “He has caused the deficit to China go up, not down, with China, up not down.” The vice president didn’t give specifics on how he would get China to play the rules at the debate, but Biden has already made it clear that he wants to reassert the US as a Pacific power.
Otherwise, it was a lot of familiar territory. Trump, once again, tried to deflect from his failure to contain the coronavirus pandemic by blaming China for the virus’s spread, saying “it was not my fault” that the pandemic came here. “It’s China’s fault.”
Biden fired back by citing Trump’s praise of Chinese President Xi Jinping over the early handling of the outbreak. They wrangled over Trump’s China tariffs. Trump tried to claim that China was paying billions in tariffs; Biden, in an effective exchange, rightly said that wasn’t true.
Trump also brought up China’s windmills, for some reason. Biden, at least, called out China for meddling in US elections.
But beyond policy, many of the oddest — and hardest to follow — exchanges on China came over allegations of personal financial ties to Beijing. Trump tried to argue that Biden wasn’t tough on China because of business ties his son Hunter had there — and that somehow Biden made money off the deal.
Biden denied those attacks (and there’s no evidence to support them), and then flipped it on Trump, bringing up New York Times reporting that revealed Trump had a previously unreported bank account in China. It was a confusing exchange if you’re not totally immersed in all of the latest drama, but the main takeaway seemed to be: doing business in China is bad.
Taken together, China probably took the most hits outside of the two candidates on the stage. Tensions with China have escalated sharply in recent months, sometimes likened to a cold war. How the next president will fix or change that might not be so clear from the debate — but an easing of tensions with China doesn’t look likely right now, no matter who wins in November.
The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone understand this presidential election: Contribute today from as little as $3.