Five takeaways from the presidential debate

Marc Trussler, director of data sciences for Penn’s Program on Opinion Research and Election Studies, shares his thoughts on the chaotic first debate of the 2020 election.

person sits in chair facing wall with drawing of two people debating on a television
The first presidential debate of 2020 was a fiery spectacle. Marc Trussler of PORES shares his takeaways from the night.

President Trump and former Vice President Biden took the stage Tuesday night for the first debate of the 2020 election, a fiery spectacle of insults and interruptions.

Penn Today asked Marc Trussler, director of data sciences for the Program on Opinion Research and Election Studies, to share his thoughts on those chaotic 90 minutes. Here are his five takeaways from the debate.

Debates don’t matter much—especially in 2020

We never expect the debates to move the dial of public opinion that much, and probably even less so in 2020.

The single most important finding in modern political science is the overwhelming power of partisanship to shape how we view the world. Partisanship isn’t just a description of ideological position but a highly stable, emotionally laden, social identity that describes many of an individual’s social groupings and deeply held values. It takes something very powerful for us to not interpret the world in a way that is consistent with that identity.

What’s more, partisanship has never been stronger than it is in 2020. Members of each party like their co-partisans more than ever, and perhaps more consequentially, hate members of the opposite party more than ever (what we call “negative partisanship”). This means that it is even harder for any event to shift the race: A huge percentage of voters are already “locked in” due to their partisanship.

Republicans and Democrats alike saw what they were predisposed to see in this debate: Their guy won. 

The people most likely to be persuaded are the least likely to watch

In a recent New York Times/Siena College Research Institute poll, 32% of respondents identified as independent. Aren’t these the people who may be persuaded by what they saw?

There are two important things to know about independents.

First, we often ask individuals who identify as independent whether they “lean” toward either party. Around three-quarters of those who initially identity as independent report leaning toward one of the parties. Importantly, these “leaners” have behavior that is nearly identical to those who identify as partisans.

Second, the remaining true independents—who constitute less than 10% of the American population—are the group that is the least politically interested. These individuals are less likely to pay attention to political news and have less political knowledge overall. “True” independents, the people we might think could have been persuaded by the debate, were the least likely to be the ones watching it.

A bruising for the base

Trump came to fight—with Biden, with the moderator, with anyone. 

There is always a need in these debates to motivate the base, to give the voters already predisposed to support you a reason to turn out to vote. Trump’s pugilism will certainly do this for him. 

Person in front of yellow wall smiles at camera
Marc Trussler is the director of data sciences at Penn's Program on Opinion Research and Election Studies.

And yet, Trump is losing. His only path forward is to persuade at least some of those who are undecided or voting for Biden to vote for him. At least one poll has found that three out of four Americans, including 46% of Republicans, wish Trump’s behavior was more in line with past presidents. After the debate, 53% of respondents in a Data for Progress poll said that Biden came off as more presidential, while only 33% said the same of Trump.

My intuition is that those watching this debate who may be persuadable are among those who wish for the president to moderate his tone. It does no good for Trump if people who aren’t already his fan tune him out or turn off the debate altogether.

If Trump isn’t gaining, he’s losing

Biden was ahead in January. He was ahead in the spring, the summer, and leads by high single digits today. If the election was today, Biden would almost certainly win. 

Trump is facing the long-term crisis of mismanaging the nation’s COVID-19 response and the acute crisis of his tax information becoming public. Every day that the news focuses on these crises is a day that Trump cannot change the subject to something more positive for his campaign. In other words, it’s a day that he is losing.

With only 34 days to go in the campaign, Trump is rapidly running out of opportunities to shift this calculus, not to mention that thousands of early votes are being cast daily.

In this debate Trump threw a lot of red meat to his base but did almost nothing to change the nature of the race or bring new voters to his side. For that reason alone, Biden won.

Moderators must push back on election fraud talk

The two most important norms of good journalism are uncovering the truth and remaining impartial. These two maxims, however, have come into direct conflict in the Trump era with the president’s repeated telling of falsehoods and lies. 

Chris Wallace of Fox News largely erred on the side of impartiality, not doing too much to fact check the candidates. Indeed, the Commission on Presidential Debates released beforehand that Wallace would not be doing any fact checking.

There are things for which that is reasonable and things for which it is not. The president’s claim that there will be massive fraud on mail-in ballots is baseless. All investigations of electoral fraud have turned up a vanishing number of infractions. This is not a situation where a responsible journalist can let both sides have their say and let the people decide, particularly when one side’s position is so dangerous for democracy. We know the truth, and the moderator should promote it.

The next debate moderators—C-SPAN’s Steve Scully and NBC’s Kristen Welker—need to accept their responsibility to call out this falsehood. This starts with framing the question in the right way. For example, they can begin their question with, “Independent experts and members of your own administration agree that voter fraud is exceedingly rare…”