Five takeaways from the Biden-Trump debate

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, discusses the Annenberg Debate Reform Working Group along with some thoughts on last week’s presidential debate.

The back of a man wearing a white cowboy hat near an American flag can be seen in front of a television showing the first 2024 presidential debate between Biden and Trump.
Roger Strassburg watches the presidential debate between President Joe Biden and Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump at a debate watch party Thursday, June 27, 2024, in Scottsdale, Arizona. (Image: AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump squared off last week for the first debate of the election cycle, the earliest presidential debate ever, occurring before either has been named his party’s official nominee.

“The biggest value of debates is not affecting the outcome. They don’t usually change minds, but they do increase knowledge, not only about your own candidate but about the candidate you’re not supporting,” says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC), who has written extensively about the history, nature, and function of presidential debates. “I watch debates not to see who won but to see what can be done to make them work better, and work better means creating a more informed electorate, an electorate able to tie campaigning to governance more effectively because it has a higher level of knowledge of what the candidates have done and promise to do if elected.”

In 2013, the Annenberg Debate Reform Working Group was created by the APPC to explore ways to increase the value and viewership of presidential general election debates, taking into account the ways in which the rise of early voting, advent of social media, establishment of new media networks, changes in campaign finance, and increase in the number of independent voters have altered the electoral environment. 

Jamieson, who took part in the working group, says the goal was to make debates more valuable to the viewers.

Among the recommendations offered by the bipartisan 16-member working group’s 2015 report were revising the debate timetable to take into account the rise of early voting, eliminating on-site audiences for debates other than the Town Hall, and, in the process, reducing the need for major financial sponsors and audiences filled with donors.

Those changes—along with muting each candidate’s microphone when he wasn’t speaking—were part of last Thursday’s CNN debate, which the group didn’t recommend but Jamieson says is worthwhile. “The debates are about building knowledge. How do you do that if candidates are constantly interrupting each other?” she asks.

Here, Jamieson shares her takeaways from the debate, why debates continue to be useful, and what the public should understand about what was revealed on Thursday.

Voting matters, and informed voting matters

Debates are the easiest way to learn what you need to know about both candidates as opposed to what partisans would like you to know about the contenders, Jamieson says. “We live in an electorate now that increasingly says it’s disaffected with both major candidates. But the value of debates is to give you exposure to things you may not otherwise know in order to cast an informed vote.”

Post-debate commentary matters

Jamieson noted that the post-debate commentary focused less on the substantive issues in the candidates’ exchanges than on whether Biden had disqualified himself for re-election. 

Those who paid attention to the debate could have learned distinctions between the candidates on retention of the Affordable Care Act and whether decisions about access to surgical abortion should be left to the states and also could have heard similarity in their support for interstate access to Mifipristone, a medication that can end a pregnancy, she says. “And they could have observed that Trump refused to answer questions about what, if anything, he would do to reduce the effects of climate change or to make child care more affordable,” she says. “You also could have learned that former President Trump persists in claiming that the 2020 election was stolen from him and says, as he did in 2016 and 2020, that he will accept the 2024 election results ‘if it’s a fair and legal and good election,’” she says.

Jamieson also notes there were many statements about the candidates’ records that would benefit from fact checking. “If you turn to the post-debate analysis at, you will learn that both Trump and Biden distorted each other’s tax proposals and the impact of their plans on Social Security,” she says.

The risk in a debate, Jamieson says, is that there is exposure by those who don’t otherwise pay much attention to politics “because the post-debate commentary did not feature a lot of fact checking, those viewers may be misled by candidates’ misstatements that went unrebutted or were untruthfully rebutted by the other side.”

Good debater doesn’t always equal good president

Whether a candidate is up to the job is a legitimate issue and having the opportunity to watch a candidate for 90 minutes gives viewers the ability to make their own personal assessments, Jamieson says. But did the debate format help people answer the question of whether the candidate is capable of competently leading the nation? Are the features that would indicate a successful debater the ones that forecast a successful presidency?

“One can make the case that being able to respond to a moderator’s questions and an opposing candidate’s attacks does not necessarily showcase skills that matter in the Oval Office or in international diplomatic exchanges. The president is not a solitary actor but is instead surrounded by a cabinet as well as other experts and advisors. Debates do not give the country a chance to assess how that body of individuals will function to create an administration or how well a candidate will do one-on-one with other world leaders or a candidate’s ability to find common ground in a legislative controversy,” Jamieson says. “But nonetheless, debates do give the candidates a chance to take credit for the successes and be held accountable by their opponent or the moderators for their failures.”

In several cases, Jamieson notes, Biden didn’t complete a thought, and Trump moved from tangent to tangent in no logical sequence. “The challenge is comparing them on the same criteria and seeing that Trump and Biden have a different set of failures,” she says. “When assessing a candidate’s competence, audiences find it easier to recognize the problems with Biden’s failure to complete a thought than Trump’s non sequiturs.”

Candidates addressed issues amid the bluster

There are philosophical differences between these two candidates, with records to point to and strength in those records, Jamieson says. “All of that gets obscured when you focus exclusively on questions such as, ‘How extreme is Trump sounding? How fluent is Biden seeming?’”

She points to their differences on several issues: in potential support for a threatened NATO member that is not spending 2% or more of their GDP on defense; on whether the Trump tax cuts for those making more than $400,000 should be retained; on the climate action in the Inflation Reduction Act which Biden accurately characterized as the “most extensive” in history, as well as Trump’s non-answer to a question about his plans to address climate change. “There was consequential knowledge in the candidates’ debate answers,” she says.

“The question is, Could the voter hear it through the ‘my golf game is better than your golf game’ distractions, Trump’s meandering, Biden’s disfluencies, and the misstatements of both?” she asks. “Despite Trump’s claims, it was Reagan not Trump who gave the nation its largest tax cut. Although some who are illegally in the country pay the payroll tax, contrary to Trump’s supposition, they are ineligible to receive Social Security benefits and hence cannot be wiping out the Social Security system. Although the Biden administration did bring down the price of prescription drugs in Medicare, out of pocket drug costs would be limited to $2,000 beginning next year and not to $200 as Biden claimed.”

Debates can still matter

Jamieson says her hope is that people don’t decide that debates lack value as a result of Thursday night’s exchange. “Debates still are our most reliable way of contrasting the candidates on criteria that matter to the viewer,” she says. “You could learn about the candidates’ similarities and differences on major issues that mattered. But you had to work to do it. It wasn’t easy.”

Jamieson says debates also give voters a chance to assess the temperament, the talents, and the habits of mind of the candidates. “That includes mental acuity and mental stability of candidates,” she says. “One had the opportunity to watch the two for 90 minutes to answer each of those questions.”

“Nobody's going to say that debate satisfied the highest ideals of democratic discourse. But there was utility and value in it, nonetheless,” she says.