Joe Biden looked old and tired. He repeatedly botched easy answers to predictable questions. Watching the Democratic nominee try to complete a sentence occasionally felt like watching a washed-up, shit-faced acrobat trying to wobble his way across a tightrope one last time.
And Biden won the debate in a rout.
Granted, few people are in a worse position to predict how low-information swing voters will interpret political events than the college-educated, urban-dwelling political obsessives who are paid to do so. But I’ve gotta earn this living somehow. And you don’t want to wait for high-quality polls before getting some clue as to what consequences Tuesday night’s dreadful spectacle will have. So, here are five reasons for thinking that the first 2020 presidential debate was a bad one for Donald J. Trump.
1) Biden did not appear to be suffering from literal dementia.
Joe looked like a 77-year-old man. And when placed in a two-shot next to a person with Trump’s taste in cosmetics, Biden couldn’t help but look a bit pallid. But the Democratic nominee did not come off as clinically senile. To the contrary, Biden was quite eloquent on his preferred subjects, and cogently outlined the president’s failures in handling the COVID-19 pandemic. Thanks to Trump, this was all Biden needed to do to exceed expectations. For months, the Trump campaign had been spreading the message that Biden was cognitively incapable of executing the duties of the presidency. Then, the former vice-president came out and sounded like an exhausted sane person, while the 74-year-old Republican campaigning on his youthful vitality said things like, “The car has gotten so expensive, because they have computers all over the place.”
2) The president’s strategy for winning over suburban moderates was, apparently, to align himself with the Proud Boys, threaten to disregard election results, and make obscure references to minor events from the Fox News Cinematic Universe.
The story of the 2020 race in a single sentence is this: Trump has kept his base, but his base is not enough. The president’s disapproval rating is 52.5 percent in FiveThirtyEight’s average. He’s polling far behind his 2016 level of support among white voters, seniors, and women. Reports ahead of Tuesday’s debate indicated that some of Trump’s advisers wanted the president to put a relatively calm face forward (as he has done routinely for national addresses throughout his presidency). And during his first answer about the Supreme Court, Trump did execute a rough approximation of staid normality. But he dropped this pose almost instantly — and proceeded to spend the ensuing 80 minutes acting like a maniacal crank.
It is possible that there are millions of moderate voters who want to support Donald Trump, but first wanted him to demonstrate his willingness to tacitly encourage misogynist street gangs to commit acts of political violence, or rant incomprehensibly about how much he hates mail-in ballots, or reference Hunter Biden conspiracy theories that non-Fox News viewers lack the context to understand. But that seems unlikely.
3) Trump lost the “law and order” argument.
Crime has long been one of Donald Trump’s favorite topics for his demagoguery. And when riots broke out in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last month, many pundits predicted that scenes of looting and arson would redound to the president’s benefit. The Biden campaign sought to preempt this turn of events by painting Trump as an agent of chaos — a racist provocateur who fanned the flames of hatred and division. Trump, for his part, spent the past couple months trying to paint Biden as both an advocate of police abolition and a draconian architect of mass incarceration.
The president’s line was always the trickier sell. And on Tuesday night, it fell flat. Just as he’d done on the subject of cognitive capacity, Trump set an expectation for Biden that the latter could effortlessly clear: The president suggested that Biden “can’t even say the words ‘law enforcement’ because if you say those words, you’re gonna lose all of your radical left supporters.” Biden proceeded to reveal that he can, in fact, say those words. And the vice-president went on to reiterate his milquetoast but popular views on policing (“the vast majority of police officers are good,” we should reform police departments but not cut their funding, etc.).
Trump, by contrast, lived up to Biden’s portrayal of him as an abettor of right-wing terrorism and racial discord. As referenced above, in what may be the debate’s most memorable moment, Trump declined to issue any forthright condemnation of white-supremacist militias.
4) Trump delivered Biden’s populist, class resentment message for him.
Right before Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death upended the national political conversation, Biden had begun reframing the 2020 race in starkly populist terms: Trump was a rich kid who never had to work for anything and disdained those who did, Biden was a working-class boy who made good and never forgot where he came. Or, in the candidate’s words, “This election is Scranton versus Park Avenue.” One way that Biden sought to burnish his populist bona fides was to take performative exception at commentators noting that he would be the first president in a long time to lack an Ivy League degree (“I’m thinking who the hell makes you think I need an Ivy League degree to be president?”).
On Tuesday, Trump attacked Biden in exactly these terms, accusing the Democrat of graduating near the bottom of his class and then telling him, “Don’t ever use the word ‘smart’ with me.”
Later in the proceedings, Trump ridiculed Biden for having a son who got thrown out of the Army for using cocaine. It is possible that there are a lot of (non-Republican) working-class voters who like it when old men are publicly mocked for having family members who struggle with substance-abuse problems. But that doesn’t seem likely.
5) A tie goes to the guy who’s winning by 7 points.
This is the main point. Barring a pro-Trump polling error significantly larger than 2016’s, Biden will win the presidency in November. The 2020 race has been remarkably stable. Biden’s average polling lead hasn’t dropped below 6.6 points since early June. Trump needed to force the Democratic nominee into a memorable and devastating gaffe, or pull off an improbable ideological pivot, or do something — anything — to get the mainstream press to call him the evening’s unambiguous winner. Biden just needed to maintain something resembling the status quo ante. As of this writing, CNN anchors are declaring Trump primarily responsible for the debate being “a hot mess inside of a dumpster fire,” while the internet’s gambling addicts are rallying to Biden’s cause. In this instance, there’s little reason to doubt the wisdom of the markets.