Joe Biden won the debate despite - and even because of - Trump's chaos

'Presidential' was hardly the term to describe what took place in Cleveland, Ohio on Tuesday night, and so is the word 'debate.' And yet, like everything else Trump touches, American institutions are left without a proper name for the clusterfuck that Trump created on the debate stage, so for the time being, we are left referring to it as the first presidential debate of 2020.

From the beginning, it was clear what Donald Trump had set out to accomplish: create chaos to the extent that the impression coming out of it is just that it was a bowl of disgust, and no substantive conversation could be had. Trump clearly succeeded in his goal, as the overwhelming impression of debate watchers was that we were, nearly universally, annoyed.

Chris Wallace was, at best, unprepared for Trump's tantrums, interruptions, and lies on stage. He had minimal success in holding Trump to account on both the basic norms of discourse as well as - as Wallace himself conceded - to the rules of the debate both campaigns had agreed to. Nicole Wallace on MSNBC truly had the best description of the debate: Donald Trump playing the role of the abuser, abusing both Wallace and Biden when he could get away with it. 

But chaotic and destructive as it was, Joe Biden won the debate by all the matrices that matter.

First, Biden won by default. The basic rule of any electoral debate is that the frontrunner in the race wins by default if nothing happens during the debate to shift the state of the race away from the frontrunner in a significant way. Donald Trump may think he is smart by ensuring that chaos reigned, but in that chaos he lost his chance to either outline a positive second term agenda or demonstrate to voters why Biden did not deserve his lead. 

Generally, incumbent presidents tend to lead their opponents coming into the debates, and therefore, it is usually up to the challenger to draw blood. Although Trump was the incumbent last night, the roles were essentially reversed because of Biden's steady lead in national and state polls. If anything, through his behavior Trump crystalized in the minds of voters a core argument of Biden's: that people are tired of the drama and badly long for calm, stability, and normalcy.

Second, Biden won on the substance. Trump may have ensured substance was secondary in the debate, but to the extent it matters, Biden demonstrated a level of message discipline that is simply impossible for Trump to fathom.

Biden refused to get drawn into a brawl about the Supreme Court and brought the issue of the appointment back to the key issue that has been winning elections for Democrats: the Affordable Care Act and women's access to reproductive health care. He hammered the point that Donald Trump is trying to take away health care and health care protections from hundreds of millions of Americans, and that he's trying to openly do so by stacking the Supreme Court, and surprisingly, Trump failed to counter Biden on the substantive issue of the broadly popular protections under the Affordable Care Act.

To make mattes worse, Trump claimed that 100 million Americans do not have pre-existing health conditions, putting on display his own breathtaking ignorance, but more importantly, letting it slip by extension that he doesn't actually care if pre-existing condition protections get taken away. Trump's response to Biden on health care wasn't "I will protect people with pre-existing conditions", it was "there aren't too many people with pre-existing conditions." People who live with pre-existing conditions heard the president loud and clear, I guarantee that.

Biden also succeeded in laying out an agenda of racial justice and police reform and framing it as one law enforcement will benefit from as well, highlighting his plan to address climate change without being drawn into a nonsensical exchange about the Green New Deal, and prosecuting Trump's economic record. Trump was reduced to lamenting how Biden had "lost the left" because Biden wouldn't let Trump get away with tying him to extreme leftist elements. That alone may have netted Biden a few more suburban votes.

Finally, Biden won because all the polls say he did.

  • CBS News poll: Biden won the debate 48-41 (reference above)
  • Data Progress: Biden won 51-39
  • CNN: Biden won 60-28
Word is that even Fox's poll has Biden winning the debate handily, but characteristically, Fox News did not add the poll to its website.

The fact that polls are simultaneously saying the debate was a dumpster fire and embarrassing, and that Joe Biden won means voters who were watching saw the debate, much like the election, as a referendum on Donald Trump, and they did not like what they saw.

Let's end this nightmare in six weeks. Vote.

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