To get a methodologically rigorous look at who “won” the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden — if winning is defined as helping their presidential campaign’s chances — you’ll have to wait a bit longer.
The indicators we have right now are necessarily incomplete and limited; they’re focus groups of tiny, handpicked samples of undecided voters, or polls of people who watched the debate rather than the electorate at large, or just pundits making stuff up. Plus, the true impact of a debate is often determined in the spin war fought in the hours and days afterward.
Keeping these limitations in mind, overall those preliminary findings so far look better for Biden.
CBS News and YouGov have been tracking respondents in battleground states, and they were able to quickly contact some of those respondents and ask those who watched the Tuesday debate what they thought. Overall, 48 percent said Biden won the debate, while 41 percent said Trump won, and 10 percent said it was a tie. As CBS elections and survey director Anthony Salvanto pointed out on air, this was pretty close to the support for each candidate going in.
CBS NEWS BATTLEGROUND TRACKER— CBS News Poll (@CBSNewsPoll) September 30, 2020
Instant poll of debate watchers: more say Joe Biden won tonight’s debate pic.twitter.com/dHZqV95wqB
Kabir Khanna of the CBS News Election and Survey Unit also points out that 42 percent of debate watchers said they thought worse of Trump afterward, and 24 percent said they thought better of him. In contrast, 32 percent said they thought worse of Biden, while 38 percent thought better of him.
This is kinda interesting, aside from just who "won" debate— Kabir K. (@kabir_here) September 30, 2020
Slightly more watchers say debate made them think better of Biden (38%) than worse of him (32%): nets to +6
When it comes to Trump, more watchers say it made them think worse (42%) than better of him (24%): nets to -18 pic.twitter.com/0tVuOg1h3K
CNN and SSRS also conducted an instant poll of debate watchers, and they found a more lopsided margin in Biden’s favor. Sixty percent of their respondents thought Biden won, while 28 percent thought Trump won.
CNN instant poll of debate watcher: 60% say Biden won, 28% say Trump won. pic.twitter.com/5qIhkFQrwe— Oliver Darcy (@oliverdarcy) September 30, 2020
Then we have the focus groups. Republican pollster Frank Luntz convened a focus group of 16 purportedly undecided voters from swing states, and in general they had kinder things to say about Biden’s performance than Trump’s.
Asked to describe Trump in one word or phrase, the responses were: “horrid,” “chaotic,” “unpolished,” “crackhead,” “ehh,” “puzzling,” “un-American,” “unhinged,” “an ass, but a confident ass,” “classic Trump,” “forceful,” “unhinged,” “bully,” “arrogant,” arrogant,” “typical.”
Then, asked to describe Biden, the responses were: “I was surprised at how well he did,” “better than expected,” “definitely more professional than Trump and I think he’s more a people person,” “competent,” “politician,” “showed restraint and compassion,” “politician,” “predictable,” “nice guy but lacking vision,” “coherent,” “leader,” “attentive and rehearsed,” “somewhat evasive,” “humanity and integrity,” “predictable,” “presidential.”
CNN convened its own focus group of undecided voters in Ohio, and most of them said that neither Biden nor Trump won the debate (there were about a dozen, and one said Biden won while two said Trump won).
The bigger picture, of course, is that Trump is currently losing to Biden, according to all the pre-debate polls. So even something like a draw in the debate would effectively be a win for Biden. Trump needed a strong performance to dramatically reshape the race, and the early indications are that he didn’t get that.