If you’re like me, you enjoy presidential debates for the memorable lines, the zingers, and watching two politicians talented enough to win the nomination of their parties debate the future of the country. If you’re like me, two other things are probably true: The debates are usually pitched toward people like us, and we’re atypical of most voters in the country.
Understanding those latter two points is the key to understanding Tuesday night’s face-off between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, because for the first time in years this debate was not pitched toward people like us. Trying to score it by traditional metrics misses the point.
So what was the point? It appears that the president had three goals, two of which he pulled off with varying degrees of success.
The first was to avoid a traditional debate on the merits. Rather than judging it in a vacuum, consider the alternative: A sober affair, consisting of Biden clubbing Trump over the head with 200,000 dead Americans, a historically large GDP contraction in the second quarter, his problematic (and still missing) tax returns, and the myriad other issues that have arisen over the course of his presidency. Trump simply wasn’t going to win that debate, and by avoiding it, he accomplished something he set out to do.
The second was to project dominance. This has been a Trump debate staple for five years now. It began with his derogatory nicknames during the GOP primary season in 2015-2016 and continued with his bizarre snorting and stalking the stage like a beast of prey during the debates with Hillary Clinton. By constantly talking over Biden, needling him, and refusing to accept any direction from moderator Chris Wallace, Trump was attempting to send a message that he was in charge. In retrospect, he previewed this approach for months with his constant attack on Biden as being “weak.”
Did this work? It’s difficult to say. As I mentioned, debates are usually staid affairs, pitched to politically knowledgeable elites who like to evaluate things on the merits. Trump’s debates are pitched to someone completely different. His behavior toward Clinton seemed bizarre and juvenile, and made for classic “SNL” fodder. It also apparently worked reasonably well; the townhall-style debate was one of his best received performances. So the interrupting and refusal to answer questions was off-putting for me, but I recognize that I’m not the target audience.
The third goal is one where I think Trump largely failed. He employed something of a rope-a-dope strategy: Let Biden tire himself out by forcing him to keep talking, arguing with, and correcting Trump, and hope he has an embarrassing misstep toward the end of the debate. It wasn’t an outlandish strategy. If you’ve ever been in an argument with someone who constantly talks over you, misstates things, and dodges your questions, you know how exhausting it can be. Biden also had a tendency to fade down the stretch in the Democratic debates, and he certainly has a penchant for gaffes.
But it didn’t work. Toward the end of Tuesday’s debate, Trump let Biden talk more freely, interrupting less and apparently hoping that he would stumble. There were some missteps, but they were mostly minor, and certainly aren’t the fodder for the 30-second ads Trump was hoping for.
This last paragraph is probably the most important. Trump got some of what he was looking for: He avoided debate on the merits and appeared in charge. But Biden got what was most important for him as well: He defied the image Trump was trying to project of him of a doddering old man. He was lucid, confident, and well-spoken throughout the debate. Normally, that alone wouldn’t be close to enough to earn a debate win, but for a candidate who is up in the polls and who had an absurdly low bar to clear, it probably is enough.