President Trump posted a sharper and calmer performance during his final debate against former Vice President Joe Biden on Thursday night, but it was unclear if his better showing was enough to alter the shape of the race in its closing days, a Post panel of debate experts said.
Four experts examined the 90-minute forum in Nashville, Tenn., which featured sharp exchanges over the handling of the coronavirus pandemic that’s left more than 220,000 Americans dead, the environment, immigration and foreign policy.
“Mr. Trump was more methodical, but it wasn’t enough: he needed a game-changer but didn’t get one. Biden had no significant gaffes that will hurt him over the remaining 12 days,” said David Birdsell, the dean of the Marxe School of Public and International Affairs at CUNY’s Baruch College.
Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak offered a similar take that highlighted Trump’s dramatic change in tone from his much-criticized first debate, during which the president frequently interrupted both the moderator and Biden. But he thought Trump’s change in style may still have had a benefit.
“Trump was sharper and far more disciplined tonight,” said Mackowiak, who believes the performance could provide some late momentum that could help the Republican Party hang onto its slender majority in the U.S. Senate.
“Five or six states will decide this thing and they are all within the margin of error,” Mackowiak added. “Biden is ahead but Trump can still win.”
President Trump won the White House in 2016 thanks to slender victories in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan.
Fox News’ latest polls from those states, released Wednesday, showed that Biden had opened leads of at least five percentage points among likely voters in all three before the debate.
And, so, staunching the bleeding and winning over independents is critical to reversing those trends — and a third panelist, former Staten Island GOP chairwoman Leticia Remauro, thought Trump got the job done.
“This was Trump’s best debate ever,” the 2021 Staten Island borough president hopeful wrote. “He was thoughtful and kept to his theme that Biden couldn’t get it done.”
But longtime Democratic strategist Eric Soufer argued that Trump’s improved performance from his damaging first showing wouldn’t be enough to shift the race — and that Trump’s answers on health care and coronavirus would come back to haunt in the closing days.
“Biden came better prepared and demonstrated a refreshing contrast of empathy, compassion, and decency that will keep the race hurtling toward an overwhelming Biden victory,” wrote the veteran of the Obama and Edwards campaigns, who is now a top advisor at Tusk Strategies.
Here’s how our panelists graded each round of the debate:
Birdsell: The President repeated clearly false assertions about the end of the virus during a third-wave peak, which is still building. Biden talked about practical solutions to balance economic needs and public safety. — Biden: A- / Trump: D
Mackowiak: More of the same from Trump on COVID. I think voters wanted to hear him take some responsibility, which he eventually did. He was strong on the creation of the vaccine. Biden was very negative not just on Trump’s record, but on the pathway forward — Biden: B / Trump: B-
Soufer: Trump kept his cool this time, but Biden clearly and effectively walked every voter through the president’s catastrophic record of failure in protecting Americans. — Biden: A- / Trump: B-
Remauro: Trump excelled in this round clearly laying out his successes and reminding voters that he wants to get the economy back on track — an area where voters feel he is strong. Biden saying he didn’t consider red or blue states then stating that the red states were spiking was one of many inconsistent answers — Biden: C / Trump: A
Birdsell: The President pushed the socialized medicine argument, giving the former VP his best line of the night: he’s running “against Joe Biden, Joe Biden.” This is also the point in the debate that the president began to abandon his unaccustomed calm. — Biden: A- / Trump: C-
Mackowiak: Trump was very effective messaging against Medicare for All and the threat it poses to 180 million private health plans. Trump also was very effective reminding the audience that Biden is making promises on health care now that he did not deliver on while in office. — Biden: B / Trump: B+
Soufer: You can’t beat Biden’s direct to camera, empathetic appeal to American families — and Trump only helped him by clumsily mocking Biden for demonstrating that empathy. — Biden: A+ / Trump: D
Remauro: This was a tie. Both men played to their base though Trump got Biden to admit that the Biden healthcare plan would be costly — Biden: B / Trump: B
Race in America:
Birdsell: The President pushed his “best since Lincoln” line; Mr. Biden acknowledged pain. — Biden: B/ Trump: C
Mackowiak: Excellent answer from Biden. Empathetic, substantive. Trump was effective reminding of Biden’s crime bill. Trump also smartly pointed to his record on criminal justice reform, opportunity zones and HBCUs. — Biden: A- / Trump: B+
Soufer: Trump almost comically still thinks calling himself the “least racist” resonates with voters who care about racial equality. Meanwhile, Biden connected by acknowledging the advantages his white family enjoys but that communities of color are denied everyday in America. — Biden: B+ / Trump: C
Remauro: Trump deftly ticked off his successes with the black community from permanently funding black colleges to fixing the crime bill which Biden admitted was a mistake. Biden wasn’t able to get out from under the hammering that he had decades as Senator and then as VP to Obama to correct but couldn’t get it done — Biden: C / Trump: A
Birdsell: The president’s claims of wanting the cleanest air and water while systematically eviscerating the nation’s most successful environmental policy was an affront to anyone who reads. Mr. Biden was factual but disjointed; he didn’t have time to adequately frame a post-fossil fuel energy economy. — Biden: B- / Trump: F
Mackowiak: Trump stood up to the left-wing environmental agenda, which will be popular in the midwest. His recitation of record-low carbon emissions and attack on the Green New Deal was effective. Surprised he didn’t bring up fracking earlier in his answer. Biden’s environmental message was consistent and will play well with young voters and progressives. — Biden: B / Trump: A-
Soufer: Biden stuck to his plan that would transform the energy economy through job creation, while Trump did nothing but try to dismiss the realities of renewable energy and try to force Biden into a misstep about oil– something Biden was prepared for and deflected effectively — Biden: A- / Trump: C-
Remauro: Biden still weak on this issue because he can’t find a strong enough position for his base ie fracking – whereas Trump has shown that he can marry climate with the economy — Biden: C / Trump: B+
Birdsell: The president misrepresented his administration’s record on a host of immigration issues; Mr. Biden went to the most appealing immigration issue — Dreamers — and walked away with that segment. — Biden: A- / Trump: D
Mackowiak: This section was forgettable. President Trump made his points on the border wall and ending catch and release. Biden was effective on the 500+ children who have not been reunited with their parents. — Biden: B / Trump: B
Soufer: Trump inexplicably defended the most despicable exercise of executive power in a half-century by callously dismissing the suffering of over 500 children who can’t see their parents because of his immoral and incompetent child separation policy. — Biden: A- / Trump: F
Remauro: Trump continued the theme of “you couldn’t get it done Joe,” causing an uncomfortable moment for Biden when he used the “I wasn’t the President” defense in response to Obama’s immigration failures — Biden: C- / Trump: B+
Birdsell: The president wanted to turn this segment into the Biden Family Chronicles; he didn’t directly address actual security questions. Biden was more successful talking about actual security issues. — Biden: B+ / Trump: C-
Mackowiak: I don’t even recall any discussion about national security, which is a disgrace. Amazingly, Biden brought up the Hunter Biden accusations first. Trump pushed the issue and Biden said he’s never taken overseas money, which now has to be true. — Biden: B- / Trump: B
Soufer: Biden delivered stinging takedowns on China, North Korea and Russia, while Trump retreated to his usual unsubstantiated and rhetorical claims of toughness — Biden: A / Trump: C-
Remauro: Trump put Biden off his game as he pressed the former vice president about his son’s business deal at a Ukrainian natural gas company and possible ties to a Russian politician — and contrasted that nicely with the aid he’s provided farmers funded by tariffs on imported Chinese goods — Biden: C / Trump: A