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4 takeaways from the first presidential debate

President Biden and former President Donald Trump participate in the first presidential debate of the 2024 elections at CNN's studios in Atlant on June 27.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds
/
AFP via Getty Images
President Biden and former President Donald Trump participate in the first presidential debate of the 2024 elections at CNN's studios in Atlant on June 27.

If some people who listened to the radio in 1960 thought Richard Nixon won the presidential debate with John F. Kennedy, then maybe people reading the transcript of Thursday night’s match-up would think President Biden won.

Maybe.

But elections aren’t won in transcripts. The reality is, fairly or not, debates are often about optics — how the candidates present themselves, defend their records and parry attacks.

And that’s why so many Democrats are ringing the fire alarms after the first general-election presidential debate of 2024. The Biden campaign said the president had a cold to explain why he sounded so hoarse and weak. But Biden’s stumbles right from the beginning played into his biggest vulnerability — his age and whether the 81-year-old is up to the challenge of handling four more years in office.

There were issues for Trump, too, as he continued to spread falsehoods and bathe in the kinds of conspiratorial grievances that have turned off many voters.

Not much has changed the dynamics of this race; will anything that happened Thursday night make a difference either?

Here are four takeaways from the first Biden-Trump debate of this campaign:

1. First and foremost, let’s talk about the elephant in the room – Democrats have to be wondering if they’d be better off with someone else as their nominee.

Neither candidate is the official nominee yet. The national political conventions haven’t happened — but it’s next to impossible that Democrats would replace Biden.

Still, given he delivered the kind of performance Democrats feared, party leaders, strategists and many voters, frankly, had to be wondering during this debate what it would be like if any of a handful of other Democrats were standing on that stage.

Biden got a bit stronger as the debate went on, especially on foreign policy. He had some one-liners, like calling Trump a “whiner” when Trump wouldn’t definitively say that he would accept the results of the 2024 election. But Biden often wasn’t able to show vigor or consistently convey what he wanted to say. He simply couldn’t deliver the kinds of happy-warrior blows with that toothy smile audiences have seen from Biden in years past.

“Sometimes the spin don’t spin,” one Democratic strategist texted midway through the debate when asked for reaction.

2. If how Biden sounded wasn’t bad enough, the visuals might have been equally as bad.

An important rule of thumb for candidates — and moderators — in debates is to be conscious of how things look, of how you look, of what people are seeing at home. And what people saw — and this was predictable — was a split screen.

Biden wasn’t able to use that to his advantage at all, even as Trump doled out falsehood after falsehood. Instead, he looked genuinely shocked and confused, which is never a good look.

Trump and his base might not care about late-night comedy, but this week’s monologues are going to sting Democratic voters.

3. The format — and hands-off moderators — benefited Trump.

The muting of the candidates was likely intended to make the debate calmer and not allow Trump to run roughshod over the moderators or his opponent. But it had the effect of making Trump seem more sedate than usual.

Trump employed rounds of verbal jujitsu, in which he threw back his own vulnerabilities and directed them toward Biden. He was even able at one point, during a strange exchange about golf handicaps, to say, “Let’s not act like children.”

The moderation, or lack thereof, also allowed Trump to spread falsehoods and hyperbole without being interrupted or corrected. CNN indicated before the debate that the moderators were not going to play a strong role in fact checking the candidates, and they lived up to that.

They left it to the candidates, essentially, and with Biden unable to deliver in real time and the moderators declining to, the audience was left with a salad bowl full of rotten eggs and moldy lettuce that passed for facts.

Fact check: What did Biden and Trump claim about immigration in the debate?

4. This debate might not move the needle much, if at all.

Despite Biden’s struggles, which will understandably get the headlines, Trump had some difficult moments, too, especially in the second half of the debate.

In addition to spreading myriad falsehoods, he did little to credibly defend his conduct on and before the Jan. 6 siege on the Capitol; he used the kind of hyperbolic and vituperative language that has long turned off swing voters; and showed why many are concerned about some of his positions on the issues, especially on abortion and how the U.S. should be represented on the world stage.

So despite Biden’s shortcomings, millions will still likely vote for Biden, anyway, because he’s not Trump.

The bottom line is: Americans have said they are unhappy with their choices, and, in this – the biggest moment of the 2024 presidential campaign yet — it was clear why.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Corrected: June 28, 2024 at 7:48 AM MDT
A previous version of this story referenced this week's live SNL episode but in fact the show is on its summer hiatus.
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.