A chaotic first debate leaves the U.S. presidential race unchanged

President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden participate in the first presidential debate Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, at Case Western University and Cleveland Clinic, in Cleveland, Ohio. (Olivier Douliery/Pool vi AP)

President Donald Trump and former vice president Joe Biden squared off this week in a debate that was hectic, halting, and bitter.

Many topics were on the table, from how to fill a vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court to COVID-19 to the economy — but few of these topics were talked about at length or in-depth.

READ MORE: ‘It was sad’ — U.S. voters criticize ‘unseemly’ first debate between Trump, Biden

While the on-stage back-and-forth was hard to follow, what does the polling say about how viewers and voters absorbed all that political theatre?

New FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos polling finds that Americans believe Joe Biden significantly outperformed President Trump in the first presidential debate. Many still give both candidates essentially equal chances of winning the election, but faith in the outcome is an open question for about one in three Americans.

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When it comes to each candidates’ rhetorical flair, Biden wins decisively. Six in 10 Americans agree that Biden’s debate performance was “somewhat” or “very good.” Just one third say the same of Trump.

Click to play video: 'U.S. Presidential debate: Biden says he regrets more time wasn’t spent discussing average Americans'
U.S. Presidential debate: Biden says he regrets more time wasn’t spent discussing average Americans

Digging deeper, partisanship frames people’s view of the debate in a significant way. Eighty-seven per cent of Democrats view Biden’s performance favourably and 68 per cent of Republicans view Trump’s performance favourably. Out of the substance viewers could extract from the evening, more Americans favour the policy ideas Biden outlined during the debate than President Trump. Fifty-six per cent of Americans deem them “good,” while an equivalent number (57 per cent) view the policy ideas Trump proposed as “poor.”

And in a sign of the times, the freeness and fairness of the election was open for debate Tuesday night. After a chaotic exchange between the candidates on the topic, a majority of Americans still believe that the election will be both fair and credible. However, about one in three (34 per cent) show signs of questioning the results already. One quarter hold that their faith in the election is predicated on who wins, and nearly one in 10 say that they will not believe the results at all.

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And this seems to be, in part, driven by Republicans picking up on President Trump’s cueing around this topic. Democrats have greater faith in the results, with seven in 10 agreeing that they will believe the outcome, compared to just six in 10 (59 per cent) of Republicans.

Click to play video: 'Trump says he ‘really enjoyed’ U.S. presidential debate against Joe Biden'
Trump says he ‘really enjoyed’ U.S. presidential debate against Joe Biden

Looking ahead, a greater number of Americans say that they plan to vote for Biden in November, but they give the two candidates almost the same odds of winning. There is no movement in voter intent for either candidate after the debate. Americans say they have a 3.7 in 10 chance of voting for Trump, and a 5.17 out of 10 chance of voting for Biden — consistent with where they stood before the debate.

Despite seeing Biden’s debate performance more favourably, Americans still view the race as a toss-up, putting Trump’s chances of winning at 4.68 out of 10 and Biden’s at 4.77 out of 10.

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Even though Tuesday night was an acrimonious affair, views on the two main candidates don’t show signs of shifting. The favorability ratings for the two candidates are statistically unchanged from where they stood before the debate. Post-debate, Biden’s favourability ratings sit at 52 per cent, and his favourability ratings remain net-positive. Trump’s favourability ratings are also statistically unchanged, moving from 37 per cent pre-debate to 36 per cent post-debate.

With two more debates to go, we’ll have to see if this stability continues as election season roars on.

Sarah Feldman is a data journalist for Ipsos in the United States, where she covers trends in public opinion, elections, and American politics. Chris Jackson is a senior vice president and lead for the Ipsos public polling practice in the United States. His research specialties include public opinion trends, election polling, strategic communications and reputation research. 

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