The First Presidential Debate — What did we just watch? Did anybody win?

David Pinsonneault
6 min readSep 30, 2020


Is this really the best we can do? That was my first thought when the debate started and my last thought when it finished. I am dreaming of the day when two women can get on stage and show us what it is like to be decent to one another. That time is, unfortunately, not now. Last night was more or less a disaster. The two candidates bickered, argued, and fought with one another the entire time. It was embarrassing. It was off-putting. It left me worried for our democracy. With all of that being said, I really do think that the Biden campaign can better capitalize off of whatever we want to call last night. After watching that mess of a debate, I actually feel better about Biden’s ability to speak to swing state voters than at any other time.

This debate was set up for Trump to win. Expectations, unfortunately (because they’re often projected by media & allow weaker candidates to do well just by showing up), do matter and Trump basically had none. That is why I am saying that it was set up for him to win from the onset. He would stand to gain some sort of small bump just by coming out and being exceptionally adequate. Trump has a fully formed persona. He is a bully. He is a liar. He is abrasive. He does not think through problems. This is how the American people define him — even those who support him. If he could have just portrayed a slightly even-keeled (think presidential) demeanor, the media would have been shocked enough to talk about his complexities instead of his actual flaws as a candidate and as a leader. Donald Trump, however, could not even do that much. He kept it on brand, which swung the ball back to Biden’s court. Biden needed to protect his lead, and did just that.

Biden did not have any major gaffes last night. There are no clips being widely shared about how he has lost his step. Even Fox News was not talking about dementia in the moments following the debate last night. The narrative following this debate is not that Biden is unfit to lead because of his inability to answer the questions posed to him during the debate. That is an underrated win for his campaign. Voters were left to consider what they are truly looking for from a President.

Biden turned to his best argument towards the very end of the debate. After we watched two men unable to carry a conversation in the slightest, Biden was finally able to turn the corner just before the night ended. He might not have given the best technical answers to some of the questions posed, but he was still able to separate himself from Donald Trump. Trump came across as the bully that he is. He did not seize an opportunity to show that there are other sides to him. While Biden was forced to engage with Trump in his favorite form of negative political discourse (yelling back & forth), the American electorate was posed with a pair of important questions at the conclusion of the event. What does the real Donald Trump look like? What does the real Joe Biden look like? Biden rose to the occasion to paint the choice between the two of them for every voter in America.

Biden took the lead on this question and framed the election choice for all of us. You can either vote for Donald Trump — a vote for chaos, a vote for someone who loves riling people up, a vote for someone who is not interested in solving problems for the average American OR you can vote for Joe Biden — a vote for normalcy, a vote for balance, a vote for compassion, a vote for civility, a vote for unity.

Those who made it to the end of the debate were all left wondering the same thing — What did we just watch? Biden likely should have led off with these talking points before things turned ugly and people lost interest. This needs to be the messaging coming from his campaign moving forward.

We saw the real Donald Trump last night, as we have done since he began his run for President in 2015. The real Joe Biden wants nothing to do with his brand of politics. The real Joe Biden is a vote for normalcy.

That framing will resonate with a good deal of swing state voters, who have had their lives turned upside down due to this pandemic. Normalcy sounds quite nice right about now.

With everything that has been covered so far, it needs to be said that the guy who cannot condemn white supremacy cannot be a Presidential debate winner in 2020. Telling his most violent supporters to stand by was a huge mistake that is being talked about in a lot of post debate coverage. I bring this up now because I think it is important but I also think that Biden is better off talking to swing state voters about their needs instead of a partisan conversation about policing, protest, race relations, and violence.

It also needs to be said that debates do not, altogether, matter that much. Most people already know who they are voting for, if they make it to the polls at all. Performance and one-liners can lead to big fundraising boosts for individual candidates during a debate. Both candidates will claim to have won last night. These events are not really set up to change hearts and minds through logic and reason. Most people have already been socialized into voting a certain way.

Instant debate polls showed Biden winning 3 out of 3: 60–28 (CNN), 48–41 (CBS), 51–39 (Data Progress).

That data set looks good but we need a quick reminder that this election is still about turnout. More specifically, it is about turnout in places that matter. Hillary won the popular vote by 3 million but it was not enough to put her in the White House. The electoral college makes it so that a handful of states matter. How is Biden doing with those voters? The Democratic Party cannot make the same mistakes it made in 2016. They need to do work to push back against the elitist views many hold of their candidates. They have neglected working class voters. They have not gotten their voters to the polls.

Last night gave me some hope that Biden can relate to swing state voters. I really feel like this was one of the first times he separated himself from Trump in his ability to talk to that all-important voting block. Biden has something to offer to the working class. Swing state voters do not want to vote for four more years of chaos during a pandemic that has left people in economic ruin. They need hope. They need normalcy. They need help. They need someone they can trust.

I urge the Biden campaign to consider these themes instead of getting into partisan arguments over social media. Stay away from insults and speak to the working class voters who are struggling right now, who are looking for someone to step in and help them with their problems.

This is what will deliver a resounding victory in November. Give people vision and hope instead of going back and forth with Trump in a way that does not bring new voters over. This is what the election hinges on. Biden will probably do as well as or better than Hillary did nationally. It is a huge mistake to rely on Trump imploding in states that matter and just flood those places with the debate clip of you telling him to “shut up.” That might work with people who have always been disgusted by the candidacy of Donald Trump but I do not think that moves the needle in the ways campaign staff thinks it does with other groups of voters.

Most people are sick of our current political discourse. They have real problems that have been heightened during the pandemic. They would like to turn 2020 off, and that includes this election cycle. Biden simply needs to show what he can offer the American people. He needs to show us that an alternative option exists. Last night showed me that he can draw that contrast and secure this election.



David Pinsonneault

Union/Political Organizer @SEIU. Alum @BarackObama. Chicago living. Blood clot survivor. 15x marathon finisher. Always looking for better.