Biden the winner of final debate, TV viewers and undecided voters say

Lois Beckett
·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Jeff Chiu/AP</span>
Photograph: Jeff Chiu/AP

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden was perceived as the winner of the final debate with Donald Trump on Thursday night, according to a CNN poll of debate viewers and a panel of undecided North Carolina voters.

Related: Trump stuck fighting the 2016 war as Biden comes out on top

Though the groups are not representative of actual US voters, they offered a snapshot of the reaction to the debate, which came just two weeks before election day, as Trump trails his opponent in national polls and was seeking to reset his appeal with more moderate Republican supporters.

The CNN poll found it was perceived as a slightly weaker performance compared to the first, chaotic presidential debate last month, when 60% of viewers perceived Biden as the winner, compared to 53% on Thursday night.

Participants in a CNN panel of undecided North Carolina voters said that Trump’s strength in the debate was his focus on the economy, while Biden’s strength was his emphasis on “unifying” Americans.

The CNN undecided voter panel praised the final debate as “more controlled” and “much better”. Almost all of the voters on that panel said that Biden won the debate.

But the takeaways from a focus group of undecided voters assembled by the Los Angeles Times and pollster Frank Luntz was less positive for Biden.

Words that the undecided voters in that panel used to describe Biden’s debate performance included: “vague”, “cognitively impaired”, “I don’t want to say senile, so I’ll say old”, “uncomfortable”, “grandfatherly”, “defensive”, and “ambiguous”, Associated Press reporter Jill Colvin tweeted.

Trump was described by the same group as “controlled”, “constrained”, “petulant” “reserved”, “surprisingly presidential”, and a “con artist”, Colvin wrote.

A small group of voters who watched the debate for PBS NewsHour and said the debate left them feeling “informed.” They praised moderator Kristen Welker, an NBC White House correspondent. A woman on CNN’s undecided panel also hailed the debate’s much-touted mute button. “That made a big difference,” she said.

Even on a day when the United States saw the third-highest total number of new coronavirus cases, at more than 73,000, according to the Atlantic’s Covid Tracking Project, some undecided voters shared Trump’s emphasis on keeping businesses open, whatever the public health cost.

“Like Donald Trump said, if we shut down the economy at the expense of the people, there’s not going to be a country to come back to,” one voter on CNN’s undecided panel said.

As they did in the first debate, pro-Trump viewers spent a lot of time complaining about perceived bias of the debate moderator towards Biden, and claiming that Trump was cut off more often.

Kristen Welker, the debate moderator.
Kristen Welker, the debate moderator. Photograph: Jim Bourg/AP

“Trump is doing a good job. Too bad they had to treat Trump like a child by shutting off his mic. Embarrassing!” one commenter wrote on the Fox News Facebook page during the debate.

In fact, Trump had slightly more total speaking time than Biden: just over 41 minutes, compared with just under 38 minutes for Biden, CNN reported.

Some viewers found the entire section of the debate on “race”, which centered on police violence and criminal justice reform, to be frustrating.

“Blackness and criminality are not the same,” Phillip Atiba Goff, a leading researcher on racial bias in policing, wrote on Twitter. “Would really love Black communities to be on the agenda outside of questions about punishment.”

Gene Demby, the co-host of Code Switch, National Public Radio’s podcast on race and identity, wrote: “This conversation about race in the US with two rich, powerful septuagenarians is going about as well as anyone could have anticipated.”

Demby highlighted context that Trump’s repeated debate claims about improving unemployment rates for black Americans lacked. Black unemployment rates have been roughly twice as high as white unemployment rates for decades, he wrote. “‘Record low Black unemployment’ is often still at rates we would consider high or recession-level if we were talking about white folks.”

Pro-Trump viewers commenting on the Fox News Facebook page wrote that Biden’s comments about “the talk” black parents have with their children about how to behave when they are stopped by the police were unconvincing as evidence of the racism black Americans face. Several of them wrote that they also taught their children how to be respectful towards the police.

Commenters on Fox were also unimpressed by the debate question Trump was asked about his administration’s ongoing failure to reunite 545 migrant children with their parents after they were separated from their families under the administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy, which was widely denounced as a serious human rights violation.

“If you don’t want to be separated from your kids don’t try and enter the country illegally,” one commenter on Fox News’s page wrote.

“Those 525 kids are now on US soil and in the custody of the US … just what their parents wanted,” another commenter suggested.