Who won the Biden-Trump debate? Biden’s freeze draws age concerns

Who won the Biden-Trump debate? Biden’s freeze draws age concerns


WASHINGTON – Presidential debates are always about expectations. And Thursday’s verbal sparring match between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump was no exception.  

The stakes were highest for Biden who, at age 81, was already battling perceptions he is too elderly for a second term. Meanwhile, Trump, 78, was facing concerns from moderate and swing voters about his at times bombastic style.  

The biggest moment of the night came early, when Biden froze for several seconds while answering a question about the economy. 

That – and all of the many other gaffes of the evening − will be replayed on cable news shows and shared thousands of times on social media for weeks to come. But how will it influence the 2024 election?  

Here’s a breakdown of who came out on top and who fell short in the immediate aftermath.  

Trump showed more energy than Biden 

Experts USA TODAY spoke with said they saw sharp differences in the stamina of the two candidates on stage Thursday night, and they said Biden’s low-energy demeanor could hurt him for months to come.  

In one of the most defining moments of the debate, Biden took a prolonged pause and froze while answering a question about the economy. After stuttering, the president continued, but began talking about COVID-19 and Medicare. 

Even some of Biden’s Democratic supporters felt his freeze on stage and his somewhat wooden performance tipped the scales in Trump’s favor.

Trump sought to highlight Biden’s slower responses, at one point saying, “I really don’t know what he said at the end of this, and I don’t think he knows what he said, either.”

Thomas Whalen, a presidential historian and professor at Boston University, said Biden was “looking his age,” while Trump was “more controlled and sticking to his talking points.” 

Aaron Kall, director of Debate for the University of Michigan Debate Program, suggested Biden’s pauses “could spur endless news cycles about (his) age and fitness to serve another term in office.” 

New debate format aimed to decrease chaos

If seeing Trump and Biden on stage together again didn’t provide enough deja vu, their matchup also marked the first time since 1960 that a presidential debate was held without a live audience. The last time was when John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon clashed.

The format was designed to eliminate immediate reactions to candidates’ remarks. Aaron Kall, director of debate for the University of Michigan, suggested it forced genuine responses rather than scripted statements from the candidates. 

Rather than rely on audience energy, Trump and Biden had to “trust their guts and instincts and previous debate experiences,” Kall said. 

The use of muted microphones in the debate also nearly eliminated the type of candidate crosstalk that has plagued past debates, including most recently during the GOP primary. 

Georgia voters are central focus  

Trump and Biden weren’t the only ones in the spotlight Thursday night. All-important Georgia voters were, too. 

The location of the debate at CNN’s studios in Atlanta underscored Georgia’s role as crucial swing state in the election and served as a reminder that the candidate’s messages − and bickering − will echo far beyond the stage. 

Biden won Georgia by just under 12,000 votes in 2020. But recent polling this year has shown Trump with a slight edge over his competitor in the key battleground territory. 

And the side-by-side comparison of the two candidates Thursday could very well sway the minds of undecided voters in the state. It was one of few opportunities the public will have to hear from the two men directly and judge for themselves who is the better pick for the country. 

Not to mention that the location gave both candidates an opportunity to campaign around the Atlanta suburbs. Trump called in to a local barbershop on Wednesday to talk with a group his campaign called the Black American Business Leaders Barbershop Roundtable. And Biden’s campaign said the president planned to attend watch parties across the city after the debate to talk with voters.  

Also of significance: The debate occurred only a few miles from the jail where Trump was booked last year on charges related to claims that he conspired to overturn the 2020 election.  

A major money boost for Democrats and Republicans  

Both major parties are expected to raise big dollars off Thursday’s affair. Similarly well-watched events have brought in the green for the two candidates.  

Biden’s campaign said he raised $10 million in the 24 hours after the State of the Union address. After Trump’s felony conviction in his New York hush money trial, his campaign said it raised $34.8 million in small-dollar donations.  

And both groups we’re leaning into their fundraising.  

Hours before the debate began, Biden’s team sent out a message telling supporters that he was “counting on” them to donate at least $30.  

“Tens of thousands of new supporters stepped up following my debates against Trump in 2020. And tonight, can’t be any different,” the message said.  

The Democratic Party of Georgia also hosted a watch party charging $24 per advance ticket. Former Georgia Sen. Kelly Loeffler was similarly hosting a high-dollar event for Trump the night of the debate.  

Biden’s campaign said it had its best grassroots fundraising hours of the entire campaign leading up to the debate. 

False claims abound

Ashley Koning, director of the Rutgers Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling, argued that “facts and truth” were the biggest losers of the night.  

Both Trump and Biden made false comments throughout the debate that largely went unchecked by the moderators.  

Trump repeated claims that the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol was former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s fault. Trump claimed he offered Pelosi “10,000 soldiers” to stop the attack. Pelosi’s office has said, however, that she never received such an officer and that she wouldn’t have had the power to refuse either way.  

The former real estate mogul also claimed the U.S. southern border is the most dangerous place in the world. There is no evidence to suggest this.  

Biden also made incorrect claims. At one point, he claimed he was “the only president this century … that doesn’t have any troops dying anywhere in the world.”  

In 2021, during Biden’s presidency, 13 U.S. service members were killed in a suicide bombing attack in Afghanistan as thousands tried to flee the Taliban’s takeover of the country. 

RFK and third-party candidates absent from the conversation 

Noticeably absent from the CNN stage? Robert F. Kennedy Jr.  

Kennedy didn’t meet the qualifications for the debate, which required candidates to appear on a “sufficient number of state ballots to reach the 270 electoral vote thresholds to win the presidency” and receive at least 15% in four qualifying national polls, according to CNN.  

In a three-way matchup with Biden and Trump, Kennedy receives 10.7% of the vote, according to a Real Clear Politics average of polling.  

Kennedy counterprogrammed the prime-time debate by answering the same questions as Biden and Trump live on a social media stream and on his website. But he remained largely out of sight for most voters on a night that centered on the two major party candidates. 

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