On Thursday night in Atlanta, Georgia, President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump faced off in the first of two debates on the road to the White House. In US politics, debates can make or break a campaign. Trump, the clear winner according to commentators and early polls, will capitalise upon the debate to advance the Republican campaign in the swing states. His opponent’s stumbles have caused “panic” among Democratic supporters and will intensify debate about his fitness as a candidate. 

Biden vs Trump – What Happened


The first presidential debate of the 2024 campaign started without a handshake or even a nod between the candidates. There was little policy discussion during the 90 minutes, with the conversation mostly featuring a series of highly personalised parries and counter-parries by Biden and Trump as each sought to score points. Biden’s performance lacked the vigour he had shown during his State of the Union address earlier in the year, whereas Trump appeared energised. 


Who Won?


Most commentators – from across the media spectrum – argued that Biden had stumbled and missed his opportunity to persuade swing voters that his age is not a factor in the election. Although Trump drew criticism from parts of the US media ordinarily aligned with the Democratic party, there was near universal recognition that he had benefitted from the showdown – despite making claims that were later proven untrue by fact-checkers. Calling for an early debate and having a CNN host did not provide Biden with the advantage he had hoped for. 


What the Polls Are Saying


Polls released immediately after the debate showed that voters, regardless of their political leanings, thought Trump outperformed Biden – at 67% to 33%, according to CNN. However, the broadcaster’s statistics also showed only 5% of voters changed their minds about each of the candidates as a result of the debate, and 81% said it had no effect on their presidential choice. The poll also indicated a drop in favourability of President Biden, and a slight increase in Trump’s.


Most important, however, is the response of the “6% of 6 states” – voters in the swing states that will have an outsized impact on the election results come November: Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Early reactions sought by US media outlets across these states revealed dissatisfaction with both candidates, although few seemed likely to switch their initial preferences based on the debate. 


How Will This Impact the Rest of the Campaign?


Biden CampBiden has already won enough primary delegates to make his nomination at the Democratic Convention in August a formality. However, Democrats have been shaken by his poor performance and will be hoping that the five months left in the race will be enough time for him to regain the confidence of his supporters, and voters. The campaign will continue to focus on winning over swing voters in the mid-west – emphasising his positions on abortion, preserving democracy, and ensuring stability. 


But with no other debate scheduled until September, there remains a risk that the lasting memory of the President will be unfavourable. Post-debate headlines are suggesting that Biden will be replaced from within. While considered highly unlikely at this stage – given his overwhelming win in the primaries – there are legal loopholes that would allow the Democratic party to give the nomination to another candidate, if “in all good conscience” its actions “reflect the sentiments of those who elected them.” This could provide a means for the Democrats to act if concerns about Biden’s ability to lead escalate.


Trump CampTrump will sense victory and is likely to intensify his focus on Biden’s age, further calling into question his cognitive abilities. He will capitalise upon his “win” in the debate to advance the Republican campaign in the swing states. 


Moreover, the Trump campaign will likely take advantage of disquiet or “panic”, as many commentators have called it, among the Democratic party elite following the debate. Although he may now consider Biden to be an easier opponent to defeat in the polls, Trump would also welcome the disruption that would follow should the Democrats choose to “drop the pilot.” Consequently, Trump can be expected to focus his attention on the most likely successor to Biden, California's Democratic governor Gavin Newsom.