And in those five days, many voters finished processing what they saw on the debate stage.
The results should be very encouraging for Biden.
The first data point that should make the Biden camp happy: instant polls. These quick surveys of debate watchers, with results typically released within 24 hours of the debate, are designed to get a ballpark read of who “won” a contest before the spin sets in. According to CNN’s instant poll, 53 percent of viewers thought Biden won the Oct. 22 debate and 39 percent said Trump did. YouGov came up with a similar result in its snap poll: 54 percent of registered voters who watched said Biden prevailed, while only 35 percent said Trump was victorious. Data for Progress, a liberal firm, surveyed debate watchers, weighted its results so it represented likely voters and found that Biden won 52 to 40 percent.
Post-debate horse race polls show that Biden kept Trump from gaining ground afterward.
Analyzing the post-debate horse race polls is a little tougher now than it was after the first debate. The polls cover a patchwork of states. Some of the data we have comes from lower-quality pollsters. And as others have pointed out, some survey researchers passed on trying to gauge the effect of the debate and might be instead focusing on their final pre-election poll.
But the data suggests that neither candidate moved the needle. National poll averages show less than a percentage point of change since the debate. Major quantitative models have stayed relatively stable; nothing has happened that significantly changed the odds either candidate will win or lose. According to FiveThirtyEight’s Geoff Skelley, the average pollster found no change in Biden’s lead following the debate.
If voters’ response to the debate was good for the Democrats, the stability of the race is great news for Biden.
For the entire 2020 campaign — the Democratic primary included — Biden’s strategy has been like a “prevent defense” in football. His plan has always been to build a larger coalition than his opponents, stop them from eating into his support and win when voting happens.
And, at the final debate, Biden got one step closer to successfully carrying out that strategy. He’s currently leading by roughly nine points in national polls, and he’s the favorite to win the electoral college. According to benchmarks I set back in September, Trump would be in good shape if he had whittled Biden’s national lead down to four or five points by late October. But Biden has stopped that from happening, and Trump’s deficit is roughly double what the benchmarks say it should ideally be.
Biden could still lose if the polls are once again underestimating support for Trump, or if some deus ex machina event like James B. Comey’s October 2016 letter to Congress about Hillary Clinton’s private email upends the race. But for the time being, it looks like Biden’s Plan A — take few risks and maintain a lead — is working.