It was not a surprise then that, shortly after the second and final presidential debate Thursday night, Trump took to Twitter to claim that he not only won the contest but did so overwhelmingly. Following a now-familiar pattern, he elevated Twitter-based surveys showing him winning overwhelmingly — surveys offered by a litany of conservative personalities and news sites. This is the fifth debate in which Trump has participated, thus it will be the fifth time that I must remind the world that Twitter surveys are to polling what a child making a spaceship out of a box is to NASA: something anyone can participate in if they want but which in almost no way involves any real science.
There were real polls taken after the debate, statistically valid ones limited to people who actually watched the debate. One from YouGov, for example, found that Democratic nominee Joe Biden was seen as the winner by a majority of respondents, with 54 percent picking him and 35 percent picking Trump. A poll from CNN and its polling partners at SSRS found something similar: a 53 percent to 39 percent Biden advantage.
That you were unable to participate in these polls simply because you wanted to is precisely the point.
Overall, it’s likely that this result does not matter much. Before the debate, CNN’s pollster asked people who they expected to win; most respondents came in thinking Biden was going to win, anyway. Among those polled, Biden had a higher net favorability rating before the debate (at plus-10, respondents were 10 points more likely to say they viewed him favorably than unfavorably). After the debate, measures of favorability didn’t change very much.
A good measure of how things went is how partisans viewed the event. Members of a candidate’s party are less likely to say that their guy lost, but, even so, resignation can filter into the responses. In CNN’s poll, 93 percent of Democrats thought Biden won while 6 percent thought Trump did. Among Republicans, 78 percent thought Trump won, while 11 percent pegged Biden as the winner. One in 10 Republicans said both did equally well, which is as good as a loss for Trump among members of his own party.
Again, this poll matters not because it likely shifted the race but because it didn’t. Trump needed a debate ex machina to upend the presidential race. This wasn’t that.
If you need any reminder that debates don’t determine the winners of presidential contests, a little history is in order. In 2016, Trump lost all three general-election debates, according to CNN polling — and, really, every objective observer. His first and last debates then mirror closely to this year’s results, in fact: Hillary Clinton won 62 percent to 27 percent in the first contest four years ago, compared with Biden’s 60 percent to 28 percent win this year. In the final debate of 2016, Clinton won by 52 percent to 39 percent.
One takeaway from this? Trump never won any of his general-election debates. He went a perfect 0 for 5, a record that is far more “New York Knicks” than “Los Angeles Lakers.”
Trump is nonetheless president of the United States, because debates aren’t everything, if they’re even much of anything. Which makes it all the more odd that the president is so insistent he won them. He could simply ignore the result and put his head down for the final push. But the Trump brand is winning, so if he has to elevate Clay Travis’s Twitter survey to prove that point, that’s what he’ll do.