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Who won the Trump-Biden debate? Experts grade the candidates

Three specialists deliver their report cards on the final presidential faceoff of the 2020 campaign.
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President Donald Trump was rated the most improved performer at Thursday's debate, but a panel of debate experts said Joe Biden was more effective with his arguments.

The three experts all agreed that the faceoff was more informative than the chaotic first debate in Cleveland last month, but one noted, "That's a very low bar."

While Trump's strategy of interrupting less and letting Biden speak more in hopes of provoking a gaffe was sound strategy, the experts said Biden didn't make the type of major mistake Trump probably needed to change the race.

Here are their report cards.

Mitchell McKinney

Director of the Political Communication Institute at the University of Missouri

Overall: "It was more relaxed" than the first debate, with fewer interruptions, especially early on, McKinney said. Trump's relative restraint made sense, but he added, "I don't think it was as effective in terms of the overall dynamics of the debate."

On Trump: "Donald Trump seemed at times certainly perturbed, but restrained himself and wasn't going for the jugular" like he did in the first debate, McKinney said. "He learned his lesson from the polls" after that, McKinney said, but the result put him "in a box." "He did not appear to be the authentic Donald Trump," he said.

On Biden: Biden was prepared for Trump's attacks on him and his family and "didn't get rattled," McKinney said. Biden was able to project empathy, and he took an effective page out of the Obama playbook while declaring that he'd be a president of "not red states and blue states but the United States." Most important, he was "able to avoid any major gaffes or blunders that would have had supporters wringing their hands," McKinney said.

McKinney's report card:

Trump's grade: B-

Biden's grade: B+

Susan Millsap

Communications professor at Otterbein University in Ohio and adviser to the student debate team

Overall: "It started better than the first one, but it slowly devolved a bit. The last 20 minutes or so, the interruptions were increasing again, and Trump was slowly turning it into a campaign speech," Millsap said.

"I was like, 'Oh, no — don't do it.' Towards the end, Trump was back on his hyperbole and bombastic style," she said.

On Trump: Trump was effective in hitting some of the points he wanted to make. Many of his answers were reminiscent of his rally speeches, and he managed to bring answers on a wide range of issues back to his support of businesses.

"He would fall back on businesses and how it would hurt or harm business. Even the race issue he brought back to business," Millsap said. "If you like that, you like what he's saying."

On Biden: Biden presented himself as a man with plans, Millsap said. "He had a definite plan for the Covid, for the economy, health care. For race, he even laid out a plan," she said. Trump did nail him for sidestepping some questions, painting him as a typical politician, she said, but she didn't think it was enough to harm him. Biden also allowed Trump to divert him from some of the topics they were discussing.

Millsap's report card:

Trump's grade: C-

Biden's grade: B

Jacob Thompson

Communications professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and director of the debate team

Overall: "It was marked improvement from the first debate," and moderator Kristen Welker of NBC News "gets an A-plus" for her deft handling of the event. "Both candidates behaved like adults," he said, but he added, "I don't think America should get too excited about clearing the lowest bar of civility."

On Trump: "Relative to expectations, Trump won," because his performance was so much better than it was in the first debate, Thompson said. He did a good job of reining in his temper, which will result in lower unfavorable ratings, and he was successful in trying "to muddy the waters around questions about Joe Biden's character."

"That's an effective appeal to Trump's base," Thompson said.

But Trump failed to reach beyond his base, and his attempts at being empathetic rang hollow. "He needed an unforced error from Biden, and he didn't get it," Thompson said, although an answer from Biden about phasing out the oil industry came close.

On Biden: "In substance and style, Biden did better," improving on his performance from the first debate and in comparison to Trump. "He struck an empathetic tone several different times and went back to portraying himself as a president who would unite the country," Thompson said. He rebounded on his answer about the oil industry with an explanation of how it was a necessary transition away from fossil fuels that "was cogent enough," although "not earth-shattering."

Thompson's report card:

Trump's grade: B-

Biden's grade: B+

The next "report card" will be from the voters on Election Day, Nov. 3.