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Final presidential debate revealed less chaos, consolidated candidate support, study finds

In a virtual debate-viewing study of college students, participants find former Vice President Joe Biden again outperforms President Donald Trump.

Oct. 23, 2020
Contact: Eric Stann, 573-882-3346, StannE@missouri.edu 

this is a picture of Ben R. Warner

Ben R. Warner

Results of a virtual debate-viewing study among college students revealed not only a less chaotic, more substantive event, but also a stronger performance from former Vice President Joe Biden over President Donald Trump in the second and final presidential debate of the 2020 U.S. general election.

The study, coordinated by the Political Communication Institute at the University of Missouri, included a survey of approximately 172 college students from Mizzou, the University of Arkansas, Cameron University, Eastern New Mexico University, Iowa State University, Marquette University, Salisbury University, Southern Utah University, University of Kansas, University of Louisville and the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. Among the participants, 50% self-identified as Democrats, 30% as Republicans and 20% as independents. Sixty-six percent were female and 34% were male.

According to Ben Warner, associate professor of communication and co-director of the Political Communication Institute, the survey’s findings revealed no change in voter preferences among the study participants.

“Both Biden and Trump managed to consolidate their support,” Warner said. “Additionally, with a fairly modest shift, people who leaned toward either candidate became slightly more likely to vote for them.”

Other results from the survey showed:

  • Among the college students surveyed, 62% saw Biden as last night’s debate winner, comparted to 38% for Trump. This represents a strong favorability for Biden over Trump among the participants.
  • Biden’s performance was viewed the strongest among the participants, with 63% rating his performance as either very good, good or somewhat good. Forty-three percent of participants rated Trump’s performance as either very good, good or somewhat good.
  • Among the college students surveyed, 77% rated moderator Kristen Welker’s performance as either very good, good or somewhat good.
picture of Mitchell S. McKinney

Mitchell S. McKinney

Following the debate, participants were asked to rate both candidates on a “feeling thermometer” scale from 0-100. Overall evaluations of Biden rose by seven points and evaluations of Trump rose by three points. For Biden, almost all of his gains came from Democratic support. Biden’s score increased by 12 points among Democrats, but only increased by two points among independents and Republicans. Trump gained six points among Republicans and five points among independents.

Warner acknowledges while neither Trump nor Biden experienced a significant bump in evaluations from independents, the study’s small sample size of independents made it difficult to draw any major conclusions. Nevertheless, he said general gains made by Trump from his debate performance reflected an unusually low pre-debate evaluation. Meanwhile, Warner said Biden’s performance, in conjunction with his past debate performance, establishes him as one of the best-performing presidential or vice presidential debaters, based on data collected by the Political Communication Institute since 2000.

As a whole, last night’s presidential debate was more traditional in tone and less chaotic than the first debate of this election cycle, notes Mitchell S. McKinney, professor of communication and director of the Political Communication Institute.

“President Trump, who has typically been more aggressive on the stump and debate stage, seemed at times uncharacteristically tame in this exchange with Joe Biden,” McKinney said. “He was much more observant of the debate rules and was even respectful toward moderator Kristen Welker.”

McKinney observed Trump offered little to persuade people who are either undecided or not firmly committed to Biden to support him instead. At the same time, he also observed Trump was unable to throw Biden off message with his attacks on his son Hunter Biden’s business dealings.

“This less contentious debate seemed to favor Biden’s more reserved style, with Biden coming out of it with no major gaffe or blunder,” McKinney said. “This debate will not fundamentally change the dynamics of the race, which is what Donald Trump needed to do, and therefore Joe Biden can claim a win from last night’s debate encounter.”

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