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Who did better in the final presidential debate? Most say both Biden and Trump improved

UPDATED: Fri., Oct. 23, 2020

By Jim Camden and Laurel Demkovich The Spokesman-Review

President Donald Trump was more focused. Former Vice President Joe Biden was a bit folksy. Their second debate, with stricter rules that prevented them from interrupting each other when key questions were asked, may have had more substance than the first debate, a panel of observers who graded the candidates for The Spokesman-Review said after the 90-minute session ended. But with so many votes already cast, and so few voters left to persuade, it might not make a difference. Here’s how our panelists, who watched the debate individually from their homes, graded the debaters and viewed some of their best and worst moments.


Cornell Clayton, director of the Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service at Washington State University:

Grade for Trump: B He did a fair job at making a case for a second term, was civil and behaved himself. But he didn’t do a great job of explaining his policy goals or convincing people that the COVID-19 pandemic is over.

Grade for Biden: B He was pretty effective in prosecuting his case against Trump, didn’t have any major slip-ups, but had some stumbling throughout.

Best moment for Trump: When he discussed criminal justice reform and Biden’s failure to do anything significant on reforming criminal justice.

Worst moment for Trump: He failed to answer questions about his taxes and his response to COVID-19 effectively.

Best moment for Biden: His attack on Trump’s response to COVID-19, saying, “We’re learning to die with it.”

Worst moment for Biden: He lost his train of thought when talking about China trade and tariffs.

The big takeaway from the third debate: It didn’t change anything in campaigns, especially given the large number of people who have voted early.


Blaine Garvin, tenured professor of political science with 49 years at Gonzaga University:

Grade for Trump: B- He managed not to make an idiot out of himself with interruptions, was effective from time to time and seemed to remember, although some of it was not true.

Grade for Biden: A-/B+ On substance, he was very good with a command of the data, but doesn’t do well when rushed. He’s not a great orator.

Best moment for Trump: He managed to sound plausible a good deal of the time instead of just going off on tangents.

Worst moment for Trump: The stuff about Hunter Biden and corruption is not helpful, and his answers about race and saying he’s so wonderful to Black people.

Best moment for Biden: His response about energy near the end of the debate, making clear that saving the planet is important.

Worst moment for Biden: Suddenly looking away from Trump and toward the camera. I find that distracting, and it looks artificial.

The big takeaway from the third debate: It doesn’t matter. We’re polarized and people are strongly attached to their choices by now.


Alex Hays, principal at AB Hays consulting firm, previously with Mainstream Republicans and the Washington State Republican Party:

Grade for Trump: C+ His self-discipline was better, and managed to stay within the structure, which helped him land his critique and get people questioning Biden’s 47-year record.

Grade for Biden: C He interrupted more, got off message at times and didn’t keep his act together.

Best moment for Trump: He offered a more reasonable description of COVID-19 and described his experience with the virus.

Worst moment for Trump: When he talked about how 1% of the people who show up for their immigration hearings are the ones with low IQs.

Best moment for Biden: Reminding people that he’s not Donald Trump.

Worst moment for Biden: His assertion that the economic downturn from the shutdown would have been magically better under him. All countries with shutdowns have massive economic costs.

The big takeaway from the third debate: With the president significantly behind, he was trying to appeal to more Black voters while Biden was trying to appeal to working-class white voters. The numbers in those two groups favor Biden.


Barbara Marney, longtime political activist and campaign worker for Democratic and nonpartisan candidates in Spokane: Grade for Trump: C He never really answered any of the questions, although neither answered as well as they could.

Grade for Biden: B+ He showed he has a political philosophy grounded in the understanding of how our government works.

Best moment for Trump: When he said the virus wasn’t his fault and it wasn’t Biden’s fault.

Worst moment for Trump: Saying “I am the least racist person in the room” and comparing himself to Abe Lincoln.

Best moment for Biden: When he spoke passionately about being a president for every state, red or blue.

Worst moment for Biden: The “Come on!” when concluding a point or refuting an allegation. It might work for arguments at the dinner table but not at this level, so drop it, Joe.

The big takeaway from the third debate: A toned-down Trump performance with a wide range of unfounded allegations, but without answering the questions. Biden wanted to score points but would have been better served to answer the questions directly and leave the refuting to the pundits.


Jennyfer Mesa, activist, co-founder of a grassroots Latino support organization:

Grade for Trump: F He had no plan, no course of action. He only praised himself. There’s no governing.

Grade for Biden: B He was too focused on keeping calm from the last debate. He was too calm on certain topics. He should’ve kept the president more accountable for what he’s done over the last four years.

Best moment for Trump: He kept revealing what a narcissist he is.

Worst moment for Trump: He showed no remorse for the 500 children who are separated from their parents at the border, and they can’t be reunited with them. The only thing he did was blame the children and use racist remarks.

Best moment for Biden: When he was on defense for Obamacare, he was quick to point out that Trump had no plan. He provided a plan and fact-checked Trump.

Worst moment for Biden: He had to acknowledge that the Obama administration had a high deportation rate.

The big takeaway from the third debate: There is still hope to return to decency.


Todd Mielke, former GOP legislator and county commissioner, former chief executive officer for GSI:

Grade for Trump: B+ He had more decorum and seemed much more presidential than the first debate.

Grade for Biden: B+ He was more focused and energized than previous appearances.

Best moment for Trump: He continuously pointed out Biden’s failure to enact change while he was vice president.

Worst moment for Trump: He didn’t do well answering the question of reunification of families. He wanted to get some zingers in but failed to answer the question.

Best moment for Biden: He continuously mentioned the unification of the country, which is a strong statement as many see the country as deeply divided.

Worst moment for Biden: Not a specific moment, but he contradicted himself a few times, specifically when talking about coronavirus and minimum wage.

The big takeaway from the third debate: This debate was far more informative than others but might not do much to sway undecided voters.

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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