President Donald Trump will come into tonight’s presidential debate against former Vice President Joe Biden on a major losing streak: He still hasn’t won a single general election debate for president.
While Trump declared victory after each of his three debates with Hillary Clinton in the fall of 2016, the data makes clear that the public disagreed with his assessment.
As CNN’s Harry Enten noted Tuesday morning – using polling data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research – the “best” Trump did in 2016 was in the second debate when 32% of people said he won, according to a Washington Post/ABC poll.
The worst debate for Trump, according to the polls? Yup, the first one – where just 24% of people said he had won in a CNN-ORC poll.
And yet, Trump beat Clinton and became the 45th president. What gives? Well, the exit polls from 2016 provide some guidance.
Among the two-thirds of voters who said the debates were an “important” factor in their vote, Clinton beat Trump 50% to 46%. (That result confirms that Trump was seen as having lost the debate – although maybe not as badly as polls conducted soon after the event seemed to suggest.)
But among the 3 in 10 voters who said the debates were not an important factor in their vote, Trump crushed Clinton by 17 points.
So the debates did matter but, at least for Clinton they didn’t matter enough. Or, put another way, her performance in the debates didn’t do enough to change peoples’ minds about Trump (or her).
The glaring difference between that race and this one, of course, if that Biden enters tonight’s first debate with a far-wider lead over Trump – both nationally and in swing states – than Clinton ever had.
The Point: Debates matter. But they aren’t necessarily determinative of the final result.