Will Lanzoni/CNN
Former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden debate at CNN's Atlanta studios on June 27, 2024.

Editor’s Note: Todd Graham is a professor of debate at Southern Illinois University. His teams have won five national championships; he’s been named the national debate coach of the year three times and been presented with the lifetime achievement award in academia and debate. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.

CNN  — 

In a presidential debate, I’m expecting to leave the event with more knowledge about future policymaking than when the debate began. In the first 2024 presidential debate in Atlanta on Thursday night, the performances of President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump failed to live up to that expectation.

Here’s how they scored on substance, presentation and overall performance.

Will Lanzoni/CNN
Former President Donald Trump's presentation fared better than his substance, says champion debate coach, Graham Todd.



The three most important aspects of a presidential debate are answering the questions presented to demonstrate the candidate’s mastery of the subject, avoiding misinformation or outright lies and laying out plans for the future. In that regard, Trump failed. The moderators’ questions often remained on screen while Trump was supposed to be addressing them, and he rarely answered them.

When asked if he supports an independent Palestinian state, Trump said: “I’d have to see.” And then he talked about the European economy, cars, agriculture and payments to NATO with different levels of honesty. I don’t know more about Trump’s position and solution to the war in Gaza than I did before the debate. And he did this with almost every question.

He also used his speaking time to go on tangents about off-topic issues. Often, Trump just spouted ridiculous hyperbole, sometimes to the point of lying.

Examples include Trump saying that foreign countries think we are stupid, our border is the most dangerous place in the world, we are allowing abortions after birth, we are an uncivilized country, the Afghanistan withdrawal was the most embarrassing moment in American history, our country is being destroyed, America is a failed state and a third world nation — and the list goes on. The boy who cried wolf can only be believed so many times.

Presentation: B+

This was by far the biggest factor in the debate. Trump handled his emotions better than in previous debates, didn’t get overly rude (other than calling Biden “Brandon,” but that seemed to go mostly unnoticed). Indeed, Trump was able to criticize Biden with humor when he said, “I really don’t know what he said at the end of that sentence. I don’t think he knows what he said either.” At one point Trump even chastised Biden by saying, “Let’s not act like children.”

Trump had good vocal quality and energy. While his answers may have strayed, his demeanor, presentation and style were miles better than Biden’s.

Finally, Trump’s presentation was focused on two voting issues: immigration and the economy. He covered his strongest issues by repeating them over and over. Repetition becomes persuasive when done enough, and Trump stayed on his strongest points, even if he wasn’t answering the questions at hand.

Overall Trump grade: F

You simply can’t lie in debates as often as Trump does if the activity is to be taken seriously.

Austin Steele/CNN
President Joe Biden struggled to deliver his message forcefully, argues Graham.


Substance: D

Biden’s answers were more on-point than Trump’s, but they weren’t great by any stretch. He lacked focus when answering the questions which generally left the audience at home with no takeaways. What do you remember about Biden’s answers in this debate? I’ve got nothing.

My goodness Biden’s skills have diminished since their last debate four years ago. He had no real strategy to win this debate as far as I can tell, and that came through in his answers.

On the topic of the national debt, Biden began his response fine, but then went too far into the weeds with numbers, and finished by saying something about Covid-19 and “we finally beat Medicare.” What?

Both Trump and Biden rambled, but each in a different style. Trump, used to public speeches and rallies, told stories that may or may not have been relevant or true. Biden’s lack of focus meant that he failed to clearly explain his accomplishments, and he didn’t sharply criticize Trump. If Biden wanted to prove Trump was a threat to democracy, he failed.

One reason for Biden’s poor content was that he was doing double duty. Biden had to both answer the question and answer all Trump’s attacks. Trump was using hyperbole and ‘Gish gallop’ (the tactic of throwing lots of arguments against the wall to see what sticks, truth be damned). On his own, Biden’s task was nearly impossible.

Answering all of Trump’s non sequiturs would require much more speaking time, because it takes more time to clean up a mess than to make one. And Biden didn’t help himself out by overextending his answers to the point of confusion. For example, in an unforced error, when asked about abortion, Biden brought up how an immigrant murdered someone, playing right into Trump’s hands.

Overall, he gets credit for answering the questions, even though they were hard to follow at times.

Presentation: F-

If Biden was going for the deer-in-headlights approach, he nailed it.

In countless interviews before the debate, I said the most important thing for Biden to do was avoid the two preconceived notions that his opponents have hammered him with: lacking energy and mental fitness. All related, of course, to his age.

Biden’s performance amplified these criticisms. His opening gate was slow – much slower than Trump’s. His speech patterns were unorganized and he lacked any real vocal strength. Plus, he appeared much older than Trump with his pale skin and his wide-eyed staring at either Trump or the moderators when they were speaking, which also made him seem confused. Biden wasn’t articulate and lacked sharp pronunciation. There were verbal stumbles, which is expected, but there weren’t any recovery periods.

It seems as if Biden lost his ability to emphasize some points over others with his vocal quality. There wasn’t any variety in his pitch, volume or speech rate. Everything sounded the same. Perhaps he was under the weather and, if so, the hoarse voice came at the worst possible time.

Or, maybe that’s just how he speaks, which clearly makes him sound quite old indeed.

In the end, all that matters is the impression the American public have of Biden, and this debate put an exclamation point on some of his harshest flaws.

Then there were stumbles, like when he said trillionaires instead of billionaires and Paris Peace Accord instead of the Paris Climate Accords. At one point, Biden confused Trump with Putin. At another point, Trump inserted on the topic of immigration that Biden didn’t even know what he was saying; it brought to the forefront what many people were thinking.

When asked about being president at his age, Biden answered by listing a few accomplishments. But this didn’t come close to being a good answer. I thought he’d be more prepared for this question, so when he didn’t nail it, it only reinforced the notion that Biden is too old — that it might be too late for him to right the ship.

This debate was Biden’s golden opportunity to wash away his critics. Instead, he gave them all they wanted and more.

Overall Biden grade: F

Playing into stereotypes and criticisms, Biden had a worse night than Trump. But neither would get my vote based on this debate.