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On Tuesday night, President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden faced off in the first of three scheduled presidential debates. Many Yale students tuned in — and were largely disappointed by what they saw. 

“At the end of the debate, Jake Tapper said ‘that was a hot mess, inside a dumpster fire, inside of a train wreck,’” wrote President of the Yale Debate Association Ellie Singer ’22 in an email to the News. “I do not disagree.”

Singer explained that from a critical standpoint, neither candidate was particularly impressive. She cited that formal debate has rules in the form of time constraints, speech structure and format expectations that “prevent the sort of yelling over and talking past each other” that occurred on debate night. She further elaborated that in debate, they are taught to respond to the best form of an opponent’s argument and to use reasoning instead of “ad hominem [attacks] and assertions.”

Singer added that she was not particularly impressed by either candidate. But she said that Biden appeared to be a better debater than Trump, mentioning that Biden was more respectful and based his arguments more on facts than on personal attacks.

In terms of how the two candidates could have improved, Singer responded that Biden could benefit from leaning less on clichés, which felt less persuasive to her than when he spoke naturally. For Trump’s part, she criticized his lack of substantive answers, his lack of decorum and his heavy reliance on buzzwords such as “radical left.” Although she understands how Trump’s incendiary debating style might be good at “getting some people fired up,” she does not think his performance was strong from a competitive debate perspective.

“It was more messy and divisive than informative and encouraging, and I see why a lot of viewers felt disheartened at the end,” Singer wrote.

Elections education coordinator for the Yale College Democrats Armin Thomas ’21 had a more certain opinion of which candidate can claim debate victory, stating that in his view, “Biden won, but it wasn’t a blowout.”

He explained that Trump’s interruptions and utilization of personal attacks on Biden reflected poorly on the President. As for what Biden could have improved on, Thomas would have liked to see the former Vice President more aggressively highlight the false claims Trump made as well as his failures as President, which Thomas acknowledged was difficult due to Trump’s tendency to interrupt.

Referring to Wallace’s attempt to keep order on the debate stage as the moderator, Thomas noted that “what happened last night is the expected result when you are debating a bully.” He explained that Trump’s behavior made Biden look even better.

As for whether he thought this debate would have any influence on the race, Thomas is unsure. He explained that for individuals who went into the debate knowing which candidate they supported, the debate probably did not change any opinions. But for undecided voters, Thomas thinks there is a possibility that Tuesday night’s performance had an impact.

“For an independent voter who is somewhat on the fence, if you are concerned about the problems in our country, Biden was the only one offering real solutions and problems,” Thomas wrote in an email to the News. “Even if you disagreed, he had them, whereas Trump mainly resorted to insults, disingenuous right-wing talking points and wacky conspiracy theories.”

Communications Director of Yale for Biden Nicholas Kidd ’24 believes that the debate will likely have little influence on the outcome of the election.

However, he emphasized that it may inspire voters to be proactive in making sure their vote is counted.

“The election is a referendum on Trump’s [four] years in office,” Kidd said. “Most people have their minds set. The main factors that will impact the vote are election watchers scaring people away from the polls and whether the post office will ensure that mail-in-voting goes smoothly. It is imperative that people make sure they are filling out all the steps for their mail-in-ballot.”

Cormac Thorpe ’25 is in his second gap year, and he is currently both a field organizer with the Florida Coordinated Campaign for Biden and the national coalitions director for Yale for Biden. He explained that Yale for Biden’s main purpose is to build a network both on campus and with other colleges to make sure Yalies turn out to vote for Biden as well as volunteer to reach out to voters across the country.

While Thorpe believes that Biden performed well in the debate, the main message he took away from Tuesday evening was the urgency of the upcoming election.

“The debate was a reminder of the importance of this election and the threat to democracy and the lives of millions of people that another four years poses,” Thorpe said.

But despite all of the attention that the debate garnered on campus, Aron Ravin ’24, who is currently petitioning to join some of the right-wing Yale Political Union parties, has found himself disappointed by the lack of substantive discourse about the debate on campus. For a campus that is supposed to be politically active, Ravin has found that the conversations he has heard about the debate have remained at the surface level, a result he thinks is rooted in people worrying about offending their peers.

Ravin was disappointed at both candidates’ performances, saying that both of them told lies and how neither of them truly communicated substantive policy positions. Ravin said that he believes that Biden is widely perceived to have won this debate — an opinion he thinks is fair but does not necessarily agree with. But Ravin believes this opinion is not based as much on Biden’s actual performance as it is on his performance relative to the expectations that were set for him as well as Trump’s performance. 

And similarly to Thorpe, Ravin’s main takeaway from the debate was the state of American politics and democracy. 

“It is a unique time that I get to live in, and the first election I get to vote in is one where we are worried about the integrity of the election and a peaceful transfer of power,” said Ravin. 

The presidential election will be held on Nov. 3.

Julia Bialek | julia.bialek@yale.edu