Televised debates have become a fixture of US presidential election campaigns ever since the first pitched John F Kennedy against Richard Nixon in 1960. It was said afterwards that those listening on the radio thought the Republican had won, while those watching gave the bout to the Democrat who would go on to win the White House. Projecting an impression of who you are is the whole point of these encounters.
What are voters supposed to make of the two candidates who contested the first unedifying debate ahead of the US election on November 3? Familiar character traits were on display. President Trump was bombastic, argumentative and downright insulting, while Joe Biden floundered in the face of an onslaught that nimbler politicians might have used to their advantage. The best he could manage was to tell his opponent to “shut up”, a burst of exasperation that Mr Trump’s constant interruptions seemed deliberately designed to achieve. For his part, Mr Biden, vice president under Barack Obama, sought to address voters directly, looking into the camera, rather than engaging with a man he called a “clown”.
Surveys afterwards suggested that a slight majority of an estimated 100 million viewers thought the Democratic challenger had won, but that reflects the state of the polls. Just as in 2016, Mr Trump is lagging behind, but this is no indication of what might happen on the day.
After his four years in the White House, most people have made up their minds about Mr Trump. The election battle is for a small group of undecided voters in a handful of swing states that Mr Biden needs to take back. He will need a better performance than this to do so.