As recently as early September, national polling found that a plurality of Americans expected Donald Trump to win this year's debates. That was probably because the president and his allies persuaded a lot of folks that Joe Biden couldn't speak in complete sentences, and would be bulldozed by the Republican incumbent.
As the dust settles on the 2020 debate process, the evidence suggests public expectations were mistaken.
Joe Biden did a better job in the final debate on Thursday, according to a CNN Instant Poll of debate watchers. Overall, 53% of voters who watched the debate said that Biden won the matchup, while 39% said that President Donald Trump did.... All told, though, the debate did not do much to move impressions of either candidate. Favorable views of Biden before the debate stood at 55%, and they held steady at 56% in post-debate interviews. Likewise, Trump's numbers held steady, with 42% saying they had a favorable view of the President in interviews conducted before Thursday's debate and 41% saying the same afterward.
To be sure, the polling from the first presidential debate looked even worse for Trump, but given the state of the race, "The president lost by a smaller margin" isn't the headline the incumbent needs to see right now.
That said, I'll reiterate the words of caution from last month: we know from previous cycles that public attitudes on the debates are often shaped by coverage and the discourse, and initial reactions don't always capture sustained national impressions.
For that matter, post-debate reactions are often disconnected from election results: initial polling found Hillary Clinton winning each of her three 2016 debates, just as John Kerry excelled in each of his 2004 debates. Neither won the presidency.
But given how few days remain before Election Day, and the evidence that Trump is trailing in ways incumbent presidents rarely do, last night might very well have been the Republican's last chance to make significant gains. There's little to suggest that happened.