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Side-by-side photos of UC Irvine political science professors Louis DeSipio and Tony Smith
Louis DeSipio (left), professor of political science and Chicano/Latino studies, and Tony Smith, professor of political science and law, analyze the first presidential debate of 2024 between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump and share their impressions of the candidates’ performances in the latest episode of The UCI Podcast. UCI School of Social Sciences

On Thursday, June 27, in Atlanta, President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump faced off in the first debate of the 2024 presidential election. The event marked the first debate in U.S. history between a sitting and former president and was the first time the presumptive nominees for their respective parties had been on a debate stage since 2020. Held months earlier than the usual tradition, it was also the first not coordinated by the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, bringing with it a new set of rules and guidelines. No studio audience was present for the 90-minute affair, which featured a pair of commercial breaks – another first. Candidates’ microphones were muted unless they were directed to speak by a moderator, and they were not allowed to bring any prewritten notes or props to their lecterns.

What debate moments stood out, what happened that wasn’t expected, and where do the campaigns go from here? These are some of the questions asked of UC Irvine political scientists Louis DeSipio and Tony Smith in this episode of The UCI Podcast.

“American Frontiers,” the music for this episode, was provided by Aaron Kenny via the audio library in YouTube Studio.

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The UCI Podcast/Cara Capuano:

From the University of California, Irvine, I’m Cara Capuano. Thank you for listening to The UCI podcast.

Our guests today are Louis DeSipio and Tony Smith. Louis DeSipio is a professor of political science and Chicano/Latino studies. His areas of expertise include U.S. electoral politics, and race and ethnic politics, with a primary focus on Latinx politics. He examines how democratic nations incorporate new members.

Tony Smith is a professor of political science and law. His research is grounded in human rights – in both the US and global frameworks – specifically looking at how law and legal institutions fulfill or inhibit rights.

Both of these political science experts had their keenly trained eyes focused on the presidential debate held on Thursday, June 27th, between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump. That debate is our topic on today’s UCI podcast.

We’re recording this conversation at 11:00 AM the morning after the debate aired live to the nation. Thank you both for joining us.

I’d like to begin with what you each saw as key takeaways. What are three elements about the debate that stood out to you? Professor DeSipio, please get us started.

Louis DeSipio:

The first one has to be the performance of President Biden, which disappointed his advisors, disappointed the nation and has led to calls that perhaps he’d be replaced on the Democratic ticket. That one’s going to go down in the history books as a fail and I think reinforces concerns that the electorate has about whether he’s up to serving for another four years.

I think a second key takeaway for me was President Trump’s continued reliance on “grievance politics.” His failure to answer questions, what fact-checkers have defined as at least 30 lies, his continual attacks on immigrants and their alleged responsibility for anything that’s going wrong with the country.

I think that suggests that he didn’t live up to a bar – or meet a bar – either, and that was the bar of whether he can, in a second presidential term, replace or improve on his performance in his first term.

I guess my third takeaway, in more of historical sense, is their open disrespect for each other. This is new in presidential politics, and I think a very dangerous turn for the country that you have the leaders of each party so openly disrespecting each other and diminishing each other in a way that we have, I think, never seen in a presidential debate before. So, not a good night for the country. Not a good night for President Biden. Not a good night for former President Trump.

Tony Smith:

So, let me quickly note that every single debate that Donald Trump has been in, he’s shown complete and utter contempt for his opponent. And that’s been reciprocated, but perhaps not as intensely. But his debate with Hillary Clinton was shocking. And now it no longer shocks us that that’s who he is.

So, my three takeaways are: one, both Biden and Trump are very old. Biden got most of the journalistic attention afterwards, but when people go back and watch the debate, they’re going to see Trump had “word salad” going on a lot. He didn’t answer questions. Sometimes he seemed to forget what the question was he was trying to address. And, generally speaking, his best answers were “noun, verb, immigrants are terrible people.” That was his answer to everything. So, childcare? “Immigrants are terrible people coming out of mental institutions.”

This sort of nonsense is just… he’s on a loop of nonsense. So, my big takeaway: one, they’re both old. Number two, Biden lost, but Trump didn’t win. I don’t believe he converted a single voter last night with what you can just call “buffoonery.” There was no substance to what he had to say.

Now, his hardcore folks, they have a cult-like devotion to the man, and they don’t really care much about his policies because there aren’t really articulable policies other than he doesn’t like immigrants or people who aren’t white. That seems to be a recurring thing. He seems to not be too upset about Nazis. It’s a really bizarre roster of beliefs that he’s got.

So, then my third takeaway, really the second one being Trump didn’t convert anybody. The third takeaway is for all Biden’s faults, if you read this debate, generally speaking, you’re going to say he is on the policy space that a majority of Americans are in.

He wants NATO – the longest, most effective defensive organization that’s ever existed in humankind – he wants NATO to thrive. He wants women to be in charge of their healthcare. He wants people to have jobs. You know, if you read it instead of just watching the performance, I think Biden is right where the American public is, at least at a majority spot.

But I’ll tell you, I don’t think this debate fundamentally changes the race. I think “Trumpers” are still “Trumpers.” People that were going to vote democratic, no matter who the nominee was, are still going to vote Democratic. And the people that dislike them both may just decide not to vote or might vote for one of these wing nutty third party people.


Professor Smith, let’s start this next question with you. Was there something that you expected to see play out in the presidential debate that didn’t happen?


Yeah, I, actually thought that CNN would perform some slight modicum of journalism. They could have had Drew Carey host this thing, the guy that does “Let’s Make a Deal.” They could have had Ryan Seacrest host it, for all of the value that Dana Bash and Jake Tapper brought to it.

It’s remarkable that journalism has fallen to a point where they sort of shrug their shoulders. They go, “Well, everybody knows Trump lies. Everybody knows none of this stuff is true.” And instead of like, pushing back at all or having any serious follow up questions, they just sort of let him roll.

And then the post-debate discussion never really went deeper than “Is Biden old?” It was remarkable to me, the absence of journalistic accountability for both candidates – because Biden said a couple things that weren’t true as well, but it’s like speeding at 58 miles an hour versus 158 miles an hour. So, that was my big surprise is CNN just sort of could have been anyone.


What I expected to see a little of and didn’t was a vision for the future. In past debates, candidates who have been able to articulate a positive and hopeful vision for the nation’s future have done well and neither candidate was able to articulate that. I think that’s a particular failing of President Biden’s performance because I think he does have that vision.

I agree with Professor Smith on the absence of fact checking. You know, everybody sort of expected that because former President Trump’s mic was muted, he wouldn’t have the sort of advantage that he had in some of the previous debates. He had that because he could just say whatever he wanted, and repeat lies about immigrants. And that was satisfactory for his immediate audience, you know, the hosts of the debate.

The moderators also did a very poor job of enforcing the requirement that the candidates answer the questions that they were asked. Both tended to be answering the previous question with some criticism of their opponent rather than answering the current question.

And some of the sort of later questions were the fundamentally important ones for the nation. President Trump never answered whether he would accept the outcome of the election and I think we know from past experience what his true feeling about that is.


Yeah, I agree with Professor DeSipio 100% on that. And Jake Tapper actually said at one point to Trump, “Well, I’m going to ask my question, then you can say whatever you want.” This isn’t journalism. It’s giving any man a microphone. It’s not really doing their job. They’re dropping the ball because they want ratings, I guess.


As a viewer – and I watched with my parents, so we were a viewing party of three – that really stood out to us. Are they going to answer the questions that they were asked? It was flummoxing.

You already mentioned it, but because of the advanced age of these two candidates, it was a very unique piece that the pundits were watching in this debate: the question of how “fit” is each man to lead the nation for the next four years. CNN touched on it a lot in their post-debate analysis, but what impressions did the candidates make to each of you in that particular category, starting with you, Professor DeSipio?


Well, I think serious questions were raised about President Biden. Now his campaign team is saying he has a cold and that explained his raspy voice. His gait has been different for several years and explanations have been offered for that. But he did not present himself as somebody that will be vital for the next four years.

This has led to calls among Democratic pundits and the “unnamed officials of Washington” that the Democrats should look for another candidate. I don’t know how that happens practically.

First of all, President Biden would have to make a decision, which I think he’s very unwilling to do. He’s indicated his commitment to this candidacy in many, many ways. Secondly, it’s too late. The primaries are already over. There isn’t a process by which people could select the next Democratic nominee and there would not be agreement.

I can assure you there isn’t sort of some, you know, elder like… well, Walter Mondale comes to mind because he was slotted into a Senate race in Minnesota at the last minute and lost – and that’s probably the problem. So, you know, there isn’t really a way that candidates who might want to replace President Biden – were he to step aside, which, as I say, I don’t think is going to happen – would be able to prove themselves as being viable contenders for the presidency.

And we’ve seen how important that is. In the current race Governor DeSantis was seen as a possible competitor to President Trump. And he proved to just be a horrible campaigner. And that’s important to know.

Vice President Harris, who might be a logical replacement for President Biden, were something to happen, didn’t prove herself to be very successful in the 2020 race. So, the Democrats are in a very difficult position now, and one that I don’t think President Biden is going to make any easier by stepping aside.


Yeah, I, agree with that. But the other thing is that, you know, on the one hand you say, “Okay, Biden’s very old. He’s very old.” And then we turn over to Trump, who’s also very old, and doesn’t understand anything about anything. His comments about the economy – a freshman would know more after taking their first econ class.

His comments about national defense are laughably stupid. I mean, they’re stupid. I don’t use that word lightly, but the idea that the minute he’s elected, he will end the Russian War? The only way he would do that is to start giving weapons to Russia instead of Ukraine. And we would in two weeks have World War III going on in Europe. The shocking lack of fitness from a substantive standpoint for Trump on any issue, as he showed when he was in office before, in my view, and continues to show in this discussion – you stand next to the guy who’s old but knows how government works.

It’s really a dilemma that we ended up with these two as the party. There are people in both parties wishing they had different candidates. Now, again, the “MAGA Nation,” they love Trump. When he says he could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue, he means it, and they mean it. They don’t care. They don’t care. You know, it’s a cult-like devotion to the man.

With Democrats, it’s a coalition that are devoted to certain specific principles that may disagree about at the margin. But in general, they like the principles. The Republicans who have specific principles that unite them are holding their noses and voting for Trump. So, there are just as many people on the Republican side who wish they had a different candidate as on the Democratic side, I think.

When you say, “We’re going to impose a bunch of tariffs and Americans are not going to have to pay for this,” this is just such a profoundly ignorant understanding of how tariffs work, how basic economics work, that this should not be somebody in charge of making these decisions. You know, on the upside though, I don’t think he actually believes any policy, really. I think he says what he thinks works at the moment.

In the debate, he said, “Oh, abortion, everybody wants it left up to the states. It should be left up to the states.” And then he specifically criticized a mischaracterization of the law in Virginia. So, it’s left up to the states as long as the states are doing what conservative Republicans want them to do, but then the federal government will step in.

So, what I hope is, at the end of the day, it’s which policy roster are you voting for? And that’s what carries the election. But I don’t know if Americans want to vote like that.


With this big conversation – this first conversation on the national stage – behind them, what’s next for the candidates and where do their campaigns go from here?


I think the Trump campaign will double down on “Biden is a doddering old fool that can’t be trusted and you’re really going to be electing Kamala Harris.” They will continue to mispronounce her name, darken her skin in photographs, and do, you know, all sorts of things like that.

But here’s the thing, their candidate – Trump – will not be able to tolerate the campaign being about Biden. So, it will have to recenter on Trump as well. And he will just say these things: “It’s the greatest thing ever. I’m the greatest golfer ever. I…” You know, just constant stuff.

What the Biden campaign needs to do… I don’t know if you all saw where he went to his rally in Atlanta, and then he went to the Waffle House afterwards? Where was that guy during the debate? He was, you know, speaking almost in a normal voice. It was still raspy, but it wasn’t weak and anemic. It’s possible he over-prepared for the debate and then didn’t have everything memorized the way like he thought he did.

But what they have to do with him is put him out with real voters, have him talking, have him on stage, have him making jokes. He’s a very funny guy. He’s sarcastic, but, you know, his humor comes across. His empathy and humor need to come across and they need to show him doing things – eating ice cream cones with people in Ohio and wearing a hard hat in Pennsylvania. You know, not other kinds of hats – as Mike Dukakis found out – but, you know, you’ve got to be careful with hats. [chuckles] But, I think that’s what they’ve got to do. And they’ve got to focus on the swing states. And if I were Biden, every other sentence would be “Noun, verb, abortion. Noun, verb, abortion.” Don’t let voters forget what’s actually at stake.

And while this is going on, the Supreme Court has eviscerated the administrative state with the Chevron decision. And the Idaho Supreme Court just approved, narrowly, a six-week abortion ban. Most women don’t know if they’re pregnant and within six weeks. So, we are quickly moving in a very dangerous direction that is being obscured because “Biden is old.” [laughs] 


This is the stage where the campaigns take over and I think the indications are that the Biden campaign has some strengths. It’s doing some field work. It’s committed to resurrecting parts of the Obama ground game – and that’s a good way of turning people out, which it didn’t do at all because of Covid. So, the opportunity is for the Biden campaign – particularly in those swing states that are ultimately going to determine the election – to give a message about Joe Biden that will reinforce what Professor Smith has suggested, which is Joe Biden speaking to people and being on the campaign trail. The Trump campaign hasn’t indicated that it has those kinds of resources or is interested in those kinds of resources and has fired a lot of the people that used to do that for Republicans nationally.

So, the opportunity is there for the Democrats. The challenge is that they’re shellshocked right now. And that may slow some volunteers. It may slow money coming into the campaign, though both campaigns are doing pretty well. And that’s a problem that the Democrats face. So, they need to pretty quickly give a clear indication that President Biden will be running for reelection, and he has to be out on the campaign trail to bring that sort of campaign infrastructure back into place.

This election will likely be determined by a handful of thousands of votes in six or maybe seven states, probably six. The energy that has to be put into those efforts in the volunteers that are needed, and the paid staff that are needed, those all need to be in place now or over the next month or so. And so, it’s a critical time. The Biden campaign needs to overcome last night, in a way that would’ve been much easier had President Biden’s performance been a little bit stronger.


Professor DeSipio, I listened to some comments that you made looking ahead to the debate. And one of the things that you said that really stood out for me as a voter, that there was an education value potentially in the debate for those who weren’t really committed to who they were backing. And also, an energy value for people that were committed: “Oh, my candidate did great. I’ve got energy behind it now.” Were either of those met after last night’s debate?


Well, certainly the energy value is the one that’s lacking because all of this doubt about what’s going to happen with the campaign puts Biden supporters – not the people that will turn out in November, but the people that will do work now – in a little bit of a gap, and then he’ll lose some of the local elected officials that he’ll need, temporarily. So, that’s why there has to be a clear message now that this campaign is going forward, and this is what we stand for. And running against the Supreme Court –including abortion, but not just abortion – I think is an important way to go right now.

Former President Trump really just spoke to his supporters last night and gave them the sort of message that’s been working since 2015. He said nothing that brought in – that energized –you know, new participants and he needs some new participants because he’s on the razor’s edge in these six states. He cannot win with just the people that voted for him in, well, in 2020, certainly. But he can’t even win with the people that voted for him in 2016. So, he needs to find a way of playing to his own ego because he can’t avoid that. But also creating an infrastructure to get new people into the process. His target includes younger voters – they’re the least likely to vote. Minority voters, they tend to vote at lower levels and tend to be younger themselves. He cannot win just with a core of sort of older rural voters, which is the base of the MAGA Nation.


So, my follow up on that is that one of the things that the press is kind of overlooking is that in all of the swing states, the polling – I believe in all of the swing states – the polling is showing the Democratic Senate candidate with a comfortable lead over the Republican challengers. Why that matters is the Senate polling at this point in time is a more accurate poll than the presidential polls and there’s complex reasons for that that we won’t get into. But basically, right now the presidential polling is pretty junky, and they’re trying to fix their last couple of mistakes, which undercounted Trump supporters. But things have changed. So now you’ve got younger voters won’t answer their phone if it’s a phone call – they text each other and they message each other. They don’t talk on the phone.

And so, when you see, “35% of our sample came from cell phones,” well, the young people that are answering their cell phones are not in any way representative of the young people that will actually be voting. So, they’re likely to be more conservative, all this kind of stuff. So, the polling right now is pretty junky, I think.

I think it’s safe to say, in general, “This is going to be a really close race.” But when you look at the polling that isn’t as junky, which is about the senators, it’s hard to see Biden the prohibitive loser of Arizona when [Ruben] Gallego is solidly beating Kari Lake in literally every poll. So, if the presidents are within the margin of error and the senators are not, what that suggests to me is that there’s something wrong with the presidential level polling. And they’re not even doing likely voter models yet, they’re still doing registered voters. And so, we’ll see what happens.

The Republicans have switched their messaging on mail-in ballots. Now they’re trying to get people to mail in, but then Trump can’t help himself. You know, every rally he ends up complaining about mail-in ballots being fraudulent and all this sort of stuff. None of … again, none of it’s true. But I’m not sure how that plays out. So, in Arizona, will fewer people mail in ballots who are Republicans because Trump’s telling them not to do that? I don’t know.

I’m not sure this is the disaster that journalism paints it as, because if you look deeper, the race looks close. It’s look like it’s been close. And I don’t know if in the history of debates, other than the Kennedy-Nixon debates, any single debate has actually mattered. Show me the debate where somebody would’ve won, but for their bad debate performance.

And we’ve had both winners and losers with bad debate performances. Obama’s first debate was terrible. Every debate Dukakis was in was terrible. Every debate George Bush the first was in was terrible. George Bush the second’s debates were, eh, you know, not great, not terrible. So, you know, I don’t know. And Trump’s never had a good debate. His stalking Hillary Clinton on stage and sniffing every 30 seconds, like he’d been taking Ritalin up the nose or something, was just weird. It was just weird. So, I don’t know, I’m not sure. A week from now we may be talking about something else, COVID outbreak or the Gaza War, or Macron losing in France, or who knows?


Is there anything that we didn’t get to today that either of you wanted to talk about?


Well, let me echo Professor Smith’s observations about the Supreme Court. Had the debate not gone on, I think we’d be paying a lot of attention to the rulings this week and apparently into early next week.

I guess the second one that I just find offensive and needs to be called out is former President Trump’s continued denigration of immigrants. It’s a riff that works for him in his mind. He uses a figure that doesn’t exist – “17 million.” He talks about luxury hotels. He talks about social security failing because of immigrants. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

We have to, as a nation of immigrants, recognize that the immigrants in today’s society – some are here legally, some are here without authorization – but they’re all here because of U.S. policy. They’re here because of failures of Congress and successes of Congress, not because of some massive conspiracy to empty prisons and insane asylums throughout the world and sent them to Brownsville.


Louis is exactly right. This is just made-up nonsense. And either Jake Tapper or Dana Bash should have said, “You know, former President Trump, we all know all of your wives have been immigrants. When did you decide that you don’t like immigrants? Or is it just the non-white ones you don’t like? Do you have any evidence that any country has emptied out an insane asylum and sent their immigrants here?” And the answer is no. Of course not. You find me in insane asylum in Nicaragua. They don’t exist. And we have people fleeing Nicaragua and El Salvador because of policy the Reagan administration implemented that screwed up their politics, and it’s never been fixed. And if we really want to solve the border, first pass the Border Bill that was a bipartisan bill that Trump made the House not pass.

And secondly, let’s get some gun control. Close all of the loopholes for gun shows, and it will stop the guns going into Central America that caused the drug conflicts that cause the immigrants. So, we can do those things, but they’re not going to. Trump is not going to ever support a gun control law. So, you know, we can fix these things. We can make these things happen. But Louis is exactly right. The people who demonize a subset of the population are never the good guys in history. They’re always the bad guys, in hindsight.


Thank you both so much for joining us, Professor Smith and Professor DeSipio. I feel like a lot of the things that you especially just shared could lead to another three or four episodes of The UCI Podcast. And I just want to appreciate you being able to really drill down and help give us some thoughts on what we saw from the first presidential debate.


Delighted to be with you both. Thank you.


I’m Cara Capuano. Thank you for listening to our conversation. For the latest UC Irvine news, please visit The UCI Podcast is a production of Strategic Communications and Public Affairs at the University of California, Irvine. Please subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts.