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What Biden and Trump were stressed about during their debate

Among stressors were personal attacks, elections and abortion

President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump were stressed by different topics during their June 27 debate, according to a Roll Call analysis.
President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump were stressed by different topics during their June 27 debate, according to a Roll Call analysis. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

ANALYSIS — The first presidential debate of 2024 spurred trouble for President Joe Biden’s re-election campaign, but despite his highly scrutinized performance, he appeared in control for most of the debate. 

A Roll Call StressLens analysis found Biden felt out of control of the situation for about 2.5 minutes out of the hour-and-a-half-long June 27 debate. According to the analysis, former President Donald Trump felt out of control less than Biden, accounting for 50 seconds of the debate.

The analysis captured the stress of each candidate during the debate compared to each of their average stress rates, which have been determined from more than 2,000 hours of audio and video of speeches and interviews from both the candidates. (See more in the methodology note below.)

Biden was most stressed when he talked about immigration and the border, energy, and engaged in personal attacks. Trump’s top stressors were elections, social issues — such as abortion — and energy. You can see the breakdown of their stress levels by topic in the graphic below. 

Foreign policy and the economy were the most-discussed topics in the debate. Biden and Trump’s personal attacks on each other came in third. Trump talked about those three topics for nearly 25 minutes, or about 61 percent of his 40-minute speaking time. Biden spoke for a little over 22 minutes on those topics, or about 63 percent of his 35 minutes of speaking time. 

According to the StressLens analysis, Biden was the most stressed during the debate when he noted that Trump’s former vice president, Mike Pence, had not endorsed him for president this time. He registered slightly more than three standard deviations above his average stress level in that attack. Throughout the debate, when Biden attacked Trump, he also registered less control.

Biden was also especially stressed when calling out Trump for saying that the people crossing the Southern border were criminals coming from prisons. He registered slightly more than 2.2 standard deviations from his average stress levels during that statement. 

“There’s no data to support what he said. Once again, he’s exaggerating. He’s lying,” Biden said. 

Trump’s stress spiked the most during the debate when he talked about passing cognitive tests and said, “I’m in very good health.” He registered nearly 1.6 standard deviations away from his average stress level during that statement.

Trump’s other top stressors centered around COVID-19, abortion, and elections, including when he answered that he would accept the result of the 2024 election if it is “a fair and legal and good election.” However, he was not as stressed when he discussed Jan. 6, 2021.

Biden was more comfortable when he talked about drugs and drug prices, Medicare, and when he defended his record while in office for the past three years.

Trump was most comfortable when he talked about foreign policy, especially Russia and Ukraine. He was also less stressed when he attacked Biden and his administration’s policies. 

A second debate between the two is scheduled for Sept. 10 on ABC News.

You can read the full transcript of the Atlanta debate on Roll Call

Methodology Note: The Roll Call StressLens analysis of the 2024 debate is based on more than 2,000 hours each of audio and video of Biden and Trump in multiple other settings, which enables detection of deviations associated with their individual physiological voice patterns. Over one standard deviation is evidence of a lack of perceived control by the speaker. The farther away the speaker is from their average stress rate means they feel more out of control.

Alex Angle is a Roll Call presidential campaign research fellow.