SOUTH BEND — So often in a political debate, it’s not something said on issues, the actual words, that has the most impact with voters. It’s how a candidate looks and acts while saying it. Thus it was that the first presidential debate, although ridiculed as a train wreck, a miserable mess, and justifiably so, was a campaign event with potential impact on the presidential election.

While analysts focus now on what President Trump said about the Proud Boys and what former Vice President Joe Biden didn’t say about expanding the Supreme Court, most of the millions viewing the debate focused on neither. Most never had heard of the Proud Boys and didn’t hear the reference amid the chaotic exchanges of three people talking at the same time. Most weren’t waiting anxiously to hear about the number of justices.

Trump lost an opportunity to gain support he desperately needs to catch up when he looked so angry, so red-faced, as he acted in such a bullying way, shouting over efforts of Biden and moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News to be heard. It wasn’t what he said  that was rambling, hard for viewers to follow. It was how he said it as he raged at Biden and Wallace.

Biden won in all the significant polls right after the debate, not because of great debating skill, which he lacks, or the words he said, hard-to-hear words as Trump interrupted constantly.

Biden looked more likeable. He smiled amidst the vicious attack, an attack designed to make him blow up in anger. He smiled. Often. Smiled instead of crumbling, cringing or cowering under attack.

Also, and this was very, very important, Biden looked at the camera, looking out at and speaking directly to the vast viewing audience in America, seldom turning to face Trump or Wallace. Trump glared in an intimating way at Biden or Wallace, not looking out to connect with his audience in homes all over the country.

Looking at the right camera is a standard rule for a televised debate. If Trump had prepared for the debate, he would have understood. Biden, who prepared, knew to look at the camera, not at the bully.

Did the debate decide the election? Of course not. Most voters viewing the debate in this sharply divided land already had decided on their presidential choice. Not many remain undecided.

Trump didn’t lose support in his solid base. The base enjoyed that he threw everything but the kitchen sink at Biden. If he had brought in and actually thrown a sink at Biden during the debate, even that wouldn’t have diminished Trump base fervor.

If Biden had blundered that he was happy “to be here at Notre Dame for this debate,” not knowing where he was wouldn’t have cost him support from voters solidly for him as the alternative to Trump.

Still, there are some undecided voters, undecided about a choice, perhaps undecided about whether even to vote. Not many. But in an election that could be close in the key states, the decisive states, the precious few could make the difference.

Whether the debate – and now the debate over the debate in news coverage and in social media – will have much lasting impact is uncertain. The resulting disputing over whether the president is proud of the Proud Boys standing by to help with election returns could linger.

There will be many other events before Nov. 3. Who knows what final surprises loom ahead? Polls, pundits and professors who judge college debates all found that Hillary Clinton won the 2016 debates with Trump. She won the debates. He won Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Biden’s debate win won’t be long remembered if he also comes up short in the key states. 

Colwell covers Indiana politics for the South Bend Tribune.