Home Election 2020 The Counter Opinion: Presidential debate reflections

The Counter Opinion: Presidential debate reflections

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The first presidential debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden occurred on Tuesday, Sept. 29. We asked our opinion writers about the winner and the loser, memorable points, the moderator and polling numbers. Contributing are Maddie Kramer, a senior political science major, Charlotte Caldwell, a junior journalism major, Aya Cathey, a freshman journalism major, Justin Thompson, a senior journalism major and Bryce Hoehn, a senior political science major.

Please note that these views and opinions do not reflect those of The New Political.

Which candidate was the winner of the debate?

Maddie: While there usually is a candidate that rises above throughout the debate, I would argue that neither Trump nor Biden proved to be better than the other. Biden had powerful soundbites that left the audience surprised — namely telling Trump to “shush” and “shut up, man.” Policy-wise, neither Trump nor Biden seemed to be able to rise above the interruptions to convey a clear message to the American people. 

Charlotte: Neither candidate got any new points across that have not already been discussed before, so there were no winners or losers. However, Biden made it a point to address the American people as much as he could and appeal to a specific audience, so he became a clear winner in that regard. For example, Biden called out Trump for his statement that “it is what it is” with COVID-19 and how Trump knew about how bad the pandemic would become in February. He then appealed to viewers when he asked about how many people have lost family members to the virus and how many have had to be isolated from family. The discussion about coronavirus affects both sides of the political spectrum, and when Trump had little to say to defend his actions on it, Biden prevailed and used it to his advantage.

Aya: As Maddie mentioned, I, too, do not believe there was a clear winner of the debate. It was clear both candidates had a plan coming into the debates, but each was unprepared for his opponent’s response. Trump’s strategy appeared to be to interrupt Biden at any moment he could and ignore the moderator’s instructions so that he could fill more time. Biden seemed focused on staying on topic and remaining true to his plan while also avoiding being outspoken or distracted by Trump. Both candidates made false and partially accurate claims, but it was clear Trump lied much more often.

Justin: This was the worst Saturday Night Live skit I have ever seen. No one won. Trump, Biden, decency and truth lost. Lies, misinformation, blustering and bickering prevailed. It was two hours devoid of substance, lacking specifics and filled with petty disputes. One unanswerable question stayed on my mind throughout: “This is the best we have to offer?” But, if there were a trophy on the line, Biden claimed it narrowly, simply because he is ahead — by a steadily decreasing margin — in the polls. 

Trump needed a clear-cut victory to reclaim some much-needed momentum and swing undecided voters his way. He didn’t do that. Biden was borderline incoherent, consistently indecisive and chronically unprepared, but he came into the debate ahead in the horse race. He might not have widened his gap on Trump, but he managed to hold his mental faculties together well enough to maintain good standing among undecided voters. Trump needed to win, but Biden could afford to settle for a tie. And that’s exactly what we got; a pathetic, embarrassing tie.

Bryce: I was absolutely appalled by Trump and his debate tactics, but they are unfortunately extremely effective in this debate format. Trump has a base of voters who will believe anything he says and write off anything contrary to his statements as fake news. They also clearly have no regard for his actions considering their support of him after incalculable political scandals including impeachment. This allows him to lie and talk over Biden throughout the entire debate, and while Wallace tried telling him to stop numerous times, there were no consequences for this behavior. Anyone who has been leaning towards Trump before tonight is not going to have their opinions changed by this debate. On the other hand, while I believe Biden tried to remain civil and brought up important topics, to some undecided voters he may have looked like a pushover because of his relative civility in the face of Trump’s constant interruptions. 

One thing I do not see mentioned often is that Trump’s attacks comparing Biden to Bernie Sanders may look stupid, but they are extremely effective. When Biden is attacked on Medicare for All or the Green New Deal, his defense is always that he does not support these policies. But these policies are incredibly popular among voters. Medicare for All has a 69% approval rating, which includes 88% of Democrats, 68% of independents, and even 46% among Republicans! Anecdotally, as a volunteer for the Bernie campaign, I frequently ran into people who made statements along the lines of “I support Medicare for All, but I think Biden is a more realistic path to achieving it.” These types of voters may be disappointed to learn that Biden has no interest in this proposal. Likewise, the Green New Deal has a 59% approval rate, which includes 87% of Democrats, 60% of independents, and 29% of Republicans. These attacks make Biden simultaneously lose support from the right who view these policies as extreme, and from the left who are strongly in favor of these policies. Biden also had a line where he said that he does not support defunding the police, but that Trump does. Defunding the police is unpopular overall, but has recently become a rallying cry for Black Lives Matter protesters. Between this statement and Biden’s lack of support for other left-wing policies, I could easily see him losing some voters from the left.

Overall, I would say if we are defining winning as who gained the most voters, or more appropriately who lost the least, I would say that Trump won — however, the methods used to achieve this victory should be disqualifying, and it is a national embarrassment that our debate structure allows for this behavior.

What was the most memorable point made for both candidates?

Maddie: Trump repeatedly brought up Biden’s 47 years of experience — or inexperience, as he would argue — using it as evidence that Biden has not completed anything substantial. Trump saying he has completed more in his “47 months” versus Biden’s 47 years would definitely resonate with his base. Other than the unexpected ferociousness from Biden, his response regarding climate change and his plan, which he simply calls “the Biden plan” to separate from the Green New Deal, also proved memorable. Biden’s solid plan juxtaposed Trump’s request for better forest management to quell the California fires. 

Charlotte: Biden’s response to police brutality and protests across the country made it clear what he supports and what he is against, contrary to the false claims on the internet. Biden said that violence is never appropriate in the situation the U.S. is facing currently, but peaceful protest is always the answer. It seems that the most widely-held belief is that Biden has been “hiding in his basement” for months and has not spoken out against the racial situation in the country, but, in fact, he started publicly condemning violence after the death of George Floyd in May. He also said that he was completely against defunding the police and to fix the situation, he would have a committee of law enforcement come to the White House to come up with a better plan. He also wants a third party to accompany police officers to talk down the suspect.

Trump’s biggest moment occurred when he stated that he is encouraging his base to be “poll watchers,” which means that they should watch poll workers to make sure that the ballots are not tampered with. Per usual, he touted his claims of voter fraud significantly increasing with the increase of mail-in ballots. When Wallace questioned him on how he would resolve this, he said that the only solution is a solicited ballot or vote in-person. With the looming problem of a poll worker shortage due to the pandemic, it seems unreasonable for Trump to ask his base to criticize the volunteers that are desperately needed.

Aya: Biden’s response to the voting question was spot on. He encouraged his supporters to vote however they could, create a voting plan and encourage others to vote as well. He even mentioned the “I Will Vote” campaign. It was also notable when he stated that he would fight for everyone, regardless of their political party, if he won the presidency. Trump’s most memorable point was that he could pay the amount of taxes he did because of the Obama administration’s tax code. While I do not have extensive information on these codes, I thought it was incredibly shocking that he admitted that private businesses and wealthy individuals regularly take advantage of the system. “I was smart for taking advantage of the tax codes,” he said.

Justin: Trump’s strongest moments came when he played to his strengths: whenever the conversation shifted to supposed voter fraud, largely peaceful racial justice protests or calls to defund the police, Trump elbowed Biden out of the way and claimed the spotlight. He hammered away at a questionable claim that ballots in his favor had been found “in creeks,” and pushed baseless claims that the “radical left” had Biden, a lifelong moderate Democrat, “wrapped around their finger.” Those moments excited his supporters, no doubt. But, notably, Trump’s tone wasn’t that of an incumbent. He didn’t have many accomplishments to lean on. His punches rarely landed because his attacks about Biden’s past were weak. He pushed narratives about his nonexistent health care plan and mocked Biden, a responsible mask-wearer, for erring on the side of caution

Biden shined when the conversation turned to the nationwide racial justice protests and the future of Medicare. On the first front, Biden showed a willingness to turn the widespread calls for substantive change into real action. On the second, he stressed Trump’s toothless executive order to protect people with preexisting conditions, without revealing specifics about how exactly his administration would do that. Since the president’s healthcare platform can be summed up by a recent attempt to pacify senior citizens with $200 worth of hush money, Biden offered concrete alternatives that could help turn undecided voters his way.

Bryce: Trump’s most memorable moment for me and almost certainly the most significant moment of the debate was when he refused to condemn white nationalists by telling the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.” The juxtaposition between this quote and his later statements telling his supporters to police the polls along with his frequent demonization of antifa as a terrorist organization has terrifying implications. The threat of right-wing violence interfering in the electoral process from Trump’s dog whistles should be taken extremely seriously given the recent right-wing shooting in Kenosha, Wisconsin and the wide support the shooter has from conservatives. The fact that there was not even a follow-up question on this point from Biden or the moderator is shocking, to say the least.

Biden’s most memorable moment for me is closely related to this. During the section on the legitimacy of the election, Biden gave a long speech about voting and how the results will be respected which was likely reassuring for many, but to me came off as extremely naive. Rather than taking Trump’s dog whistles to far-right domestic terrorists or Trump’s history of interfering in elections seriously, Biden seems confident that these will not have any implications for the election. This history includes, of course, the Russian interference in 2016, but also it seems like people have forgotten that Trump was impeached for interfering in the election. Even after undeniable evidence of election interference, he was still acquitted by the Republican-led Senate. If he has already gotten away with it for this long, what is to stop him from interfering again? I strongly hope that Biden knows something I do not, but from my point of view, it seems like Biden and the Democratic Party are woefully unprepared for November. These concerns are real and I hope that Biden’s campaign is taking them more seriously than they appear.

Did Chris Wallace, the moderator, do his job well? Were his chosen topics relevant and timely?

Maddie: Wallace tried as hard as he could to keep the debate civil and moving. However, even within the first 15 minutes that proved impossible. George Stephanopoulos stated post-debate that it was “the worst presidential debate I have ever seen in my life.” I thought Wallace would have been more respected by Trump, as he is a Fox News reporter, but this is also the man who refers to much of the media as “fake news” if he doesn’t agree with them. Toward the middle and end of the debate, Wallace began to shoot back with his own comments on the incivility of both debaters and even laughed at comments made by both Biden and Trump. 

Charlotte: Wallace handled the situation better than I expected — first trying to be respectful when getting the conversation back on topic, then raising his voice and making the candidates feel bad when he found that no respect was going to be given back to him. The number of ways Wallace found to make the candidates stop berating each other was astounding, but somehow effective. It reminded me of talking to two 5-year-olds when he resorted to giving each candidate a reward for being quiet so he could get his question asked, like when he would tell them that the topic they were discussing would be brought up in the next question.

Aya: Wallace did the best he could under the circumstances. I have seen a lot of hate directed toward him on Twitter already, and I thought it was interesting how many people did not take into account the candidates’ statuses. Joe Biden is a nearly 50-year politician, and Donald Trump is the president of the United States. Wallace did his job to keep the conversation on topic and adhering to the allotted times. But he cannot control men who refuse to listen to him and continually talk over him. In the next debates, they can better prepare for this by turning off the mics when the candidate’s time is over and possibly incorporating a buzzer.

Justin: Wallace had a futile job. Presidential debates normally mirror heavyweight boxing matches, with the candidates trading blows and attacking the opponent’s areas of weakness. But Trump repeatedly derailed Biden and overpowered Wallace until the whole thing looked more like a mud wrestling event. On the whole, Wallace struggled to contain Trump’s bluster. In a particularly heated exchange, the moderator challenged Trump on his inability to deliver on an oft-repeated campaign promise to amend Obamacare. Trump claimed that getting rid of the individual mandate, a key feature of Obama’s plan which required citizens to buy insurance or suffer an income tax hike, constituted a comprehensive healthcare alternative. Wallace countered, Trump interrupted him and the whole thing devolved into a schoolyard-style bickering match. It culminated when Trump said that he wasn’t only debating Biden, he was debating Wallace, too. In Trump’s defense, Wallace wasn’t exactly an unbiased moderator, he sided with Biden more often than not. But that’s only because misinformation was always the bedrock of Trump’s arguments. Wallace had a responsibility to quell Trump’s lies, not contain the man himself — that’s like asking a cowboy to rope the wind. On the first point, he did all he could. On the second, he failed spectacularly. I’d like to think that a buzzer or a stopwatch might help keep Trump on topic in the coming debates. But this is a president who doesn’t listen to climate change experts, Dr. Fauci or the millions of independent citizens calling for police reform; I don’t have much faith that he will listen to a buzzer.

Bryce: I do not think Wallace did a good job. While the topics chosen for discussion were relevant, the way the questions were worded had a strong right-wing bias that favored Trump. For example, when asking about Biden’s climate change plan Wallace phrased it in the context of how it will affect the economy rather than asking Trump how his lack of action on climate change will inevitably have a far worse economic impact. While I’m glad he at least tried to pressure Trump into giving a straight answer on if he believes in climate change, Wallace also has the responsibility to tell the audience that climate change is in fact real and is a serious threat rather than allowing the conversation to devolve into climate denialism. Similarly, when the topic of the Black Lives Matter protests came up, Wallace framed them in the form of riots and pressured Biden into an answer about what he would do to end them. Framing the largest civil rights movement in American history in the context of riots and violence then pressuring a candidate to shut them down — potentially by sending in the national guard — without even mentioning their cause is both extremely racist and reductionist. Instead, he should have framed the question in the form of something more neutral that addressed the protestors’ concerns such as “what will you do to end police brutality towards black people in this country?” It is a shame that black people had no voice in this discussion.

Given that Wallace works for Fox News, I was pleasantly surprised by his willingness to call out Trump’s behavior at times. Wallace did everything he could within the debate moderation precedence, however, I am disappointed that he did not rise above such precedent given hindsight from the failures of the 2016 moderators to hold Trump accountable. I would have liked to see some form of live fact-checking as well as more strictly enforcing time limits such as muting a candidate’s microphone outside of their allotted time. I also understand that this would be extremely impractical given the political landscape we are in, but in any sane democracy, I would expect a candidate to be kicked off the stage if they lied and interrupted others as often as Trump did. I am greatly disappointed that these types of debates have become so normalized and that Wallace has apparently learned nothing from the 2016 debates.

Will this debate mark a turning point in polling numbers for both candidates?

Maddie: As the debate quickly dissolved into vitriol, it seemed that the event in its entirety was a wash. It was a bad look for both candidates to go on for minutes, interrupting and talking over each other. This first debate was supposed to be a big event for both parties, however neither likely emerged with a boost in support following the ugly back and forth. It does seem that Biden did include more policy which may sway some undecided Democrat-leaning voters. Trump included his usual soundbites and typical behavior that probably solidified his base, but nothing more of substance that would bring undecided voters to his camp.

Charlotte: FiveThirtyEight predicted that Biden is favored to win the election, but this may shift to be more 50/50 between the two candidates with the way both performed. Each candidate had their good and bad points; it just depends on which topics a voter values more and how much the voter values decency when someone else is speaking.

Aya: I believe this debate will mark a small turning point in polling numbers — like most presidential debates — but it will not lead to a significant change in the polls. While many Americans looked to these candidates to address the unanswered questions, most of the answers were as expected: incomplete, disappointing or lacking any response at all. This may positively impact some voters who were still unsure who they were voting for because both candidates did demonstrate their ability to debate, just not well. While that can be an essential factor for voters — can a candidate hold their own under stress — my vote did not change from watching this debate.

Bryce: I do not think this will mark any significant changes. There was nothing particularly new that was brought into this discussion, so I assume the polls will continue in the same trajectory that they have had since the primaries ended. I imagine many on the left will continue to lose faith in Biden and electoralism in general. This could easily be combated if Biden simply gave in to his voter’s demands by adopting the popular policies I mentioned earlier. Based on those poll numbers I could easily see such a move securing Biden the election even in the face of potential election interference. 

Meanwhile, Trump’s base is extremely unlikely to move in any circumstance. Like Trump said himself in 2016, “[he] could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody, and [he] wouldn’t lose any voters.” I think the past four years have proven this statement to be mostly true. Overall, I think we will see Trump go up a point or two, but likely not enough to shift the current dynamic, which has him behind Biden. I would, however, pay close attention to polls in swing states like Ohio, where that point or two difference could have dire consequences in the electoral college and potentially swing the election, even if the popular vote goes to Biden as expected.

Justin: I anticipate Biden to get a slight bump from last night’s debate. The more Trump talked, the worse he looked. Biden let Trump steamroll him, but he did more for himself by shutting up than by speaking up. Nothing new was divulged and the usual talking points were rehashed, loudly. No one from MAGA nation is jumping ship after a debate like this; I fell asleep to visions of old men in red hats screaming about how Wallace, Biden and the radical left are all in cahoots. And Biden’s supporters certainly are not changing their allegiance after Trump’s two-hour lie-a-thon. Expect a small bump for Biden, but not one big enough to make him, or our democracy, feel secure.

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