America is arguably more divided than ever before, but thankfully most can agree on one thing: the first 2020 presidential debate was a mess.
Whether you consider it a good thing or a bad thing, viewers’ opinions of who won the debate almost equal candidate favorability in national polls. Forty-one percent of Americans thought that Trump won, which is two percent less than his favorability. Forty-eight percent thought that Biden won, which is three percent less than his support in the polls. Ten percent called the debate a tie, while 6% of voters are undecided (CNN). In other words, no one group was significantly swayed by what they saw on television. That leaves Biden still leading nationally by a large margin (eight percentage points), but also indicates that Trump did not lose any support from his loyal base as a result of his performance.
The debate got off to a bumpy start (and remained bumpy). Trump and Biden constantly talked over each other, making it difficult for viewers to simply understand what each candidate was saying. It seemed as if it was a competition as to who could get more words in before the other interrupted or criticized their opponent’s point. Unfortunately, this continued for the whole ninety minutes. Below are a few moments from the debate that warrant some more attention.
“It’s hard to get any word in with this clown”
Some viewers may have been surprised to see Joe Biden firing back at Trump by calling him a clown when Trump persisted to interrupt his speech. Among other comments Biden made include “Will you shut up man?” and “You’re the president of screwing things up.” Biden has appeared weak and sheepish in the past to some, so this could be viewed as a positive aspect of his performance that demonstrated an ability to stand his ground. On the other hand, it could also be seen as a way of stooping to Trump’s level, which usually involves insults and name-calling; this is not the sense of professionalism that Biden says he will restore to the White House if elected.
“He was thrown out, dishonorably discharged for cocaine use”
Many viewers knew that Trump was capable of making some low blows, but attacking Hunter Biden about his substance abuse went far beyond that. Not only was it unnecessary in the context of the conversation, but Trump’s statement was also false; Biden was administratively discharged from the military, not dishonorably. Although Joe Biden was astonished at Trump’s comment, he responded very well by looking directly into the camera to address how proud he was of his son’s recovery, which likely appealed to viewers who are recovering drug addicts.
“I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully”
When asked about the integrity of the election and whether or not he would tell his supporters to remain calm even after the election is certified, Trump’s comments suggested support of voter intimidation. Voter intimidation is, in fact, a federal crime. His comments also suggested that he is not exactly open to a peaceful transfer of power. In one instance, Trump said “Don’t tell me about a free transition. This is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen. This is not going to end well.” These comments were frightening in the sense that even if the election results favor Biden, Trump and/or his supporters will stubbornly refuse to accept the results.
“I’m not going to answer that question”
Joe Biden refused to address whether or not he supports ending the filibuster in the Senate or packing the Supreme court. Because this debate had little productive content, blatantly refusing to answer a question did not look good for Biden. He needed to make his stance on all issues of concern clear, and this was a very relevant question that went unanswered.
“Stand back and stand by”
Perhaps the most astonishing thing said during the entire debate was Donald Trump’s response to being asked to denounce white supremacy, particularly the far-right and neo-fascist organization Proud Boys. At first, Trump said “Sure, I’m willing to do that. But I would say almost everything I see is from the left wing, not from the right wing.” However, when the question was repeated, he said “What do you want to call them?” When Biden responded “The Proud Boys”, Trump said, “Proud Boys, stand back, and stand by.” Rather than clearly disavowing the hate group, Trump essentially instead told them to back off but stand ready to act. This comment did not come without consequences; Proud Boys interpreted this message very seriously and even adopted the quote into their logo. What came of the comment was terrifying in itself, whether or not Donald Trump intended for a result of that magnitude. Either way, it’s unacceptable to denounce only some examples of white supremacy. Failing to do so on national television with no preview of the debate questions speaks volumes about Trump’s beliefs; there was a lot of talking over each other to get a word in, but he made this loud and clear for everyone to hear.
It’s arguable that the only purpose this debate served was for entertainment. The next debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris on October 7th will likely be far more civilized, but some viewers even wonder if any of the future debates are worth watching. It’s important to keep in mind how the media can frame their reporting on the debate to favor one candidate; so, if you’re an undecided voter it may be wise to tune in for yourself.