President Trump and his Democratic opponent Joe Biden vied for voters’ attention in competing town halls on October 15th, fielding questions from individuals across both sides of the aisle and the undecided center. This clash came after Trump’s refusal to submit to the request from the Commission on Presidential Debates to hold a virtual debate, leaving the October 22nd debate in Nashville as the second and final presidential debate of the election cycle.
The two presidential candidates displayed starkly different demeanors in their respective town halls. Biden had a steady and low-key, though sometimes meandering, performance, whereas Trump was his usual combative self. Trump had many moments that have drawn headlines since Thursday. As the front-runner in the polls going into the town halls, Biden simply needed a solid performance to stay on track.
Here are the main takeaways from the competing town halls.
Trump Refuses to Disavow QAnon
Right off the bat, President Trump again refused to disavow the QAnon conspiracy theory, which posits Trump is fighting a Satanic cabal of pedophiles composed of many high-profile Democrats. In true Trump fashion, he chose to fan the flames around fringe beliefs. The President appeared to praise adherents of the theory, noting “they are very strongly against pedophilia. I agree with that.”
Though Trump claimed to know nothing about QAnon, an FBI field office recently warned that “fringe political conspiracy theories” like QAnon are “very likely to motivate some domestic extremists.” Under the Trump administration, the FBI has labeled QAnon as a domestic terrorism threat. This moment harkened back to the first presidential debate in which Trump seemingly nodded at the white supremacist group, the Proud Boys, telling them to “stand back and stand by.”
Trump’s Poor Handling of Masks and COVID-19
Despite just testing positive for COVID-19 at the beginning of October, President Trump is sticking to his claim that the science is unclear about the effectiveness of wearing masks. He stated that he is “good with masks,” but continues to ignore the universal view of health experts — including within his own administration — that masks mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. Trump falsely cited a study suggesting 85% of people who wear masks get COVID-19, which NBC’s town hall moderator Savannah Guthrie immediately discredited. His contradictory position on masks left many viewers unclear on how exactly the president feels on the topic.
With regard to his own experience contracting COVID-19, Trump claimed that he had no remaining symptoms. He repeatedly refused to say when he last tested negative for COVID-19 before he announced he tested positive on October 2nd. When asked if he took a test the day of the first presidential debate, he responded, “Possibly I did. Possibly I didn’t.” He provided yet another non-answer to his current condition by saying doctors told him his lungs were “possibly infected” but, with what, he was unsure.
Biden’s Mixed Messages on Policy
Former Vice President Biden spent the night discussing his record while delving into what policies a Biden administration would enact. Much of the policy Biden discussed finely toes ideological lines, as he tries to appeal to both centrist swing voters and progressive leftists.
With regard to the environment and energy, Biden once again assured voters he would not get rid of fracking, which has upset many climate activists. Additionally, he attempted to distance his environmental plan from that of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey’s (D-MA) Green New Deal in order to appeal to blue-collar workers. His lack of support for the Green New Deal mischaracterizes how similar his environmental framework is to the House Resolution.
ABC’s George Stephanopoulos pressed the former vice president on many of his positions, including packing the Supreme Court. Biden stated he is “not a fan” of adding justices to the Supreme Court, but refused to give a firm answer on court-packing. He did, however, claim he will provide a clear position before Election Day, “depending on how (Republicans) handle (the Barrett confirmation).” Affirming court-packing would only risk alienating centrist voters and fueling the GOP’s rhetoric that Biden is a “puppet” of the progressive left’s demands. By deferring his answer, Biden keeps a controversial issue out of the headlines for as long as possible.
Biden on Crime and Race
Two of Biden’s toughest moments came when he was pressed on his support from black people and his support for the 1994 Crime Bill, which led to the mass incarceration crisis facing people of color. A young Black man, Cedric Humphrey recalled the former vice president’s flippant comment to radio host Charlamagne tha God when Biden said “you ain’t Black” if you are struggling to decide between supporting him and Trump. Humphrey asked Biden why he is worthy of the young Black vote. This question highlighted one of Biden’s weaknesses: a lack of enthusiasm among young voters, especially non-white millennial and Generation Z voters.
Instead of addressing his controversial remark, Biden got defensive and spent several minutes listing off his policies aimed at uplifting people of color. Along with creating a criminal justice system that is fair and decent, Biden hopes to put Black Americans in a position where they can gain and generate wealth by tripling Title I funding for lower-income schools, increasing funding for historically Black colleges and universities to $70 billion, guaranteeing a $15,000 down payment for first time home buyers, and increasing funding for Black small business owners.
In response to whether he regrets sponsoring the 1994 Crime Bill, Biden admitted it was a mistake, but he shifted blame for the disproportionate impacts on Black Americans to state implementation of the bill. He pointed to how times have “changed drastically” since the bill was passed and noted that the Black Caucus and majority of Black mayors supported the legislation at the time.
Trump Fails to Critique Biden Campaign
Trump’s entire campaign strategy is built on making the election a choice between him and Biden rather than a measure of his presidency. He has depicted the former vice president as a disoriented tool of the progressive left. Although not all of the answers Biden provided to Stephanopoulous’s challenges were clear or succinct, he made no memorable missteps, providing little fodder for the Trump campaign.
Over the course of the hour, Trump barely mentioned his Democratic rival, let alone in a way that would create damage in the polls. Spending most of the town hall responding to Guthrie’s tough questions, Trump missed many opportunities to pivot to Biden and largely gave him a pass for the night.
Biden beats Trump in television ratings
According to the final numbers released on Friday from Nielsen Media Research, Joe Biden’s town hall surpassed President Trump’s competing event in viewership. Biden’s 90-minute event garnered 14.1 million views on ABC News, compared with 13.5 million for Trump’s hour-long town hall which aired on NBC, MSNBC, and CNBC. Looking at the number of streams on YouTube, there was a clear disparity in viewership. At the end of Trump’s town hall, the NBC News YouTube channel showed 153,600 viewers, while the ABC News channel showed 507,445 viewers at the end of Biden’s town hall.
Biden spokesperson TJ Ducklo tweeted, “Turns out more people last night were interested in watching a leader with a clear plan to get this pandemic under control and Americans back to work, than the same combative, chaotic liar whose incompetence got us into this mess — regardless of how many channels he was on.”
Going into Thursday night, Trump was shown lagging behind the former vice president by 9.2 percentage points in the NBC News national polling average. Recent polling data in most swing states have shown Biden to be the favorite to win. At a critical moment when Trump needs to shake up the race, this disparity in ratings may sting even more for the notably press-obsessed president.
Savannah Guthrie was Thursday Night’s MVP
NBC News broadcaster Savannah Guthrie was in a tricky situation with the network’s controversial decision to host a simultaneous town hall in the first place. The former lawyer had a particularly strong night, holding President Trump accountable on a number of issues including COVID-19, the Affordable Care Act, and his views on mail-in ballots. Trump answered 15 minutes of quick-paced questioning by Guthrie before the first member of the audience had the opportunity to ask a question.
Throughout the hour, Guthrie pushed back after Trump dodged questions, to which the president found himself getting defensive and increasingly frustrated. Trump repeatedly talked over her, accused Guthrie of being tougher on him than Biden, and even scoffed at a question she posed by calling her “so cute.” This type of performance is exactly what Trump’s advisors wished to avoid, recognizing that it has turned off women, especially suburban women, and senior citizen voters. Guthrie’s highlight of the night came when President Trump refused to affirm the falsehood of a conspiratorial tweet he retweeted claiming Osama Bin Laden is still alive, to which she responded, “I don’t get that. You’re the president, not somebody’s crazy uncle.”
Debate moderators have had a tough time this election cycle. Both Fox News Channel’s Chris Wallace and USA Today’s Susan Page incurred harsh criticism for their performances. Savannah Guthrie is the first broadcaster to leave with her reputation not only intact but also enhanced. After his poor performance against Guthrie, President Trump has amplified allegations of bias against the final debate moderator, NBC News correspondent Kristin Welker.
With both candidates adding very little to their usual campaign talks, it is unlikely that the town halls delivered more clarity to undecided voters.
Categories: Domestic Affairs