LOTTIE JAMES | Until last night, attacks on one another by the 2020 presidential candidates had been largely limited to snide Twitter remarks and indefensible claims at virtual conventions. The first in-person presidential debate changed this, however, with the debate stage transforming itself into a tennis court on which the two septuagenarians held a rally of abuse. A clear match point, however, was not as evident as many spectators had hoped.
Throughout the evening, there was no shortfall in losses for President Trump. The President set the tone in talking over Biden, leading to moderator Chris Wallace repeatedly warning Mr. Trump, often to no avail, that such interruptions would not be tolerated. Whilst the President’s blatantly disrespectful attempts to silence his opponent may have lost him some votes, two moments appeared to swing viewers most dramatically against his favor. Amidst the backdrop of eroding race relations, Trump refused to condemn the actions of white supremacists or offer support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Instead, the President added fuel to the fire by refusing to rule out a scenario in which he would declare victory prematurely, in doing so undoubtedly alienating suburban voters who generally support the message of protestors and place great value in upholding democracy.
Biden’s response to the President’s hostility, however, was far from exemplary. Frustrated at his inability to complete a talking point, the former Vice President lashed out at Mr. Trump, asking the moderator whether he knew “what this clown is doing?” and going on to provide the perfect sound bite in imploring the President to “shut up, man.” Whilst Democrats sympathised with Biden’s exasperation, his tendency to snap back arguably lost him the support of some moderates who saw his rebukes as a low blow that only put him on par with his moral-lacking opponent.
Such low blows by the President were viewed by some as a strength, with Mr. Trump’s attacks on Hunter Biden’s business dealings and the former Vice President’s college class ranking strengthening the Republican’s denouncement of Biden’s character. In a move that appeared similar to his 2016 brandishing of ‘crooked Hillary”, the President spurred on his base in labeling the Democrats as untrustworthy. It was his ability to transform what should have been a democratic event into a night of entertainment, however, that proved most valuable to the President. In making the debate ‘unwatchable’ a poll-trailing Mr. Trump undoubtedly convinced undecided voters that following and voting in the election would simply be too draining.
Despite his sometimes hot-headed reactions, Biden was successful in presenting himself as the cooler, calmer, and more respectful candidate. Appealing often to Mr. Wallace for help against the President’s rule-breaking, Biden appeared to win the support of the moderator in branding Trump’s behavior tasteless. Perhaps most importantly, Biden managed to hold his own against the President’s assaults and answered questions effectively, in doing so quelling the fears of moderates that his age renders him unfit for the job. Moderates were undoubtedly further reassured by Biden’s promise that he would not defund the police, whilst his condemnation of Mr. Trump’s recent tax records and promise not to declare early victory branded him as a law-abiding candidate respectful of the democratic process.
As is the case with modern-day politics, the candidates’ success became more measurable with hindsight. With a CBS poll finding that 69% of viewers felt annoyed by the debate, 31% entertained, and just 17% informed, President Trump’s distraction technique appeared successful in alienating undecided voters. With a large group of fervently loyal supporters behind him, President Trump needs only to decrease rather than encourage greater voter turnout; a move that echoes with recent Channel 4 findings that the President’s 2016 campaign actively discouraged black Americans from turning out at the polls.
For Biden, however, it appears that slow and steady really does win the race. With six out of ten debate watchers declaring Biden the winner of the night in a CNN poll, it appears the former Vice President’s attempts to portray himself as the transparent candidate with a deep respect for America’s laws and democratic institutions clinched him the support of the majority of Americans. However, with just 49% of those polled believing that Biden has the stamina for the job, the margins are not as wide as Democrats would have hoped.
The question of who won the first presidential debate is not an easy one to answer. Whilst Biden appears to have officially ‘won’ the support of viewers, both candidates were plagued by blunders. In a year that has proved far from ordinary, the debate continued the trend of exceptionalism, with the definitive post-debate success enjoyed by Democrats under Obama largely absent. One thing does seem evident: America is no longer home to educated and reasoned debate. Instead, Joe Biden has won the debate simply by losing it to a lesser extent than his opponent.
Images: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead / Photo by Adam Schultz / Biden for President