The First 2020 Presidential Debate
The Rumble in Cleveland
The whole concept of presidential debates was to give the voter a chance to hear the candidates provide thoughtful answers to important issues. That worked for the first debates between Kennedy and Nixon. However, thoughtful answers to important issues have been lacking in the following 60 years.
Of course, the America of 1960 was far different. Democrats and Republicans were much closer in political beliefs, could debate the issues civilly at home and at the office, and had the same concerns – the fear of Communism, the alleged gap in the US military and the Soviet military, and the amount of tax cuts. And generally, most people except for marginal white supremacists like the KKK. favored equal rights for minorities. Meanwhile Dr. Martian Luther King spoke about advancement though merit, not the color of one’s skin.
That divide is much greater today. The Democratic Party now espouses many left oriented principles. Families do not even talk – especially at family gatherings – because of major political differences. Nearly everything can be viewed with racist tendency. And the idea that equality is being colorblind is out of fashion.
These major differences in American beliefs came through in Tuesday’s debates.
In many ways, the first 2020 presidential debate was much like a boxing bout or one of the wrestling matches President Trump likes – full of sound/insults and fury. There was the old veteran who had been winning bouts since the 1970s but was perceived as a week and losing a step to the challenger. Then, there was the challenger, with a few wins, but an ego and a lot of flash.
Then, there is the umpire, who has had repeatedly attempting to control the constant interruptions from Trump. Would he be unbiased? Or would he be merely ignored by the players?
The debate followed the same plot. Biden, the campaign veteran, who has declined mentally, had to prove that he could “mix it up” with Trump and not make any major gaffs. Trump needed to push Biden to force mistakes on the former Vice President’s part. Meanwhile, the umpire, Chris Wallace, managed to lose control of the debate like an umpire in a professional wrestling event.
In their basic strategy, both Biden and Trump succeeded. And it appears that the backers of both candidates thought their candidate won.
However, how the debate descended into chaos disturbed the organizers of the presidential debates and they have announced that there will be changes (possibly turning off the candidate’s mikes if they interrupt the other candidate) in order to make the debates more civil and prevent the candidates from interrupting each other.
The question remains, “how did the debate impact undecided voters and how many were in the television audience?” And did the raucous nature of the debate make any difference, or did viewers expect it?
Probably, few minds were changed. A CBS poll taken before the debate showed that only 6% were watching because they had not made up their mind. The rest were watching either to see their candidate or for entertainment.
Biden tried to provide a reason why he should be president. However, Trump, although clearly on the offensive, did not manage to force Biden into a campaign damaging mistake. However, the bully style of Trump did get to Biden as he was forced to tell Trump to “shut up,” and calling him a clown and liar.
Although Trump was unable to land a clear hit on Biden, he managed to put him on the defensive. When Biden tried to compare his son’s military record to Trump’s failure to join the military, Trump jabbed back with Biden’s son claiming he was dishonorably discharged from the military for drug use and then selling political influence in Russia and the Ukraine – charges that left Biden .
Biden failed to reach the middle-class voters who are concerned about the growing violence in America’s cities.
Biden’s strength was in the economy and the Corona virus, which his debate advisors focused on. Biden pushed Trump on the amount of deaths caused by the Corona virus and how Trump’s handling of the epidemic had ruined the economy – a strong issue as the economy is always a major factor in elections. Biden reminded listeners that much of the current economic gains are being made by the rich, not the average American. This was Biden’s biggest win in the debate.
In addition to being a raucous debate, neither candidate managed to land a telling blow. Biden remained in the debate the whole time, even though he was visibly tired by the end and many of his answers were obviously memorized. Trump came out on the offensive but failed to “Put Biden away.”
So, who won? The polling that came out afterwards showed more that Biden was the winner.
The low ratings for the first debate also tell us something. The number of viewers declined 36% from the record setting viewership of four years ago.
The most telling view of the debate outcome was the opinion of some media people and Democratic operatives saying that Biden should not go to any more debates.
Do Debates Help or Hinder?
However, there has always been a question about the impact of debates on presidential elections. Some experts say that Nixon’s appearance, appearing nervous and having a visible “5 o’clock shadow on his chin was what gave Kennedy the win, although radio listeners thought Nixon was the winner.
Other experts note that President Ford’s misstatement that Poland was free, when under Soviet control, caused him to lose the election.
But is that true?
Statistics show that debates rarely sway voters. A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll showed that 70% of voters said the debate would not change their vote. And many of those would choose to not watch the debate.
A study by CitiFX (part of the Citi Bank Group) showed that in four of the past five “first debates” the trailing candidate closed the gap at least temporarily. Mitt Romney decisively “won” the first debate, only to lose to Obama. Trump lost all three debates against Hillary Clinton in 2016. And John Kerry won all three debates against George W. Bush in 2004. Only two first debate winners, Obama (2008) and Clinton (1996) would “win” the first debate and go on the win the election.
The study by Citi shows that the relation between debate success in the first debate and winning is random.
Clearly, what determines victory goes far beyond winning debates, especially in a year where there is a vast philosophical difference between candidates. Someone who thinks Biden is a tool of the socialists of the Democratic Party is unlikely to switch from Trump to Biden. Conversely, someone who is concerned about the autocratic nature of Trump will not suddenly join the Trump bandwagon.
As sides grow further apart in America, there is a growing desire to “slam” the other side and their views. In many ways, it is similar to the desire for the fans of one sports team like football to see the opposition quarterback to be hit so hard by the opposing team that he has to be carried off the field.
The 2020 presidential debates were geared by strategists on both sides to cater to that desire. Trump backers wanted to see Trump leave Biden a speechless, demented old man on the stage. Biden’s supporters wanted to see Trump unveiled as the bully loudmouth authoritarian.
Although the remaining debates are still in the future, and even still up in the air, we can be sure that the tactics will not change that much.