Tuesday 29th September saw the first head-to-head debate between presidential candidates Donald Trump and Joe Biden of the 2020 cycle. The debate provided the opportunity for both candidates to hold each other to account over their record and their vision for the future under the moderation of Fox News’ Chris Wallace. Sponsored by the ‘Commission on Presidential Debates’, it was the first of four opportunities for American electors to hear from Presidential and Vice-Presidential Candidates.
In the immediate aftermath, there was a general feeling of disappointment on the quality of discussion from both sides. It has been branded a ‘missed opportunity’ with neither candidate fully succeeding in setting out their experience, competence and qualifications for the office of President. It certainly will have done little to galvanise support from the ‘independent’, un-affiliated, swing-voters that both camps must seek to win over in order to carry the election in November.
Policy discussion on a range of issues was rather light on detail. instead candidates used their time to take political and personal swipes at the other – this was not altogether unexpected given the nature and personalities of both men but we saw it taken to a new level.
Perhaps due to fairly low expectations going into the debate, former Vice-President Joe Biden came off better than incumbent Donald Trump; with Biden retaining a ‘statesman-like’ cool presence in contrast to Trump’s animated and at times erratic approach. The New York Times stated that ‘President Trump’s first debate showing amounted to an onstage shouting of his Twitter feed at Joe Biden’. CNN’s snap poll after this broadcast suggested that 60-65% of viewers believe Biden ‘won’ the debate.
On issues discussed, Wallace put to the candidates a range of questions including; the Supreme Court Nomination, COVID-19, the Economy, and their record. Wallace also sought clarification on how both men would handle the peaceful transition of power, an issue that Trump has wrestled with for most of this year and one that he failed to clarify in the 2016 election.
The President continued to push the narrative that the result of the election will be undermined by “fraud like you’ve never seen”. This strategy is setting the scene for a potentially very long and drawn out recount and court process over a contested result. Beyond that, many believe it’s a tactic to suppress voter turnout which is generally thought to be to the benefit of the Republicans.
From this debate it is clear that the outcome of the 2020 election is very unlikely to be a cut and dry declaration, especially in the event of a positive showing for the Democrats. Next week Vice-President Mike Pence and Democrat Vice-Presidential Candidate, Senator Kamala Harris will go head-to-head in their only debate of this election cycle.
This looks to be a much calmer and more serious debate and may therefore be of more use for still undecided voters – if they tune in to watch. Harris is the candidate to watch in this debate. She is seeking to make an impact as a credible Vice-Presidential Candidate having never held office at this level. Harris is known for her command of detail and strong debate technique. It will be interesting to see whether the approach Pence seeks to strike a more constructive tone than that of the President in this week’s debate – which could help reassure waivering Republican voters.