Recap: the 2020 U.S. presidential debate

Who won, who lost, and what will happen next

By Olivia Montes

Lifestyle Editor 

On Sept. 29 at 9 p.m. EST, Fox News Sunday news anchor Chris Wallace moderated the first 2020 presidential debate between former Vice President Joe Biden and President Donald Trump at the Samson Pavilion of the Health Education Campus in Cleveland, Ohio.

Though the debate initially planned to have each candidate address a variety of pressing topics — including the United States Supreme Court, the COVID-19 pandemic, the economy, race and violence in cities, and the integrity of the upcoming presidential election — to the American people, it took some unexpected turns throughout the night.

Despite starting out with Wallace questioning each candidate about their opinions on how to fill the vacant seat in the U.S. Supreme Court, the debate quickly became a free-for-all. Trump attempted to undermine his opponent through consistent interruptions and talking over both Biden and Wallace throughout the night, of which both political commentators and viewers alike noticed.

“From ABC News to CNN to Fox News, TV hosts and other commentators agreed that the first debate devolved into an incoherent mess — largely because President Donald Trump wouldn’t allow former Vice President Joe Biden to speak, repeatedly flouting the rules on time limits by interrupting his Democratic opponent,” Vox’s German Lopez said on Sept. 30. 

“Even Fox News anchor Sean Hannity, a consistent ally of the president, conceded the debate didn’t go how a lot of people would have liked, although he spun his criticism so as not to solely impugn Trump,” he said. 

Despite several warnings from Wallace, as well as a few chidings from Biden himself, Trump continued to attempt to overtake the conversation with multiple false claims against Biden and towards the progress of his own administration. 

As fact-checked throughout the night by CNN’s Daniel Dale, according to The Washington Post, these false claims added to the nearly 200,000 “false or misleading [public] claims” Trump has made since coming into office.

“Trump’s strategy was clear: to steamroll both Biden and debate moderator Chris Wallace, hoping to provoke a bad moment,” The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake said on Sept 29. “[In comparison] Biden’s strategy was also clear: to stick to his talking points, try not to engage much, and deny Trump what he wanted.” 

The debate also acknowledged the experiences of both candidates within the U.S. federal government, discussing the impacts of Trump’s first term as president and Biden’s run as a U.S. Senator from Delaware from 1997 to 2009 and then as vice president from 2008 to 2016.

“[Prior to the debate] the president has cycled through an array of attacks against his Democratic challenger in recent months, criticizing or outright smearing Mr. Biden’s governing record, personal ethics, economic policies, family finances, and mental and physical health — often relying on misinformation and falsehoods,” The New York Times’ Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns said in an updated report on Oct. 1.

“Yet that…has not budged the race an inch in Mr. Trump’s direction or changed the minds of a majority of voters who take a negative view of his personal character and his leadership during the pandemic,” they said.

The night also attempted to recognize recent developments within Trump’s first term as president, including The New York Times publication detailing Trump’s tax returns, in which he had paid a total of $750 in federal income taxes both in 2016 and 2017; his open refusal to agree to a peaceful transfer of executive power; and, as the debate progressed into discussions of racial injustice, his failure to condemn white supremacy.

Instead, when asked, Trump outright told white supremacist and militia groups, including the far-right organization, the Proud Boys, to “stand by” amidst the ongoing Black Lives Matter and similar protests throughout the nation, in response to the violence that unfolded in Portland, Ore. and Kenosha, Wis. this past summer. 

As noted by Vox’s Fabiola Cineas on Sept. 29, Trump’s words hark back to a similar response he made after white supremacists rallied in Charlottesville, Va. against the removal of Confederate statues in 2017, and one counter-protester was killed, in which he “blamed people on both sides.”

There was also brief discussion of the COVID-19 pandemic, where the total number of deaths recorded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the U.S. has surpassed 200,000, and is predicted by the American Public Media Research Lab to double by Jan. 1, 2021 — in which Black and Latinx Americans are slated to continue to suffer disproportionately in the coming months. 

“[Trump talks] about helping African Americans — 1 in 1,000 African Americans has been killed because of the coronavirus,” Biden said. “And if he doesn’t do something quickly, by the end of the year, 1 in 500 will have been killed.” 

And then, the next day, the results came in as to who appeared to have benefited — and lost — from that debate. 

As Vox’s Matthew Ygeslias said, in a recent Data for Progress poll, released Sept. 30, viewers agreed that Biden “won the [first] debate convincingly,” with a 52 to 39 margin leaning in his favor. 

“On the economy, race and policing, COVID-19, candidates’ tone, and candidates’ style of communication, Biden was universally preferred,” Ygeslias said. “But, as measured by this survey, Trump experienced essentially a top-to-bottom fiasco.”

Partnering with Ipsos, FiveThirtyEight also calculated the chances of each candidate winning the election after watching the first debate.

According to Ipsos’s Knowledge Panel, on a scale from 0, “no chance,” to 10 “absolutely certain,” Biden received “little support” for his campaign from the debate, raising average certainty levels among voters from an average of 5.0 to 5.2, with 84% of viewers stating they would for sure vote for Biden.

However, in a similar poll, despite slipping from an average of 3.8 to 3.7, Trump still potentially has “a good chance” of winning, with 82% of viewers absolutely certain about voting for him. 

“That said, the debate did have a bit more of an effect on who people think will win the presidency,” FiveThirtyEight’s Laura Bronner, Aaron Bycoffe, Elena Mejia, and Julia Wolfe said. “Slightly more respondents now think both candidates have some chance of winning, although those respondents gave Biden a slightly better chance of winning than Trump.” 

Despite this change, regarding both the certainty and favorability percentages of each candidate, the presidential race still has the potential to lean either way this November.

“Going into the debate, each candidate’s supporters were already overwhelmingly likely to say they were going to vote, and last night’s debate didn’t change that,” they said. “Both candidates saw some movement among their supporters, but [didn’t] read too much into these shifts. Any change was within the poll’s margin of error.” 

As a result of the spiral at this debate, the Commission on Presidential Debates has responded by considering new rules concerning the format for the next two presidential debates — the next scheduled for Oct. 15 and the last on Oct. 22 — including the possibility of allowing the moderator to mute microphones in between questions. 

The recent developments concerning Trump and First Lady Melania Trump testing positive for COVID-19 on Oct. 2, also brings the question of how these next two debates will go on, or if they will be moved to a virtual setting in preparation for their selected dates.

With all this in mind, this first debate strives to serve a foundation for what to expect, and what else is to come — and ultimately, provide voters a cemented decision on who to vote for in time for Election Day. 

“Flipping through news channels last night and this morning, it’s the overwhelming takeaway from the debate,” Lopez said. “Regardless of which candidate you prefer, it was a debacle.” 

Featured Photo caption: The first presidential debate on Sept. 29, while striving to address a wide range of current events within the United States, instead presented an idea to the American people of what else is to come. Photo Courtesy of Srikanta H.

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