An analysis of the 2020 Presidential debates

An analysis of the 2020 Presidential debates

Photo credit: Amelia Nowicki

By Farrah Fasse, Section editor

September 30 – First Presidential Debate 

I use the term debate loosely when referring to the Sept. 30 presidential debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, as I can’t even rightfully call it that. I had very few expectations before watching it, however, my hopes that the candidates would have some sort of integrity a few weeks before the election were completely slashed by the end of it. 

Throughout the undignified debate, I was absolutely mortified by the behavior of both candidates, but especially Trump. From the beginning of the debate, he was the same old Trump. He was constantly interrupting Biden and speaking over the allotted time, terms his campaign had previously agreed to follow. Trump was also combative with both Biden and the moderator of the debate, Fox News anchor Chris Wallace. The most memorable part of Trump’s performance was what he does best: launching ad hominem attacks and making baseless, reactionary claims. He was relentless with attacks against Biden and his family. He declared Biden a socialist, which couldn’t be more wrong, and disparaged Hunter Biden, Joe Biden’s son, for having a problem with cocaine use. Any logical arguments from Trump were few and far between, as he neglected those in favor of spouting ridiculous claims and personal attacks on Biden. 

Although Biden did much better than Trump in the debate, he did not do nearly as well as he could have. Biden still interrupted both Trump and Wallace several times, which Wallace admonished him for. Biden sunk to Trump’s level in terms of personal attacks several times by telling him to shut up and calling him a clown. He had more powerful answers regarding policy than Trump, but went along with Trump by derailing the topic of the debate. Biden also completely avoided questions about the possibility of court-packing occurring in his administration if Amy Coney Barrett was confirmed to the Supreme Court. 

Overall, the debate was characterized by conflict between the two presidential candidates, which is reflective of how many Americans in opposing parties are acting in regards to the upcoming election. For any undecided voters, this debate didn’t help them in terms of choosing a candidate based on policy or debate skills. 


October 7 – Vice Presidential Debate 

The vice presidential debate between California Senator Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence had discussion of policy at the forefront, contrasting the presidential debate. However, Harris and Pence both did their fair share of interrupting and talking over their allotted time, along with making a few personal attacks avoiding questions.

Harris started off the debate strongly, focusing on the Trump administration’s poor handling of COVID-19, as well as Trump’s goal to overturn the Affordable Care Act. She didn’t hesitate to look into the camera and speak to Americans about how the loss of the act could be disastrous for millions and could leave them without healthcare. She was on the offense in terms of Trump’s direct noncompliance with COVID-19 guidelines from the Center for Disease Control. She also slammed his lack of control over the deadly virus, particularly the 210,000 death milestone that had just surpassed. She pivoted smoothly between emotional appeals and criticisms of the Trump administration, helping to show that she is a powerful debater. However, her performance faltered as the debate went on including when she avoided a question about court-packing, similar to how her running mate former vice president Joe Biden avoided the same question the night of the first presidential debate. Harris (along with Pence) also dodged a question asked about what she would do if she became vice president and Biden was unable to serve, choosing to discuss her record instead.

Pence started off on defense and attempted to bat off Harris’ attacks on the Trump administration, but went more on the offense during the second half. His calm, collective manner throughout the debate showed his difference in demeanor from Trump. In response to Harris’ criticisms of the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus, Pence claimed that Joe Biden’s plan to stop the spread of the virus was plagiarism. He also accused Harris of politicizing the virus. These were two of his slightly outrageous claims. Like Harris, Pence continually spoke over his opponent and over the allotted time, even when moderator Susan Page politely told him his time was up. In the latter half of the debate, he took a page out of Harris’ book and went on the attack. He accused Harris of being the most liberal member of the Senate, and said that Biden and Harris would eliminate fracking and the use of fossil fuels which would cost hundreds of thousands of jobs. Harris quickly refuted this accusation. Similar to Harris, when asked about the role of the vice president and the possibility of him having to step up as president if Trump were to become incapacitated, he dodged the question and instead talked about the Obama administration’s handling of H1N1. 

The vice presidential debate was much more cohesive than the first presidential debate. However, both candidates interrupted and talked over the allotted time, and did not answer direct questions. Although the debate was much closer in terms of who did better, I believe Harris did better overall. Although she had missteps, she was able to hit the Trump administration where it hurt by evoking emotion in Americans when she spoke about COVID-19 and the Affordable Care Act. Although Pence had some strengths, he was lackluster in his defense of Trump and repeatedly avoided questions, instead choosing to speak about other topics. 

October 15 – Trump and Biden Town Halls

On Oct. 15, Trump and Biden were scheduled to have a debate. However, after Trump contracted COVID-19, the debate was canceled and a virtual debate was proposed. The Trump campaign refused. Biden said he would not have a debate with Trump in-person at that time since he was infected with COVID-19. So, the Biden campaign had a town hall. Then, the Trump campaign decided to schedule their own town hall at the same time as Biden’s event, 8 p.m. on Oct. 15. This petty and childish stunt astounded me, but it’s not something unlike Trump to do. It’s incredibly disheartening to see the current U.S. president attempt to one-up his opponent in the presidential race by scheduling his town hall at the same time. It’s also immature and inconsiderate to viewers as they have to choose one to watch over the other. This is not at all ideal for any undecided voters. Biden did a decent job in terms of finding a sense of balance between criticizing Trump and explaining his policies. He focused on a federal coronavirus response, social justice issues and the environment. Trump had a much less successful night and did not take well to being pressed for answers by town hall moderator Savannah Guthrie. He repeatedly brought up disproven conspiracy theories and kept using the health of the economy as his strong point. 

Biden’s town hall was moderated by political commentator George Stephanopoulos, and Biden took advantage of the opportunity to speak directly to voters. He doubled down his criticism of the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, one of the key elements of his platform. He asserted that a strong, organized federal response to the virus is the most necessary course of action in terms of stopping the spread, and one he would take if he were to become elected. One of the main criticisms commonly made about Biden was his support of a 1994 crime bill, which caused mass incarceration in the United States to accelerate. When asked about it during the town hall, he admitted that his support of the legislation was a mistake, but said that the U.S. was at a different place in terms of civil rights. Biden answered most of the questions, but again dodged answering a question about court packing directly, instead saying that voters would find out before election day. Biden’s environmental policy was controversial, since his claim that he does not support the Green New Deal is at odds with his campaign website where it states he is in support of it. A big conversation topic at the vice presidential debate was whether the Biden-Harris campaign wanted to ban fracking, and Biden clarified his stance by saying he supports ending new fracking on federal lands. In response to growing concerns about climate change, he plans to invest in clean energy, which he says will create jobs. Biden also stated that discrimination against transgender people was unacceptable and that the murder rate of transgender women of color was alarming. In typical Biden fashion, he trailed off into lengthy personal anecdotes several times, but overall, he fared well and relished the time where he could answer questions asked directly by voters.

Trump’s performance during his town hall was not at all cohesive or proper, as he continually argued with the moderator, Savannah Guthrie. The only strong point he had during the night was when he brought up the growing economy and jobs. However, his point is invalid given the current unemployment rate due to the coronavirus pandemic. When asked about mail-in voting, he falsely claimed that thousands of ballots cast for him were thrown out. He also claimed his campaign was spied on, a conspiracy theory that has been disproven several times. When Guthrie asked about how Trump retweeted a post from Qanon, a far-right conspiracy theory organization, he refused to repudiate them and denied knowing anything about them. When Guthrie would not allow him to avoid the question, he became angry and asked her why she wasn’t asking Joe Biden about why he wouldn’t condemn Antifa. She told him that he was in front of her answering questions, not Biden. He then replied by laughing, a display of immaturity that was disturbing to see from the president. Guthrie also questioned him on whether he got tested for coronavirus before the first presidential debate. Trump claimed he couldn’t remember, and that said the U.S. was rounding the corner with the virus. This statement is incongruent with the predictions of many scientists and health experts. As he’s done in the past, he repeated that he wanted to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, but gave no clear framework on how he planned to do so. His combative and evasive nature while answering questions continued through the rest of the night, leading to a pathetic night for Trump. 

Although both candidates certainly had their missteps during their respective events, it was clear to me that Biden came out on top. He was much more calm, and did a decent job of trying to pull in both more progressive and moderate voters. Trump’s performance was an outright embarrassment, but not at all surprising, as it is like him to spout consistently disproven conspiracy theories, avoid questions and get defensive when pressed for answers. All in all, Biden showed that he would be a much better president due to his poise and grace while answering important questions. Trump only flaunted his immaturity and inadequacy as president.