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The candidates were set to debate six topics: their respective records, the Supreme Court, COVID-19, the economy, race and violence in US cities and election integrity. However, the debate rarely stayed on topic, with both candidates finding ways to disrupt the flow.
Tuesday, September 29, the first presidential debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden was held in Cleveland, Ohio. The moderator for the debate, the first of three presidential debates, was Fox News host Chris Wallace. This was the first opportunity for both candidates to lay out their policy positions while confronting their opponent’s record in person.
There is an enduring question of how much these televised debates actually sway undecided voters, especially in an era of unyielding political division. Still, the debates have been eagerly anticipated, especially as supporters of both candidates have hoped to see the other candidate make a fatal error.
The debate was divided into six 15-minute segments focused on different political topics. Wallace opened each segment with a question and the candidates were given two minutes to respond. Rebuttals and, often, accusations followed, with Wallace doing his best to keep the debate on track.
The immediate reactions
The candidates were set to debate six topics: their respective records, the Supreme Court, COVID-19, the economy, race and violence in cities across the United States and election integrity.
However, the debate rarely stayed on topic, with both candidates finding ways to disrupt the flow. Or, as the conservative publication, National Review, put it, “Biden came to win a debate, and Trump came to win WrestleMania. Like a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon, Trump just expanded to fill the whole room, filling up his time and spilling over into Biden’s time, hammering home whatever he wanted to talk about, whether it was related to Chris Wallace’s question or not.”
Megyn Kelly, the former Fox News host who, as a moderator, famously sparred with Trump during a 2016 debate, had mostly positive things to say about Trump’s performance on her Twitter feed. However, she wasn’t sure how voters would feel, wondering, “Trump’s base will love his aggression; suburban moms and older voters? Not so sure.”
Other commentators saw the debate as a definite win for Biden, who got flustered when sparring with Trump a few times, but overall appeared the calmer presence.
Former speechwriter for President George W. Bush and current “Never Trump” Republican, David Frum, tweeted, “After tonight, I think we’re a little further from civil strife, a little closer to Florida being called for Biden by 10 pm ET.”
Immediate polling from both CNN and CBS was favorable for Biden. CNN reported that 60% of viewers thought Biden did a better job, compared to only 28% for Trump. The polling was closer at CBS, with 48% saying Biden won, 41% saying Trump won and 10% calling it a tie.
CBS also found that 83% of the viewers said the tone of the debate was “negative” and the overriding feeling coming out of the viewing was annoyance. Compared to the 69% who said the debate made them feel “annoyed,” only 17% said it made them feel “informed.”
The Proud Boys react
There was one group who approved of Trump’s performance: the Proud Boys, a right-wing, misogynistic group that is often accused of being white supremacists.
At one point in the debate, Wallace attempted to get Trump to denounce white supremacists. Such hate groups have routinely shown support for Trump and are the main source of terrorism in the US, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). In the past, Trump has sidestepped the questions about white supremacy by saying “both sides” commit violence.
When pressed to denounce white supremacy during the debate, Trump replied, “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by. But I’ll tell you what: Somebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the left."
Observers noted that Trump did not denounce white supremacists. On Parler, the Twitter-aping social media platform with mostly right-wing users, members of the group celebrated, with far-right agitator Joe Biggs posting, “Trump basically said to go fuck them up! this makes me so happy.”
An official Proud Boys group on the Telegram messaging app quickly posted a new image with Trump’s words turned into a logo.
Trump demands drug tests
One of the more eyebrow-raising storylines leading up to Tuesday night’s debate was Trump’s insistence that the two candidates be drug tested prior to the event. Trump, who has spent much of the campaign insisting that Biden is losing his mental faculties, stated on multiple occasions that Biden would use performance-enhancing drugs to help him through the debates.
On the eve of the debate, Trump tweeted, “Joe Biden just announced that he will not agree to a Drug Test. Gee, I wonder why?”
The response of Kate Bedingfield, the Biden campaign’s deputy campaign manager, turned Trump’s demands for drug testing back on the president.
“Vice President Biden intends to deliver his debate answers in words. If the president thinks his best case is made in urine he can have at it. We’d expect nothing less from Donald Trump, who pissed away the chance to protect the lives of 200K Americans when he didn’t make a plan to stop COVID-19.”
Some commentators believed Trump’s continued insistence that Biden is in mental decline likely benefited Biden by lowering expectations for the Democrat. As Vox co-founder Mathew Yglesias ironically noted on Twitter prior to the debate, “Big challenges for tomorrow night’s debate — Trump: Reverse the majority of the electorate’s negative view of his character and job performance as formed by five years of saturation level media exposure. Biden: Demonstrate that he does not literally have dementia.”
Trump made the same claims of drug use against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton prior to the 2016 debates.
The next debates
The candidates have just over two weeks to prepare for their next meeting.
The second debate is scheduled for Thursday, October 15 and will be held in Miami, Florida. The moderator for that debate will be Steve Scully, a senior executive producer and political editor for the C-SPAN television network. This debate will be in a town hall format, meaning the candidates will take questions from audience members.
The third and final presidential debate will take place on Thursday, October 22, in Nashville, Tennessee. It will be moderated by Kristen Welker, a White House correspondent for NBC News. It will follow the same format as the first debate.The vice presidential debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris will be held on Wednesday, October 7 in Salt Lake City, Utah. It will be moderated by Susan Page, the Washington Bureau Chief for USA Today. This debate will follow the format of the first and third presidential debates, but with nine 10-minute segments.
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