President Donald Trump decided on September 29 to bring his chaotic and confrontational style directly to the Presidential Debate stage at his first face-off with Democrat Joe Biden, seemingly unconcerned that his approach has alienated many independent and moderate voters. Despite his confidence in this approach, President Trump’s performance is likely to be remembered as one of the worst debate performances of any politician in recent memory. Trump’s frequent interruptions and personal barbs during the roughly 90-minute showdown were the personifications of his re-election strategy, which has mainly focused on exciting a core group of die-hard supporters who revel in his willingness to insult and shock while giving no ground. And he at times flustered Biden, who Trump has for months attempted to paint as senile, with unrelenting attacks on his family and policies. But Biden never looked out-of-touch, and he did match Trump attack for attack, calling the President a “clown,” a “racist” and “the worst president America’s ever had.”
Polls have shown that President Donald Trump cannot win re-election with his base alone. Instead, it is imperative for President Trump to to reverse his fortunes at least around the margins with college-educated, suburban, and female voters who are dismayed by the controversies of his first term. There was little evidence his debate performance would accomplish any of that, particularly as he refused to explicitly disavow White supremacists and suggested he would not leave office if the election results were not to his liking. Joe Biden is currently leading Trump by about seven percentage points in national polls, a remarkably consistent lead over recent months. Additionally, Trump’s debate performance is unlikely to boost his support in the polls.
Even some of his supporters though President Donald Trump took it too far. “It was too hot,” former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, President Trump’s debate coach, said after the debate on ABC News. “Listen, you come in, decide you want to be aggressive and that was the right thing to be aggressive, but that was too hot. And I think that what happens is, with all that heat, as you said before, you lose the light.” The display was unnerving for viewers at home, with the sitting President goading and talking over his rival, matched with a two-term former Vice President reduced to name-calling. Moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News struggled to maintain order, reminding Trump frequently that his own campaign had agreed to the debate’s rules. CNN anchor Dana Bash, flabbergasted, called the event a “s–tshow” on live television after it was over. In a CBS News poll of debate watchers, 69% described themselves as “annoyed” while another 19% said they were “pessimistic.”
The intent of President Donald Trump’s strategy was apparent in Joe Biden’s performance: the former Vice President offered some of his best answers of the night on issues like voting rights and the President’s tax returns when given stretches of uninterrupted time. He gave an emotional tribute to his son, Beau, an Iraq war veteran who died of brain cancer. At other times Biden adopted a look of weary resignation as he struggled to wrangle a President who revels in confrontational insults and made-for-TV verbal sparring. Biden seemed to struggle under some of President Trump’s barrages, particularly involving his family, simply repeating that the president’s statements were untrue. “Will you shut up, man?” Biden said to Trump at one point. But the frenetic pace and sloppy arguments meant the former vice president at no point committed a debate-night gaffe likely to jeopardize his steady lead in the race. And for Trump, his behavior seemed only to solidify, or even worsen, existing perceptions, while doing little to change the underlying dynamics.
President Donald Trump’s worst moment in the debate was his hesitation to condemn White supremacist organizations under pressure from both Wallace and Biden. When Wallace asked a second time what he would say to the Proud Boys, a violent White nationalist group, President Trump said they should “stand back and stand by.” But, Trump added, “This is not a right wing problem, this is a left wing problem.”Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only African American Republican in the Senate, said it is his view that Trump “misspoke” by not condemning White supremacists but that he needs to make it clear. “I think he should correct it,” Scott told reporters . “If he doesn’t correct it I guess he didn’t misspeak.”
President Donald Trump consistently gets low ratings for his combative style. A New York Times/Siena College poll released on September 28 showed that 34% approve of his efforts to unify America, even less than the 41% who approve of his handling the coronavirus. And while 35% of Americans say the country’s political divisions will get worse if Joe Biden is elected, half of all Americans believe a second Trump term would further fracture the nation. That image is a particular problem with women and independents, two-thirds of whom say he is doing a poor job bringing the country together.
A focus group of undecided voters conducted by Republican pollster Frank Luntz after the debate saw voters acknowledge that President Donald Trump dominated the debate, but reject his tactics. The majority described Trump negatively, with one Pennsylvania woman saying she was now voting for Biden because the President acted like a “crackhead.” Whitney Mitchell Brennan, a Democratic strategist tracking suburban women in the election, said that Trump’s demeanor throughout the debate cost him. She was texting with female friends from across the political spectrum during the debate, and they all were upset by what they saw as disrespectful behavior toward Biden and Wallace. “I think he turned off suburban swing women with this, and they’re the very voters he needs to win over right now,” she said.
President Donald Trump’s allies defended his approach, saying he had succeeded in raising questions about Joe Biden’s son Hunter work overseas and appearing to be the more agile debater. And, they argued, Chris Wallace’s criticism of Trump fed the notion, particularly acute among the President’s core supporters, that the media was working against him.
“I think people want to see people who are fighters,” Donald Trump Jr. said of his father’s performance.