Political News

The general election debates are over. Here's what we learned

Posted October 24, 2020 6:02 a.m. EDT

— One debate devolved into chaos. Another one offered American voters a clearer contrast between President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden.

And in between, Trump's bout with coronavirus -- including a hospital trip and a refusal to participate in a virtual debate -- cost the President one of his last opportunities to change the trajectory of the 2020 race while tens of millions of votes were already being cast. Instead, there were dueling nationally televised town halls, in which Trump's bombast drew a slightly smaller audience than Biden's more measured performance.

Visit CNN's Election Center for full coverage of the 2020 race

Here are nine takeaways from this year's two presidential debates, with town halls in between, and one vice presidential debate:

Coronavirus dominated

The extent to which the pandemic that has killed more than 223,000 Americans is the dominant factor in politics and in voters' lives was clear not just in the debates' content -- but their logistics, as well.

After the first debate, Trump faced backlash over his entourage ignoring the Cleveland Clinic's request to wear masks, which only escalated after he tested positive for the virus himself two days later. A week later, at the vice presidential debate, plexiglass separated Vice President Mike Pence and California Sen. Kamala Harris. The week after that, Trump pulled out of what the Commission on Presidential Debates had tried -- largely because of the President's health -- to turn into a virtual debate.

On Thursday night, Trump offered overly optimistic projections about the availability of a vaccine. Biden said he would push Americans to wear masks, develop guidelines for schools and businesses to reopen and ask Congress for more money to help them do so. But their most fundamental difference is over how Americans should adapt to the presence of the virus.

"We're learning to live with it," Trump said.

"Learning to live with it?" Biden shot back. "Come on. We're dying with it."

A tale of two Trumps

Trump was a wrecking ball in the first debate, constantly interrupting Biden and moderator Chris Wallace while ignoring the questions he'd been asked. But he remained much calmer in their final showdown -- letting NBC's Kristen Welker ask and Biden answer questions while delivering the kind of night that had Republicans worried about a down-ballot disaster on November 3 breathing sighs of relief.

"I'm jealous," Wallace said on Fox News after Thursday night's debate. "I would've liked to have been able to moderate that debate and get a real exchange of views instead of hundreds of interruptions."

The problem for Trump: With 50 million votes already cast, it might have been too late for a stronger performance to make much difference.

Biden went three-for-two

CNN's instant post-debate polls -- scientific surveys of Americans who watched the debates -- showed that a majority believed Biden won the first (60% Biden, 28% Trump) and the second (53% to Trump's 39%) matchup.

But he also was the clear political winner of the one that didn't happen -- a town hall-style debate scheduled for last week in Miami but scrapped after Trump refused to go along with the debate commission's decision to switch to a virtual format.

In dropping out of the debate, Trump sacrificed one of his only opportunities to change the trajectory of a race that polls show he is losing.

View Trump and Biden head-to-head polling

Instead, the candidates agreed to what became dueling nationally televised town halls. Trump struggled through a combative session with NBC's Savannah Guthrie, while Biden's display of a calm demeanor and grasp of policy specifics in his session with ABC's George Stephanopoulos led top Trump campaign adviser Mercedes Schlapp to compare him to Mr. Rogers. The biggest shocker: Nielsen ratings showed that Biden's town hall drew a larger live television audience than Trump's.

Trump's 2016 playbook fizzled

The President tried to bring into the mainstream the unproven conspiracies about Biden's son Hunter Biden's overseas business dealings that have dominated right-wing outlets and social media in recent weeks.

But he failed. Trump got bogged down by vague references to emails, pillows and blankets and "the big man" that only the most ardent devotees of places like Breitbart and Sean Hannity's Fox News program would understand. And then, as the debate ended, the Wall Street Journal posted a story that Trump had anticipated being a game-changer -- but that ultimately wiped out the underpinnings of his claims of Biden family corruption.

The episode demonstrated how different Trump is finding the challenge of facing Biden, who polls show is relatively popular, from running four years ago against Hillary Clinton, who was already unpopular and couldn't escape the cloud of her private email server.

Trump's 'why didn't you do it' punch landed

The President on Thursday night skewered Biden for failing to solve problems like systemic racism over 47 years in elected office.

"You keep talking about all these things you're going to do. Why didn't you get it done?" Trump said.

It wasn't a clean hit, because it allowed Biden to recount some Obama administration achievements. But if Trump's aim was to diminish Biden's promises on their core policy disagreements, it was his best-executed strategy.

But he never came up with a second-term agenda

The contrast was glaring: Biden offered a $15-an-hour minimum wage, stimulus spending to help struggling local governments and schools and jump-start the nation's transition to clean energy, a health care plan that would protect those with pre-existing conditions more.

Trump offered very little in the way of forward-looking policy. He spent both debates defending his handling of the pandemic, defending himself against Biden's characterization of him as racist and casting doubt on Biden's ability to achieve his agenda -- but he never outlined what a second Trump term might look like.

Health care was a problem of Trump's own creation

Trump spent portions of both debates denying the reality of his own actions. His administration has argued to the Supreme Court that it should undo Obamacare, including its protections for those with pre-existing conditions. Trump repeated his hope that the Affordable Care Act would be wiped out in an interview with CBS' "60 Minutes" that he posted on Twitter hours before Thursday night's debate.

Trump has long promised -- but never actually delivered -- a plan that would replace Obamacare, including its protections for those with pre-existing conditions. That failure put him on defense on an issue that cost his party the 2018 midterm elections and could prove damaging this year as well.

Biden slipped on oil late

It might have been one of the former vice president's only significant errors of either debate: He said Thursday night he would "transition from the oil industry."

Trump immediately pounced, calling it a "big statement" and asking if ears had perked up in energy- and manufacturing-heavy states. "Will you remember that, Texas?" he said. "Will you remember that, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Ohio?"

Biden's campaign sought to limit the damage afterward, saying he was referring just to federal subsidies for the oil industry and that he meant it in the context of slowly transitioning away from fossil fuels as the nation combats climate change. Still, some Democrats in oil-producing states distanced themselves from Biden. New Mexico Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, a first-term House member in a competitive race, tweeted that she disagreed with Biden and will "stand up to my party when they're out of touch with the reality on the ground."

Another Biden error: He said Trump was lying when the President said Biden had previously opposed fracking. Biden has, in fact, said he opposed fracking -- though he has since reversed himself and said he would not stop fracking for natural gas, which is important to the economy of some swing states like Pennsylvania. By asserting that he hadn't said something that he is clearly on video saying, Biden handed Trump's campaign easy advertising fodder.

The VP debate was a draw

Pence's tendency to filibuster by answering questions he'd like to have been asked, rather than the ones USA Today's Susan Page actually asked, was on full display in his one meeting with Harris. But Harris chose to play it safe, aware of the dynamics of being the first woman of color on a major party ticket and that a do-no-harm strategy made sense for a ticket that polls show is leading nationally and in key battleground states.

Ultimately, voters typically cast their ballots based on who's on top of the ticket. The vice presidential debate did nothing to change that this year.

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