President Donald Trump and the former Vice President, Joe Biden, met in Cleveland at the Case Western Reserve University for the first of three televised debates.
Chris Wallace, of Fox News, chaired the debate little over five years he oversaw Trump’s first taste of political campaigning at the first Republican primary debate in the same city.
The hour-and-a-half of back and forth between the 74-year-old former property tycoon and the 77-year-old career politician, was divided into six topics.
The sections discussed included: the Supreme Court, coronavirus, the economy, race and riots, their personal records and the integrity of the election.
From the outset, Wallace was unable to keep control of proceedings and it became apparent that the niceties of debating had, despite the ongoing pandemic, reached a new low.
The President, in particular, was accused of “pushing too hard” against both Biden and Wallace according to the reputable pollster, Frank Luntz. Trump interrupted his opponent on seventy-three occasions and in an three-minute exchange on healthcare he bombarded Biden around ten times.
This made it hard for American voters to hear answers to any questions on policy. Despite this, Trump spoke for just 38 minutes, while the former Senator for Delaware spoke for 43 minutes.
Many political commentators saw the debate as an opportunity for Trump to try and revitalise his re-election bid. Before the two men took to the stage, the President fell behind Biden by 6.1 per cent nationwide and in the critical swing states he trailed by 3.5 per cent.
Nevertheless, the way Trump conducted himself would not have done much to convert voters. According to Republican pollster, Neil Newhouse, to turn the tide Trump needed to make his policies clear and distinct.
“The Trump campaign needs to turn this from a referendum on his presidency to a choice”, Newhouse said.
In complete contrast to Newhouse’s suggestions, Trump personally attacked Biden’s intelligence, noting that the former Vice President misled voters about his university qualifications.
Trump also went on to attack Biden’s son, Hunter, both for his drug problem and activities in Ukraine and Russia. This reinstated some of Trump’s more flawed credentials in the minds of the American electorate.
But Biden did not hold back either. He told the President to “shut up” and even labelled Trump a “clown”, “liar” and a “racist”.
The former Vice President did however fail to land a significant blow against the incumbent on the recent revelations in the New York Times that Trump paid just $750 in tax.
The first question both candidates addressed was on Trump’s plan to nominate Catholic conservative, Amy Coney Barrett, to the Supreme Court.
The President made the constitutional argument that: “We won the election. Elections have consequences. We have the Senate and the White House and a phenomenal nominee respected by all.”
Biden’s reply seemed to revolve around the future of Obamacare. A policy that is more popular now than it was in 2016. And he did urge for the decision to be delayed until the American people have their say on November 3.
A stumbling block for Biden did come when he was asked who he would promote to the Supreme Court. By failing to give a name he opened himself up to be accused by Trump of being in the pockets of the hard left.
On coronavirus, both candidates accused one another of abject failures. Biden cited the national death toll, which has now exceeded 200,000, and goaded Trump by saying that “maybe you could just inject some bleach in your arm”.
Nevertheless, the President replied that his opponent’s objection to the China travel ban would have resulted in approximately two million deaths. It would, therefore, appear that even on such a serious topic neither candidate could hold back from personal attacks.
Most polls suggest that a majority of American voters see Trump as the stronger of the two candidates on the economy. Biden’s central argument was that the President “blew” the booming economy that he inherited from the Obama-Biden administration.
Nonetheless, the President quickly pointed out that the economy was at record highs before the outbreak of the coronavirus and is now recovering far quicker than anticipated.
Trump also refuted Biden’s claim that he had driven US manufacturing into a “hole”, saying that: “they said it would take a miracle to bring back manufacturing, I brought back 700,000 jobs.”
But the Republican’s trump card revolved around a future national shutdown. Trump accused Biden of “destroying this country” by favouring an additional national shutdown to combat Covid-19.
Not only did he warn of the economic catastrophe that a second lockdown could cause, citing the “ghost town” of New York, but he also suggested that the effect of families, whether that be divorce or alcohol abuse, was not a price worth paying.
Both men stumbled at crucial points on the contentious issue of race and rioting.
When asked to condemn white supremacists, the President failed to do so definitively. Instead Trump controversially said: “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by”.
Biden baffling claim that Antifa “is an idea, not an organisation” and then struggled to name a single law enforcement group that has openly endorsed his bid for the White House.
Unsurprisingly, Obama’s running mate utilised the following segment on their personal records to berate Trump for making the country “weaker, sicker, poorer, more divided and more violent”.
It was in this section that Biden accused Trump of supposedly calling American war heroes “losers”, as reported in the Atlantic.
The President was briefly able to clap back against Biden’s accusations claiming that this was another example of fake news. Trump then went on to insist it was Biden who spoke down to American troops when he called military personnel “stupid bastards”.
The debate ended with a jostle on the integrity of the election. Trump warned that we might not know the result of the election “for months”.
The President then declined to say whether or not he would accept the outcome of the election, citing serious concerns over fraudulent voting.
But Biden suggested that Trump himself uses postal voting from behind “the Resolute Desk… [when] his ballot [is sent] to Florida”.
The former Vice President did have a brief moment to speak uninterrupted to the American people.
He said: “Show up and vote. You will determine the outcome of this election. Vote, vote, vote… He cannot stop you from being able to determine the outcome of this election.’
Biden, or as the President refers to him “Sleepy Joe”, did not slip up or produce any gaffes that Republicans hoped would help them to reduce the gap in the polls.
Instead, while looking tired at times and often silenced by the abrasive Trump, the Democratic nominee held firm.
Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic-leaning political analyst, took to Twitter to explain that: “Joe Biden walked into the debate the front runner and left the front runner.”
Trump “lost suburban women and seniors tonight… and he has to win them back to stay in the White House”, she added.
When asked by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos whether that was the debate that the Trump team prepared for, the former Governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, said “no” and suggested that Trump was “too hot”. However, Christie remained hopeful that this can be fixed for future debates.
Snap polling from YouGov for CBS found that 48 per cent of respondents thought that Biden was the victor in the debate, compared to just 41 per cent who believed that Trump was the winner.
The President, therefore, underperformed in the eyes of the electorate as pre-debate polls expected Trump to outclass Biden.
But YouGov’s polls went further. It found that 69 per cent of viewers were “annoyed” about the conduct of the debate. Another 31 per cent were “entertained” and 19 per cent felt “pessimistic”.
Just 17 per cent of respondents said that the ninety-minutes had “informed” them, highlighting that the personalities of the two Presidential hopefuls clouded the American peoples’ ability to assess key policy areas.
It is estimated that around 14 per cent of American voters are “undecided” as to how they will vote on November 3.
Given just how chaotic the debate was and how little the two candidates spoke about the specifics of their proposed policies, it is hard to believe that either candidate would have swayed many undecided voters.
Unlike the 2016 debates between Trump and Hillary Clinton, the spread of Covid-19 has forced the town-hall audience to be reduced to around eighty individuals.
Nevertheless, it is estimated that almost 100 million Americans tuned in to watch the debate.
But it is unclear how many people switched off from the debate when it turned sour.
The pair will have two more opportunities to put their vision to the nation. The first in Miami, Florida on October 15 and the second in Nashville, Tennessee just one week later.
By J Walters