The final debate was the one voters deserved
The final 2020 presidential debate struck a more civil and substantive tone, but it is unlikely the change the state of the race going into its final week.
It’s hard to imagine a debate more different from the chaotic first contest between Donald Trump and Joe Biden than the October 22 meeting. As the two candidates prepared to take the stage in Nashville, speculation centered on how Trump and Biden would be prevented from interrupting each other in order that American voters could hear a substantive debate on the issues facing the nation.
From the start, it became clear that the moderator, NBC News’ Kristen Welker, and the automatic muting feature would be the night’s big winners. Ms. Welker was firmly in control throughout the debate, receiving social media plaudits from her fellow journalists, including “a tip of the Stetson” from legendary former CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather.
In the aftermath of the first debate, the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates had also negotiated with both campaigns to mute each candidate’s microphone while the other gave his initial two-minute response to a question. This worked wonders, allowing voters to understand what Trump and Biden had to say on each issue. While both microphones remained on during the rest of each topical segment, strong moderation and a more restrained approach from the president kept the candidates in line and interruptions to a minimum.
The debate began with the most pressing issue of the day – the COVID-19 pandemic – before moving on to national security, health care, and race relations, among other subjects. Much like the vice presidential debate, perhaps the most striking feature of this meeting was the lack of any single, stand-out moment.
Still, Americans were able to hear the candidates articulate their differing visions of the state of the nation and what they would do in the next four years. On coronavirus, the divergence was most stark. Trump touted his administration’s response, focused on the vaccine he hopes will be widely available in a matter of weeks or months, and brushed off the danger of new viral spikes. In contrast, Biden warned of a “dark winter” and promised policy changes – including expanded testing and more economic aid to those affected by the pandemic – that, according to him, would bring life closer to pre-pandemic normalcy.
On health care, Trump praised his termination of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate while promising that, if the law were repealed by Congress or struck down by the Supreme Court in its entirety, his administration would replace it with his own comprehensive health care plan that would continue to cover preexisting conditions. Biden scoffed at this possibility, pointing out that the Trump administration has failed to present such a plan in the last four years. He also rebuffed Trump’s attempts to wrongly equate the so-called “Bidencare” plan – which proposes a public option for health care while allowing those who wish to remain on their private plans – with the more progressive Medicare-for-All plans of some of Biden’s former primary opponents.
Trump also tried to put Biden on the defensive with repeated accusations of foreign influence on the longtime politician. These attacks, though, were incoherently delivered and based on unsubstantiated documentation. In any event, voters are more concerned with practical issues like the economy and health care, especially in the midst of the pandemic, than with political mudslinging about corruption.
If there were any salient themes or moments from the debate, Trump’s consistent use of falsehoods on a wide range of issues could qualify. While this has become par for the course over the last four years, it is still worth pointing out. And, in the only moment from the debate that has drawn continued coverage, Biden stated that his administration would phase out the oil industry in favor of renewable energy, which has drawn pushback even from some moderate Democrats.
In the end, just like the previous debates, this contest is unlikely to have made a drastic impact on the state of the race. Going into the debate, over forty million people had already cast their ballots either by mail or in-person early voting. This and the polarization of contemporary politics means that, in the final days of the campaign, there is only a tiny slice of the electorate that remains undecided, and this debate likely did little to sway them in any clear direction.
The candidates avoided any major slip-ups, but with polls showing a commanding Biden lead – both nationally and in most swing states – with far fewer undecided voters than in 2016, maintaining the status quo is a win for the former vice president. For President Trump, at this late stage, anything short of a decisive reversal of momentum has to be considered a defeat, and this debate was another hour and a half in the rearview mirror during which Trump failed to put his campaign on the upswing.