Last night President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden competed in a debate of sorts, with each presidential candidate speaking in a town hall hosted at the same time by different news stations. Joe Biden appeared on the American Broadcasting Company with host George Stephanopoulos while Trump appeared on NBC News with host Savannah Guthrie.
Although Biden in Pennsylvania and Trump in Florida were separated to opposite ends of the country, both entered their respective highly-anticipated debates with movie trailer-esque dialogue and music. Trump’s NBC interview took place on the Miami coast, with many viewers in the audience outdoors and bright pink lights illuminating the American flag-themed stage. Biden, on the other hand, had a nearly vacant auditorium indoors painted dull blues. These settings were fitting for both debates, with Trump in a heated debate with Guthrie viewers could not take their eyes off of, and Biden in a majorly relaxed conversation full of informatory speeches.
NBC host Guthrie started the night off with a bold introduction by acknowledging Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis, refusal to debate Joe Biden remotely, and the close nature of the election that allowed the town hall to come into fruition. During Trump’s first hot topic discussion of the night which regarded his COVID-19 diagnosis, he admitted he did not know when his last negative test was nor whether he was tested before his first debate with Joe Biden. When asked about releasing his tax returns, after Guthrie confirmed there was no rule prohibiting him from doing so, Trump said, “No, except common sense, and intelligence, and having lawyers that say. . . . Because I would love to release them, and as soon as we come to a conclusion, I will release them.”
Later in the night, Guthrie asked Trump about his retweeting far-right conspiracy theories, involving the “fake death” of Osama Bin Laden. Trump insisted his retweeting did not mean he endorsed the theory, but that he will “put it out there” so that “people can decide for themselves.” During the same discussion, ironically, Trump criticized news media for spreading misinformation: “Frankly, because the media is so fake, and so corrupt, if I didn’t have social media . . . I wouldn’t be able to get the word out.” Trump criticized the media, even the hosts of NBC and Guthrie, throughout the night, specifically during his segment denouncing White supremacy, where he was quick to bring up Antifa. During this segment, he also refused to denounce QAnon, praising their stance against pedophilia and claiming to know nothing else about it.
However, Biden, like Trump, was challenged with tough questions, though even his moments were less tension-filled than Trump’s. Biden was asked about his supporting the 1994 Crime Bill, which has been widely acknowledged as racist by groups such as the NAACP. Although he did state that “it was a mistake” to support the 1994 Crime Bill, he also defended parts of it: “The mistake came in terms of what the states did locally. What we did federally . . . it was all about the same time for the same crime,” said Biden. An audience member also asked Biden why young Black voters should vote for Biden, referencing his racially offensive comment: “If you don’t vote for me, you ain’t Black.” Biden did not apologize for the comment but instead lobbied for himself by addressing Black viewers and explaining how he planned to increase their wealth, education, and communities.
Another memorable moment of the night was when Biden refused to answer whether he would pack the court by arguing the more important discussion to have was of Trump rushing Justice Amy Coney Barret’s nomination as the election is underway. “[Y]ou know the moment I answer that question, the headline in every one of your papers will be about that,” said Biden in an attempt to move the discussion towards Barrett’s nomination. Additionally, Biden mentioned that, historically, he has not supported court-packing and said he would give a direct answer before the election is over, depending on how the GOP handles the Barrett nomination.
Despite — and even, perhaps, including Trump’s tension-filled night with Guthrie — both debates went exactly as one would expect. Neither candidate revealed much new information, instead often skirting around hard questions, and doubling down on their most frequent talking points. For Biden, this included his tax plan, criticizing Trump’s COVID-19 response, and environmental reform. Trump’s talking points included his claims mail-in ballots are being sabotaged, condemning “Antifa” and non-peaceful protesters, and insisting on the merit of his administration’s COVID-19 response.
While Guthrie’s fast-paced fact-checking caused some viewers and Trump’s own Director of Strategic Communications to believe his host had a biased agenda against him, he certainly had fans in his crowd of “undecided” voters. One woman was very prominent behind Trump while the camera filmed him and could be seen throughout the entire production nodding her head and even putting a thumbs up as Trump spoke. Another woman complimented the President’s smile before asking her question, and then called him handsome, which earned a round of applause — further curious for the “unbiased” crowd. While Guthrie did remain factual in her critiques of Trump, her use of a metaphor comparing Trump to a “crazy uncle . . . retweet[ing] anything” was regarded as controversial.
Joe Biden’s audience seemed solemn and quiet, though before and after the town hall ended, he talked to audience members about their concerns. At one point during the debate, specifically after the touchy question of his racist remark, Biden even offered to talk to the questioner after the event to better answer his question.
Biden’s relationship with his host George Stephanopoulos seemed more relaxed than Trump’s with Guthrie, though Stephanopoulos definitely held Biden accountable in a similar fashion with frequent fact-checking. Both hosts overall did a considerably better job fact-checking and enforcing time schedules than those of the Presidential and Vice-Presidential debates, Christopher Wallace and Susan Page, who received similar criticisms from viewers.
Overall, ABC’s Biden town hall gathered over 700,000 more viewers than NBC’s featuring Trump, despite his more lively, controversy-filled performance. According to the Washington Post, “ABC averaged 14.1 million viewers, compared to about 13.5 million for Trump’s NBC town hall.”
Despite the rating race, however, recent polls have predicted a close presidential race. Hopefully, due to these town halls, viewers had a better grasp of who to vote for with the election just a little over two weeks away.
Featured image: Courtesy of the Washington Post