The presidential candidates’ performances at the first and third debates and their unconventional dueling town hall events have disappointed Americans.
The first presidential debate of the 2020 election year was memorable, not because of the policy discussed or the points made, but because of the interruptions and bickering. The second debate was replaced with simultaneous televised town halls.
On Sept 29 in Cleveland, OH Republican nominee President Donald Trump faced Democratic nominee Joe Biden in a debate that left many of the 73 million watchers unimpressed. The debate covered six topics in fifteen-minute segments, with moderator Chris Wallace in charge of asking questions and guiding the conversation. This model proved ineffective, however, when Trump began repeatedly interrupting both Biden and Wallace. CBS News counted 73 interruptions by Trump throughout the event. This clearly frustrated Biden, who asked the President to “Shut up,” multiple times. The format of the debate was so ineffective and widely criticized that The Commission on Presidential Debates issued a statement the day after acknowledging that “additional structure should be added” to future debates, although they didn’t specify what those changes would be.
Mia Heidenreich, a liberal-leaning student at Alfred University, thinks that the debate moderator should be able to mute the candidates’ microphones so they can minimize interruptions. Heidenreich isn’t alone. Debate-watchers flooded social media with similar comments, many demanding that mic cuts become standard. Even conservative watchers, like I.T. technician Ben Grover, suggested that microphones be muted.
“The interruptions really took away from the material,” Grover said.
The chance to see what changes the CPD would make was dashed when the second presidential debate was canceled. In response to President Donald Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis and speedy recovery, the CPD organized the debate to be held though an online video conference. Trump refused to attend such a debate, citing the potential for his microphone to be muted as a reason why. To replace the debate Biden organized a town hall on ABC. Trump quickly followed suit, setting up his town hall with NBC at the same time.
On Oct 15, when Americans were supposed to tune into the second debate, they instead had to choose between two separate, simultaneous town hall events hosted by the candidates.
Already exhausted from the last debate, watchers were primarily focused on the candidates’ behavior, although many hoped to see more policy talk. Trump was defensive and brash while Biden relied on calm, long-winded answers. Both candidates were asked to confront issues that they had dodged at the debate, which they answered with varying levels of poise. Viewers that flipped between the two events commented on the stark contrast of mood, likening Biden’s performance to an episode of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and calling Trump’s frantic.
The final debate took place this past Thursday evening, and was a little more tolerable for the American public. Less people tuned in to watch the debate, but those who did again voted that Biden won the night, according to a Politico and Morning Consult flash poll.
Watchers like Heidenreich were happy to see that the mics were muted during the candidate’s initial two minute responses, but were disappointed again when the two were still able to talk over one another.
A poll from the New York Times and Siena College showed that both candidates lost support because of their behavior during the debates.
“I wasn’t impressed with either one of them,” Grover said.
But, when voters had to choose a winner Biden came out on top. Reactions to the town halls were similar, with headlines suggesting that Biden pulled a stronger lead than he had weeks before.
Despite the ultimate failure of both events, presidential debates are still expected to be a part of presidential campaigns.
“Coming into a debate, it allows [the candidates] to be caught off guard. They can’t completely prepare for it. And I think that’s important, because if they’re hiding part of who they are sometimes that can come out in a debate” said Heidenreich. Grover agrees, but is interested in some larger tweaks to the format.
“The questions that the moderator talks about… should maybe be discussed by a board of people,” said Grover, explaining that a group of very different individuals preparing the questions would help eliminate any bias.
He goes on to endorse an idea for the candidates to present policy plans before the debate. “Take the time to go into a… thing saying ‘This is where we’re at, this is what I plan on doing, these are my points’ and then use the debate to go between the two,” Grover said, noting that two minutes isn’t enough time for the candidates to dive into any topic. After all, he said, what he’s looking for in the debates is a comparison of the candidate’s policies, and it’s not something that he got in the last debate.
By Dale Mott-Slater