President Trump had already steered the first presidential debate far off its traditional rails Tuesday night when the topic moved to the coronavirus pandemic. It was Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s turn to answer, but that didn’t matter to Trump.
As he interrupted and moderator Chris Wallace tried to intercede, Biden faced the camera.
“Do you believe for a moment what he’s telling you in light of all the lies he’s told you about the whole issue relating to COVID?” Biden said. “He still hasn’t even acknowledged that he knew this was happening, knew how dangerous it was going to be back in February, and he didn’t even tell you.”
The tactic to ignore Trump’s distractions and speak directly to the American people helped Biden navigate a chaotic debate, according to analysts and debate experts.
The former vice president didn’t have a great night, they said. He missed opportunities to counter some of Trump’s contentions with key facts and engaged in name-calling himself. But Trump set the bar low for Biden’s performance. And Trump’s barrage of interruptions and insults allowed Biden to look competent, empathetic, and presidential in comparison, said Aaron Kall, an expert on presidential debates at the University of Michigan.
“The best thing he did was, instead of showing his anger and channeling it directly toward Trump, he pivoted in several instances directly toward the camera,'' said Kall, editor and coauthor of the 2016 book “Debating the Donald.” "He didn’t speak to Trump. He took his message directly to the viewers — the American people.”
This was the test Democrats had been awaiting and in some ways dreading for months: did Biden have the fight, the stamina, and the discipline to successfully battle Trump on the debate stage for 90 minutes? When the smoke cleared, Biden appeared to have emerged largely unscathed, with three scientific post-debate polls showing him as the winner.
“He benefited by the fact that, by comparison, Trump was much worse,” said Stuart Rothenberg, senior editor of the nonpartisan Inside Elections newsletter. "I think in the end Democrats probably took a deep breath, a sigh of relief, and said, ‘Joe did fine.’ "
That’s saying something given the fusillade of attacks from Trump, who has consistently trailed Biden in national and battleground state polls and needed to change the race’s trajectory.
A preliminary analysis by Mitchell S. McKinney, director of the Political Communication Institute at the University of Missouri, found that the debate exceeded the record set in 2016 for attacks and interruptions at a presidential debate. He said he saw it in the reaction of 200 debate watchers the institute gathered virtually and surveyed afterward.
“I’ve never seen anything like this and I’ve been doing this for decades. They were shellshocked,” McKinney said of the reaction of the college students. “Usually they’re eager to weigh in. Last night they were muted and silent. They had to regain composure and try to reflect on what happened. It took them a while."
They weren’t the only ones. Immediately after the debate, some observers, including Rothenberg, argued that the clash — the first of three presidential debates — should be the last this year.
“We don’t need another presidential debate,” tweeted Representative Jackie Speier, a California Democrat. “Cancel the next 2.”
Former Clinton White House press secretary Joe Lockhart tweeted that the Commission on Presidential Debates, the nonpartisan group that sponsors them, “has to figure out how to get Trump to cooperate with the rules” or pull the plug this year.
On Wednesday, the commission issued a statement saying the debate “made clear that additional structure should be added to the format of the remaining debates to ensure a more orderly discussion of the issues.” New measures will be announced soon.
But the Biden campaign made clear he would participate in the final two debates even as Biden described Trump’s performance as “a national embarrassment” on Wednesday. There is a town hall-style event on Oct. 15 in Miami and the finale a week later in Nashville, which will be the same format as Tuesday night. Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, are scheduled to debate Wednesday in Salt Lake City.
“Joe Biden’s never going to refuse to talk to the American people,” Harris told CNN after the debate when asked if she thought he should participate in the rest of the debates.
Debate experts agreed Biden should continue to participate, or he’d cede the stage completely to Trump. But they said Biden had room for improvement.
“He likely did cross the political line a few times, telling the president of the United States to shut up, calling the president a clown, which he quickly tried to take back in real time. He called him a racist,” Kall said. “It has the potential to undermine his unity and reconciliation message.”
But Biden faced an onslaught of attacks and needed to respond to some of them, particularly those about his sons, Kall said. He pointed to 1988 Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis, the former Massachusetts governor, who responded with a dry policy response to a debate question about whether he would support the death penalty if his wife were raped and murdered.
“He showed no emotion at all and he was excoriated over that,” Kall said of Dukakis. “Biden did not make that mistake. When his family was attacked, he did show emotion.”
Wilnelia Rivera, a Boston-based Democratic strategist, said it was fine for Biden to punch back when his family was attacked. But she said he needs to avoid counterattacking too frequently. Biden was most effective when speaking directly to viewers about the troubles they’re facing — and he needs to do more of that in the next debates, she said.
“Trying to go toe-to-toe with the brand of strongman that Trump has created, it’s not Biden’s strength, but most importantly it doesn’t evoke empathy,” Rivera said. “We need him to be the contrast to the style that Trump is displaying and his campaign is displaying.”
Biden’s response to misstatements by Trump often lacked specifics, simply saying that Trump’s comments were not true or that he was lying.
“I’m not here to call out his lies," Biden said Tuesday night. “Everybody knows he’s a liar.”
Biden does not want to spend most of his time fact-checking Trump, but should seize opportunities in the next two debates to counter some misstatements with facts, Kall said. For example, when Trump said he was holding all his campaign rallies outside because of the coronavirus, Biden could have pointed to the indoor Tulsa rally Trump held in June. Former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, who attended that rally without a face mask, contracted COVID-19 less than two weeks later and died from it.
The next debate might be less chaotic because of the town hall format, featuring questions posed by individual voters in the audience. Since starting in 1992, those have generally been the least confrontational because it’s unseemly to interrupt a candidate speaking directly to a voter, McKinney said. But Trump found a way to bust that norm in 2016 when he followed Clinton around the debate stage as she answered questions from the audience in what she described as stalking.
“What we saw four years ago, the aggression and attacks increased over the period of the three debates," McKinney said. “I can’t imagine if that pattern holds in this debate series what kind of debates we’re going to encounter.”