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The dueling town halls were better than a debate would have been, plus more takeaways

Top moments from Trump's presidential town hall
Trump participated in a town hall event on NBC News opposite a similar event with Joe Biden on ABC.

No one can blame even the most earnest political junkie or the most informed voter if they decided Thursday night to just watch Netflix instead of the dueling town hall meetings involving the two major presidential candidates on two different television networks in two different cities and at the exact same time.

If the second debate — a town hall-style format — had gone on as planned that evening, it would’ve been appointment television. It certainly was for the 73 million voters who tuned in to the first debate in late September.

But instead, the evening turned into a choose your own adventure. The bottom line is that it probably changed zero voters' minds and didn’t alter what appears to be a strong Joe Biden lead in the race.


Here are four takeaways from the pair of events.

1. It was the perfect contrast

More than any single hour in the nearly two years of the 2020 campaign, 8 p.m. Thursday showed, just in tone, how different a Trump presidency and a Biden presidency would be in the next four years.

The Trump town hall, hosted by NBC News in Miami, was, by far, much more interesting to watch because it had a faster pace and had controversy nearly every minute of it. The follow-up questions from moderator Savannah Guthrie came quickly. As did Trump’s return fire toward Guthrie, whom he accused of focusing on tough topics for him, like white supremacists and QAnon, groups he has repeatedly hesitated to denounce, despite their hate and wild conspiracy theories.

Many of the headlines afterward stem from that interaction as well as Trump appearing to confirm two items from a recent New York Times report that he paid as little as $750 in taxes the year he was elected president and that he has debts of $400 million coming due soon. By the way, Trump described the $400 million number as “peanuts” given what he says is his overall huge financial portfolio.


Biden’s town hall, meanwhile, was more of a sober academic seminar. In fact, the moment Trump was being asked about denouncing white supremacy (something he failed to do in the first debate), Biden was on ABC detailing his tax plan and how he will work with Republicans to get it passed.

Top moments from Biden's presidential town hall
Joe Biden answered questions from voters during his town hall forum at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia Thursday night.

This is not to suggest that Trump is a better candidate just because he had a more exciting town hall. In fact, an exhausted America after four years of Trump might prefer a deep discussion about the proper level of corporate tax rates.

2. For voters, it was a mess

Polls say there are only 3 percent of voters who are actually undecided. These town halls probably didn’t help them make a decision.

It is hard to see how the undecided voters, who are typically less engaged than those who know for whom they are voting, could ever see a moment in the 2½ hours of television and decide they were either going to vote for or against a particular candidate.

In fact, it is even harder to imagine the undecided voter who would actually record one of the town halls while they watched the other.

Also, it will be interesting to see ratings on how many Republican base voters just turned on Fox News to watch Tucker Carlson instead of the president.


3. The race didn’t change

There was really nothing that happened Thursday night that could alter the race. There were no gaffes. No bombshells. No amazing human moment. Media coverage will probably be a mixed bag for the candidates. Base voters will probably wake up Friday with the same level of enthusiasm.

So, added up, it was a good night for Biden. There is one fewer day now where his lead can be challenged. In fact, while the major news surrounding Biden was unverified reports about his son Hunter that the president would have most definitely worked into a debate, there were no questions about his son during his town hall.

4. Were the dueling town halls better than the scheduled debate would have been? Totally

Even Red Sox fans will acknowledge that seeing the ball go through Bill Buckner’s legs in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, which kept the Red Sox curse going, was better to watch than the first general election presidential debate of 2020.

So in that sense, anything that avoided another night like that was a good — a great — night for America. Having the two candidates on two different stages on two different networks guaranteed that no candidate could incessantly interrupt the other as a certain president did previously.

But there were a lot of good things that happened in the town halls. By definition, there were twice as many Americans able to ask twice as many questions than if the presidential town hall debate had continued as planned. Experienced television anchors demonstrated more control over follow-up questions and controlled the time better than the moderators of the first presidential debate and the only vice presidential debate did.


The pressing follow-up questions also made some news: Biden appeared open to having a vaccine mandate, and said for the first time the 1994 Crime Bill he authored was a mistake, and that he would give an answer on whether he supports packing the Supreme Court before Election Day, but that he is inclined against it.

Trump not only made news on white supremacy and his loans, but didn’t say whether he had been tested for COVID-19 before the last debate and suggested that Republican senators will just fall in line to pass a large stimulus bill.

And, it should be said, it was unfortunate that the town halls were held at the exact same moment, but that fact also generated more media coverage than if they were on separate days. After all, does anyone remember what happened in Trump’s ABC town hall or Biden’s NBC town hall in recent days?

I don’t either.

James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell and on Instagram @jameswpindell.