Boston Political Review writers Emanne Khan and Nisha Rao on the town halls held by President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden.
President Trump’s announcement that he had tested positive for Covid-19 came only three days after the explosive first debate of the 2020 presidential election. Citing health and safety concerns, the Commission on Presidential Debates announced on October 8 that the second debate between President Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden would be held virtually. After the Trump campaign rejected the virtual format, President Trump and former Vice President Biden scheduled separate town halls for October 15 that were broadcast simultaneously on two different networks.
For decades, presidential debates have served as an opportunity for candidates to respond directly to their opponent. The individual town halls upended this long-standing practice while allowing the candidates to promote their platforms without the rhetorical mayhem of the first debate.
President Trump’s town hall took place outside the Pérez Art Museum in Miami, FL and was broadcast live on NBC. The hour-long event was moderated by Today Show host Savannah Guthrie, and approximately 60 Florida voters attended in person to ask questions.
As in the first presidential debate, Covid-19 drew lots of attention. Guthrie began with a series of questions about the president’s Covid-19 diagnosis and treatment. President Trump stated that he has no remaining symptoms of the virus and is feeling “really good” after receiving care at Walter Reed Medical Center.
The discussion turned to the September 26 White House event where over 200 people convened to celebrate Judge Amy Coney Barret’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Photographs emerged showing the attendees gathered in close quarters without masks, and a dozen positive Covid cases have been linked to the reception, including Trump’s. Guthrie asked: “Shouldn’t the White House know better than to hold an event like that?”
In his response, President Trump downplayed the threat of the virus and stoked suspicion of public health measures meant to control its spread. While he initially claimed to be “good with masks”, he then cited a false statistic that 85% of people who wear masks catch the virus and expressed disapproval of national lockdowns. President Trump also claimed that the US is “rounding the corner” in combatting the pandemic despite cases rising steadily in much of the country.
Guthrie then steered the conversation to the president’s hesitancy to denounce white supremacy at the first debate. President Trump took a stronger stance this time, replying: “I denounced white supremacy for years”. He quickly diverted the audience’s attention to the left-wing political group ANTIFA and “these people on the left that are burning down our cities”.
The rest of the Q&A with Guthrie saw President Trump defend his copious use of social media, resist denouncing the far-right conspiracy theory QAnon, and double down on his previous claims that voter fraud may undermine the results of the upcoming election.
Several live audience members, ranging from Trump voters to registered Democrats, got the chance to ask questions directly to the president. When a voter brought up Trump’s nomination of conservative Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, the president did not express a strong desire to influence judicial affairs. After Guthrie followed up by asking whether he would expect Judge Barrett to rule in line with his preferences, President Trump stated that “it would be totally up to her”. He notably declined to say whether he would like to see Judge Barrett vote to overturn the landmark abortion rights case Roe v. Wade.
Also in the audience Q&A, President Trump vowed to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, blamed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for the absence of a second coronavirus stimulus package, and downplayed the magnitude of his personal debts.
If the first televised debate against Biden lacked a coherent message, the town hall format allowed Trump to make a clear and direct appeal to undecided voters. In the final seconds, he painted a picture of an America poised to bounce back quickly from the economic and social devastation of the pandemic. “Vaccines are coming out soon, and our economy is strong,” he said. “And next year is going to be better than ever before.”
At the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, former Vice President Joseph Biden joined ABC anchor George Stephanopoulos to answer questions from both Democratic and Republican Pennsylvanians. The evening’s discussion hit on a number of key domestic and foreign policy issues.
The devastating nature of the Covid-19 pandemic underscored the evening’s discussions, beginning with the first question regarding Vice President Biden’s pandemic plan. With over 215,000 Americans dead and President Trump’s announcement that he had contracted the virus himself, the pandemic has become one of the most critical issues in this election. Vice President Biden took this time to encourage a mask mandate in businesses and schools, while also taking hits at President Trump’s lacklustre response to the pandemic. Specifically, he criticized President Trump for not collaborating with both houses of Congress to pursue pandemic relief that would boost the economy and help those slipping into poverty.
On the issue of a vaccine, Vice President Biden stated that he would let the scientists decide when the vaccine was ready and urged viewers to wear a mask in the meantime. As the discussion turned towards the economy, Vice President Biden reiterated an important economic proposal that would only increase the taxes for those individuals who make over $400,000 a year. He described the interconnected nature of the economy and the health crisis, saying that as one improves, so does the other. Biden described how solving the health crisis would have a positive effect on the economy. He then went on to describe the Moody’s Analytics analysis that stated a Democratic White House and Congress would produce 7.4 million jobs and a faster recovery than if President Trump continued onto a second term. This served as a powerful economic message for Vice President Biden, who connected economic prosperity to a cohesive pandemic response plan.
Beyond these two key issues, Vice President Biden faced questions regarding the swing demographic of black voters, his stance on his controversial 1994 Crime Bill, and his environmental policy. On each of these issues, Vice President Biden responded with policy platforms from his campaign. He wanted to help Black Americans gain wealth by increasing funding for Title I schools, instituting universal pre-kindergarten teaching, and providing $70 billion for Historical Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). On the 1994 Crime Bill, he conceded that the bill had not produced positive results and connected it to the current movement of racial justice by highlighting the death of George Floyd.
On the issue of fracking and the environment, Vice President Biden distanced himself from the Green New Deal by discussing his own environmental plan that kept fracking jobs but made significant strides towards clean, renewable energy. Much of the evening focused on these core policy issues that could sway voters.
In the final moments of the town hall, Stephanopoulos asked Vice President Biden about the lack of communication regarding President Trump’s diagnosis of Covid-19 just after the first presidential debate. “It’s just decency,” Biden noted, in reference to getting properly tested before the event. The night concluded with that discussion of the Covid-19 pandemic, just as it began, emphasizing the weight the issue holds in this year’s election.
Ultimately, both town halls acted more as televised campaign events, with both candidates espousing the issues that lie at the hearts of their respective campaigns. In the past, presidential debates have acted as important measures of, not only each candidate’s policy platforms, but also their temperament and judgement in the face of criticism. On the other hand, this separate town hall format lent itself to a confusing dynamic, wherein viewers had to switch channels or wait until commercials to hear both candidates equally. This makes it difficult for undecided voters to gauge both policy and temperament in a way that a debate does. As the season of campaigning is rapidly coming to an end, this event felt like a closing statement for each campaign as they await the results of what is sure to be a contentious election.
Further articles written in collaboration with the Boston Political Review can be found on our website.