First Presidential Debate: Key Political and Policy Takeaways

Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck

Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck

On Sept. 29, President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden faced off for the first of three presidential debates, moderated by Fox News anchor Chris Wallace. The debate took place at Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, a key battleground state in the upcoming election.

The 90-minute debate was widely reported as one of the most chaotic in history—it quickly devolved into both candidates speaking over one another. While debates do not generally lead to wide swings in public opinion, last night’s debate likely did not provide new perspective for undecided voters.

Below are our key political takeaways from both Republican and Democratic perspectives and select policy takeaways. For a short summary and analysis of the discussion on key topics, click here.

The Republican Perspective:

  1. The Bar for Each Candidate: Two questions hovered over the first presidential debate of 2020: 1) if President Trump could make up ground in the swing states where he trails Joe Biden by showing voters that he is focused on the economy and on guiding the country through the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic; and 2) if Biden could show that he was competent and capable of holding the office. 
  2. The President Was “Too Hot”: Trump showed from the very first moments of the raucous, 90 minute brawl that he was more interested in dominating Biden than in swaying undecided voters. As even Trump surrogate Chris Christie put it afterward, the president was “too hot,” a candid assessment from a close ally that was clearly meant to shake the campaign into rethinking its debate strategy.
  3. Biden was Uneven, Though Reassuring: Biden, meanwhile, gave what even Republicans would have to concede was a reassuring, if uneven, performance that sought to match Trump insult for insult while also earning the confidence of voters with direct appeals to their trust.
  4. A New Low: In the end, neither candidate could be said to have acquitted himself well. And the tenor and tone set a depressing new low for presidential debates on both sides. But the greatest opportunity lost was for the president, who had much more ground to make up going into the debate.

The Democratic Perspective:

  1. Trump’s Challenge: The strategic challenge before President Trump going into last night’s debate was closing the gender gap in potential voters. The consequences of that gender gap were emphasized by two highly-regarded polls released on Sunday, each of which showed Trump trailing by nine points in the critical state of Pennsylvania. To win back some skeptical swing voters in the Keystone State, and white female voters generally, Trump needed to assure the debate audience that he understood the grief caused by the pandemic, that he sympathized with the unemployed, and that he could work constructively with political opponents to get the country back on its feet.
  2. A Failure to Deliver: Trump doubled down on the behavior that has made him the least popular president in the history of polling, and that has furnished his rival, Joe Biden, with a steady lead in the presidential race. Specifically, Trump declined multiple opportunities to express empathy for struggling Americans, declined to repudiate violent racists, and refused to recognize the military service and sacrifice of the late Beau Biden. 

    Trump settled for shaking up his opponent (and the moderator) when he needed to shake up the race. As a result, he likely failed to win over undecided voters generally and female voters specifically. The debate was Trump’s opportunity to change the narrative, but he chose to reinforce it. In so doing, he handed Biden—and Democrats sharing the 2020 ballot—a crucial victory.

  3. Biden is Sincere, but Lacks Force: Biden’s performance was earnest if not dynamic, and is likely to have reinforced his front-runner position. The former vice president showed respect for the American people by offering substantive proposals in key policy areas, such as climate change. Biden demonstrated empathy for Black Americans fighting against racism, while condemning violent protests.
  4. Impact on Senate Races: It’s worth pausing to note that in the 2016 elections, there was perfect alignment between states’ presidential and Senate preferences. In other words, Republicans won every Senate race in states that voted for Trump, and Democrats won every Senate race in states that voted for Clinton. Last night represented a major setback for the other Republicans who are tied to Trump and who need those suburban swing voters in purple-ish states like North Carolina, Colorado and Arizona, and even in red states like Iowa, Georgia and Kansas.

Key Policy Takeaways:

  1. Supreme Court: Both Trump and Biden reiterated the party line on this issue. Trump defended his decision to announce Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination on the grounds that Republicans control both the Senate and the presidency. Biden chose not to criticize Barrett’s qualifications, in fact noting that “he is not opposed to the justice, as she seems like a very fine person.” He also did not criticize Republicans’ 2016 blocking of Merrick Garland, instead pivoting to key voter issues. With the election underway, Biden said voters deserve a say in the Supreme Court nomination.
  2. COVID-19: Biden was critical of Trump’s response to the virus, stating that the president’s decision to underplay the deadliness of the COVID-19, inaction on masks, and lack of a health response plan, have all exacerbated the situation, including economic recovery. Biden also attempted to use the pandemic to cast doubt on Trump’s trustworthiness, particularly with regards to conflicting information about the timing of a vaccine. The president pushed back, citing his decision to close the borders and plans for efficient vaccine distribution, arguing that Biden would never have been able to do the same.
  3. Health care:  President Trump criticized the ACA and argued against Wallace’s claim that he does not have a comprehensive proposal to replace the law, citing his repeal of the individual mandate and his attempts to lower drug prices. In contrast, Biden courted voters by promising to build on positive aspects of ACA and improve affordability, while preserving private insurance. He also pushed to distance himself from the left wing of the Democratic party, refuting Trump’s claims that he has endorsed “Medicare for All.”
  4. Economy: Biden connected the current economic downturn to the president’s failure to properly handle the pandemic. He also courted blue-collar voters in battleground states, highlighting his “Made in America” policy proposals, his plans to boost the manufacturing industry and his success in bringing back the automobile industry during the Obama Administration. He also noted plans to increase the corporate tax rate, a major talking point for his base. Trump pinned the current economic situation on Democrats’ refusal to reopen the economy, but quickly pivoted to the economic successes of his first term, such as a record low pre-pandemic unemployment rate. Economic issues are where voters continue to rank Trump the highest.
  5. The President’s Tax Returns: Heading into last night, some anticipated a substantial portion of the debate would be dominated by reports that President Trump paid only $750 in federal income taxes in recent years. However, the topic was covered only briefly. Both President Trump and Biden returned to familiar arguments, with President Trump touting his navigation of the tax code and Biden using the opportunity to highlight the tax code’s disparate treatment of wealthy individuals versus working Americans. Biden also promised to reverse portions of Trump’s signature legislative achievement, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017.
  6. Energy and Climate Change: Trump maintained that regulatory cutbacks help drive down the cost of energy, while Biden once again distanced himself from the liberals’ Green New Deal, instead pushing for credits and incentives to encourage the development of green energy. On climate change, under pressure from Wallace, President Trump acknowledged that human pollution contributes to global warming. However, he stood by his decision to  pull out of the Paris Accord and other decisions impacting climate change.   
  7. Race and Violence: Biden used the discussion on race and recent nationwide protests to contrast himself to the president by promising to address systemic racial injustices. He also courted suburban voters by promising to provide increased support and resources for law enforcement training. Trump stood firmly by his current approach to handling recent nationwide protests, citing support from law enforcement officials, as well as referencing the results of his criminal justice reform law. When given the opportunity, Trump declined to denounce white supremacist organizations.
  8. Election Integrity: Biden and Trump took opposite stances on the use of mail-in ballots for the election, with Biden predictably noting they are secure and Trump stating that voter fraud is rampant. Wallace noted that election results may not be final for weeks, given that there are eight states where election workers are prohibited from even beginning to process ballots until Election Day. He asked both candidates to commit to accepting the eventual outcome of the election and not declaring a premature victory. Biden agreed he would accept the results, while Trump pivoted and instead pushed for “honest ballots.”

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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