Eleven Three Twenty: My Take on Last Night’s Presidential Debate

October 23, 2020

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Prostock-studio/Shutterstock.com. Image used under license from Shutterstock.com

In yesterday’s column, I wrote that I was looking for 5 key things during last night’s final Presidential debate. Here’s my day-after take on how those five played out.

Overall, President Trump was much less combative and more controlled than he was during the first debate. But let’s face it — that wasn’t a very high bar to clear, given his behavior in Cleveland three weeks ago.

Was this behavioral change caused by the introduction of the mute button? Or did the President finally listen to his advisors, who had urged him to be “less hot” during the debate? We’ll probably never know. What we can say is that the President, his supporters, and his campaign advisors had to be happy about his demeanor last night.

Having said that, I still think he came across as lacking in empathy a number of times — especially during the Covid-19 and Immigration topics, allowing former Vice President Joe Biden to land some memorable lines. Also, about an hour into the debate, the President started to interrupt more and became combative again. However, he didn’t go over the top — so we’ll see if this behavioral change swayed any opinions in the post-debate polling.

2. The Mute Button’s Impact on Substance

Again, we have to be careful about assigning causality to the mute button, because last night’s moderator (Kristen Welker of NBC News) deserves a lot of credit for her great work in maintaining control. But this debate did feature more significant discussion of the six topics Ms. Welker chose to ask the candidates about:

Not surprisingly, the “Fighting Covid-19” topic received the most time allotment by the moderator. When she finally pivoted away from it, I looked at my watch and noticed almost 30 minutes was dedicated to that single topic.

That’s important for a couple of reasons. First, research shows that most casual debate viewers watch only about the first 30 minutes of a debate before drifting away. And, two, that was one of President Trump’s weaker topics, given that he once again insisted that his administration has done a great job and the pandemic is almost over — a conclusion shared by few epidemiologists and other health professionals. (The former Vice President landed a memorable line during this topic when he said “We’re not learning to live with it — we’re dying from it” when the President insisted “we need to learn to live with it.”)

3. Joe Biden’s Closing Ability

As I mentioned yesterday, former Vice President Joe Biden had more to lose last night, given his front-runner status. I, along with most neutral observers, thought he did what he had to do in this final debate. Specifically, he consistently pointed out that he and President Trump have very different views on the nation and the serious challenges facing it. And he asked Americans to choose his vision and character over the President’s.

Having said that, I think he made one mistake near the end of the debate that might hurt him, depending on how he clarifies it over the final stretch of the campaign. It was when he definitively stated that the nation needs to face out oil and move to a renewable energy model. President Trump seized on that statement, directly appealing to voters in Texas and Pennsylvania to note what the former Vice President had said. It probably was Trump’s best moment of the debate, and I’ll be curious to see if it comes back to haunt the Biden campaign. (BTW…immediately following the debate, the Biden campaign tried to clarify the candidate’s comment, claiming he meant to say “faze out oil subsidies.”)

Other than that, I thought the Vice President did what he had to do last night. But we’ll see what, if any, movement there is in the polls that are conducted entirely after last night’s debate.

4. The Candidates’ Answers to Tough Questions

While this debate was overall more substantive than the first debate, there was still a lot of avoidance on the part of both candidates to answer questions. I thought the former Vice President did a better job of providing viewers with more detailed and concrete answers (almost to a fault at times). Meanwhile, President Trump continued to answer in adjective-filled, broad strokes.

But this was a more traditional Presidential debate, which allowed viewers to learn some things about each candidate’s policies and world views. So even though both candidates dodged some of the tougher questions asked of them, they at least provided some insights to how the next four years might play out under each of their administrations.

5. The Candidates’ Closing Arguments to Americans

Of the five key things I was looking for last night, this was the one I thought played out exactly as it has over the past six months. The American people got yet another reminder of the stark differences between these two candidates in temperament, world view, political philosophy…you name it, and these two men could not be more radically different.

As usual, President Trump provided a lot of sizzle but little steak. Also as usual, former Vice President Biden offered the American people more steak — with a lot less sizzle. That’s why I believe the President won last night on style, while the former Vice President won on substance.

What did voters think?

Post-debate polling is fraught with challenges. First, most of the “polls” on who wins televised debates are not true polls. These spot polls as they’re called are typically set up by newspapers and television stations and are nothing more than glorified popularity contests. Viewers or readers simply click on a candidate’s name to say who they thought won.

Even polls that are designed using traditional polling techniques suffer from high margins of error and may not provide an accurate measurement of what debate viewers concluded. Having said all this, I’ve seen the results of three post-debate polls that showed viewers generally felt former Vice President Joe Biden won the debate:

A. CNN/SSRS: Biden 53% Trump 39%

B. Data for Progress: Biden 52% Trump 41%

C. YouGov: Biden 54% Trump 35%

But each of these polls have such large margins of error that it’s impossible to confidently draw any conclusions from them.

In the end, I don’t believe last night’s debate performances will change the current trajectory of the election over the final 11 days. But my opinion, along with the opinions of other political analysts, doesn’t really matter. All that matters is whether the American people saw anything last night that would change their votes prior to the end of the election on November 3. And we won’t get a sense of that for a few days, when national and state polls conducted entirely after last night’s debate are released.

For those of you wondering why I’m qualified to write about this topic, I have a Ph.D. in Human Communication Studies from the University of Denver — with an emphasis on leadership, power, and persuasion. My dissertation research focused on political communication, specifically Ross Perot’s 1992 Presidential campaign (“A Mythic Analysis of Ross Perot’s 1992 Campaign Infomercials as a Modern American Jeremiad”). And I have worked on — or consulted for — a number of political campaigns, ranging from the mayoral to the Presidential level.

President of Marathon Leadership, LLC — an organizational and leadership consulting firm based in Thornton, CO. Learn more at http://marathonleadership.com/

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