Well, that was at least a debate. The second and final US Presidential debate –the last time we will ever see Trump in this format, win or lose– actually saw some debating. Of course, “debate” nowadays means repeating rehearsed lines (and lies), but at least this dialectic was not epileptic.
For a neutral viewer taking each man’s claims about the other at face value, one can conclude that neither man has a real plan to beat Covid-19; or to solve healthcare problems; both men are deeply corrupt; and both actually work for foreign powers rather than for the US. There was certainly a lot of “Russia, Russia, Russia” (and the “Poor Boys”, and Abraham Lincoln, at least five “Come on”s, and just the token “Malarkey”). However, perhaps the most substantive differences emerged at the end, where the topic shifted to the environment and a specific Biden pledge to transition away from the oil industry.
What is the electoral impact? Many snap polls on Twitter at the end flagged Trump as the comfortable winner; others said Biden, more narrowly. Of course, TV polls were more partisan, reflecting the different realities with different news we now live in: CNN was Biden 53%, Trump 39%; Fox was Trump 62%, Biden 38%. Perhaps we should be grateful nearly 40% of both audiences are still receptive to other voices? One clutches at straws where one can nowadays.
Nonetheless, very few minds will likely have been changed in what is a base election where many have already voted. Pollster Frank Luntz did his usual survey of an LA Times panel of swing voters and reported that the adjectives they picked for Trump were: ”controlled; reserved; poised; con artist; surprisingly presidential”, while Biden was seen as “vague; unspecific; elusive; defensive; grandfatherly”. All involved also felt more disheartened after the debate than inspired. One voter called the 2020 election “a living nightmare”; another called it “trying to choose the best seat in Hell.”
Less American leaders shouting did not mean more Americans smiling, apparently. However, almost all of that downbeat, depressed panel of 14, when pushed, said they would vote Trump; only one was for Biden; and one was perhaps not going to vote.
The plural of panel is not data, of course, but in a race of very fine margins the closing statement from Biden on the oil industry could perhaps have a key impact in a number of swing states. Recall that this is about the Electoral College and not the overall popular vote. As Newsweek’s Josh Hammer tweeted: “Biden is literally handing Pennsylvania to Trump with those answers on energy.” Texas too, if that is really in play.