President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger Joe Biden engaged in a heated and at times ugly exchange of words in the first presidential debate of the US election.
President Trump accused Biden of being a leftist and promoting socialism. Biden openly called Trump a racist and told him to “shut up” as Trump repeatedly tried to goad Biden with interruptions.
The debate did little to illuminate the policy choices facing Americans in the election and probably did not shift the dynamic of a race in which the incumbent, Trump, is fighting from behind.
“It was awful. It was hardly a debate. What we saw was Trump being Trump which was out of control most of the time,” said Paul Beck, a political science professor at Ohio State University.
Trump recast many of his lines from the stump speech he has been giving at the airport rallies he has been holding in competitive states. “What we have heard from Trump” were the same attack lines against Biden “repeated over and over again tonight,” Beck said.
The signal it sends is Trump “thinks he is behind and he is clearly doubling down on the things he thinks will attack and undermine Biden,” Beck said.
Former vice president Biden projected an open disdain towards Trump, turning away from the president, calling him “a clown” and addressing viewers directly, saying the president is a “liar” and a “racist”.
Instead of changing the narrative of the campaign “what happened tonight turned it into a referendum on Trump,” which is a losing proposition for the president, Beck said.
At several points, Trump converted moderator Chris Wallace’s attempts to focus on policy issues into personal attacks on Biden, bringing up his son Hunter Biden’s business dealings with China and alleging he took funding from the wife of the Mayor of Moscow – all claims he has made repeatedly on the campaign trail.
Biden rejected Trump’s accusations about his son as “untrue”, but the barrage forced him to acknowledge his son’s troubles in life. “My son, like a lot of people you know at home, had a drug problem. He’s overtaken it. He’s fixed it. He’s worked on it, and I’m proud of him,” Biden said, looking not at Trump but directly into the camera.
“Trump demonstrated once again his ability to be an exponential version of himself,” said James Henson, a political science professor and pollster at the University of Texas.
“It is hard to imagine that performance persuaded anyone,” Henson said.
In an effort to “throw Biden off his game”, Trump was “disruptive beyond any precedent we have seen in a presidential debate,” Henson said.
Wallace struggled at times to keep the debate on track, repeatedly reminding Trump that his campaign had agreed to terms of the debate that gave each candidate time to state their views without interruption.
Al Jazeera debate analyst Alan Schroeder said the debate was not one “either candidate particularly wanted – nothing to feature in the presidential library”.
“Biden’s mission was to protect his lead, which he did. Trump’s mission was to move the needle, which he did not,” Schroeder said.
“The bottom line is that the first debate, to no one’s surprise, changed nothing. And that’s good news for Biden,” he said.
Given an opportunity to condemn white supremacist groups like the Proud Boys, Trump equivocated. He stumbled in his answer on global warming. And he was self-congratulatory about his response to the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed more than 200,000 Americans.
Biden leads Trump in national polls by a significant margin and he leads or is competitive with Trump in key battleground states needed to win the decisive US Electoral College.
Nationwide, Biden led Trump by 10 percentage points among likely voters in an ABC News/Washington Post survey released on September 27.
A Quinnipiac University poll released on September 23 also showed Biden with a 10-point lead over Trump, consistent with earlier polls in August.
Trump claims mail-in ballots will lead to “fraud like you’ve never seen”. #Debates2020 pic.twitter.com/gfhOIstRL3
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) September 30, 2020
Prior to the debate, analysts expected Trump to go on the attack.
Typically in American politics, incumbent presidents come into the debates leading their challenger “and try not to do anything to upset the trajectory of the race”, said Robert Yoon, a lecturer in politics and journalism at the University of Michigan.
This year, that dynamic was reversed with Biden in the lead and Trump having to do something to reshape the contest. Yoon expected Trump to “play the role of aggressor”.
“Trump clearly had a strategy to show he is a fighter and was not going to let attacks on him go unchallenged,” Yoon said.
But, “I didn’t really feel his debate performance did anything to win over undecided people … like suburban women,” Yoon said.
Biden at times tried to ignore Trump and speak directly to voters, Yoon said. Biden’s goal was to demonstrate he is not low energy and also avoid losing his temper. He was only partially successful.
“He did get flustered early and told Trump to shut up,” Yoon observed.
Overall, Yoon called it a “low point in American politics”.
“It was a debate in name, but it was a disservice to the voters who were watching,” he said.