Dissecting the Debates


Presidential candidates Donald Trump (R) and Joe Biden (D) go toe-to-toe at the first 2020 Presidential Debate.

Sami Leder

On Sept. 29, 2020, the first Presidential Debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden was held. Moderated by Chris Wallace of Fox News, the debate was divided into six fifteen-minute-long segments, which consisted of reviewing both candidates’ records, the Supreme Court, the coronavirus pandemic, “race and violence” in cities, election integrity, and the economy.

Politicians on both sides of the aisle voiced concerns leading up to the first presidential debate. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi suggested to Biden that he skip the debates, worrying that President Trump would “probably act in a way that is beneath the dignity of the presidency,” according to The Hill. 

Similarly, Trump voiced concerns over Biden’s ability to govern, claiming that he was suffering from dementia and insisted that Biden be tested for performance-enhancing drugs prior to the debate, according to the Washington Post. He also demanded that Biden’s ears be searched for hidden earpieces. Biden refused both requests.

The debate was characterized by frequent interruptions, disregard of debate rules, and the spread of false information. According to the PBS Newshour, both candidates interrupted Wallace on average four times per minute. Trump in particular was chastised by Wallace for not respecting the rules of the debate and continually interjecting Biden’s answers with personal insults. Biden also took part in disparaging his opponent, asking Trump to “Shut up, man” and referring to him as a “clown” during the debate’s healthcare segment.

Interjecting wasn’t the only violation of debate rules that night—fact checkers additionally debunked several of the claims made by both candidates. Trump boasted that he “brought back college football,” and while he did express his desire to do so, he never took any official action on the matter. He also stated that he is making insulin prices “so cheap, it’s like water”; insulin prices in the United States remain fixed at about $300 per vial. Another false claim made by the President was that the pre-pandemic economy was “the greatest economy in the history of our country”; fact checkers at the Washington Post revealed that GDP growth was in actuality higher under Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, and Bill Clinton, and Eisenhower’s presidency also saw a lower unemployment rate. He also claimed he brought back 700,000 manufacturing jobs, while in reality he only brought back 487,000. Biden also made his own fair share of misleading claims, stating that both trade deficit with China and violent crime went up during Trump’s presidency, while only the national murder rate has increased since he took office, according to a Washington Post article.

Reception was mixed. A CBS News poll found that 48% of respondents thought Biden won the debate, 41% viewed Trump the victor, and the remaining eleven percent were unsure. The poll also revealed that 83% of viewers viewed the debate’s tone as negative, while 17% believed it to be positive. 

The debate was furthermore subject to widespread criticism from journalists and political commentators. CNN’s Jake Tapper labeled the debate “a hot mess, inside a dumpster fire, inside a trainwreck” and “a disgrace,” and ABC’s George Stephanopoulos called it “the worst debate [he] had ever seen in [his] entire life.” 

Trump was additionally criticized for his response when asked to condemn white supremacist groups. When asked at the debate to denounce the Proud Boys, a far-right organization known to target left-wing protestors, Trump told them to “stand back and stand by.” Many interpreted this statement as a call to arms, and Trump later denounced the group as well as other alt-right organizations in an interview with Sean Hannity. Despite this, however, the Washington Post reports that Proud Boys’ Telegram membership rose by almost 10% after the first debate, and Proud Boys merchandise including the quotes “stand back” and “stand by” were available on Amazon Marketplace and eBay until being removed by both platforms.

A week later, on Oct. 7, 2020, the Vice Presidential Debate between current Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris was held in Salt Lake City, Utah, moderated by Susan Page of USA Today. After President Trump and several members of his cabinet and campaign staff tested positive for COVID-19, Harris requested that a plexiglass barrier be placed between her and Vice President Pence. 

Pence repeated similar talking points as Trump, claiming that the Trump administration had always been truthful regarding the pandemic and voicing concerns about the risks of potential voter fraud with mail-in voting. Additionally, Harris’s refusal to ban fracking and implement the Green New Deal if elected raised concerns among many environmentalists.

Pence also drew criticism when his wife, Karen, was seen without a mask when both candidates’ spouses were later invited to come onstage. Harris’s husband, Douglas Emhoff, could be seen wearing one. 

The debate between Pence and Harris garnered a total viewership of 57.9 million viewers, being the second most-watched Vice Presidential Debate only after that between then-Senator Joe Biden and Alaska Governor Sarah Palin in 2008.

Vice Presidential candidates Kamala Harris (D) and Mike Pence (R). The 2020 Vice Presidential Debate was held a week after the first Presidential Debate.