A Breakdown of the First Presidential Debate of 2020
October 2, 2020
On Tuesday, Oct. 29, President Donald Trump and Former Vice President Joe Biden met in Cleveland, Ohio, for the first of a series of presidential debates leading up to the election on Nov. 3. Fox News Anchor Chris Wallace moderated the debate and chose six main topics to cover: Trump’s and Biden’s records, the Supreme Court, COVID-19, the economy, race and violence, and the integrity of the election.
Trump and Biden were each given two minutes to answer questions before beginning the back-and-forth debate for each topic; each of the six topics were allotted 15 minutes of debate time. The event was broadcasted on almost every news channel, including ABC, CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC. It was widely viewed as chaotic, as both candidates insulted and spoke over each other the entire debate.
“If I could describe the presidential debate with one word, it would be unprofessional. As I watched three old men scream at each other, I realized just how ridiculous the debate was. I’m a 14-year-old girl in the 9th grade, so I was confused about how I seemed to have a better understanding of the rules and customs of debate than the man who is in charge of my country. I wondered how my middle school debate club was somehow able to do a better job than the President and [former] Vice President of America. The debate failed to sway my opinion, but instead made me realize how bad of a situation we were in,” said Bella Otte (‘24).
The next presidential debates are scheduled for Oct. 15 in Miami, Florida and Oct. 22 in Nashville, Tennessee. On Oct. 7 in Salt Lake City, Utah, Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris will also have a debate. All debates will start at 9 PM ET and run with no commercial interruptions.
After Tuesday night, the commission that oversees the debate said it would be changing the format going forward to minimize interruptions and streamline the process. One change they might implement is muting microphones if candidates don’t abide by the rules of the debate, but the deliberation process for implementing format changes is still ongoing.
Here are the stances of each candidate regarding the six main topics of the night:
On the Supreme Court
The debate started off with the topic of the Supreme Court. Trump made it clear that, as president, he has the right to nominate Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. With a majority in the Senate, Trump believes that his administration has more than enough time to pass her nomination. He also stressed her qualifications and that if the roles were reversed, Democrats would surely do the same.
Biden argued that the people should have a say in who is elected to the Supreme Court, so the nomination process should be halted until after the outcome of the election is clear. He brought up concerns about the Affordable Care Act, Roe v. Wade, and potential election cases being dismantled quickly, during a pandemic, and right before the election.
Regarding COVID-19, Trump reiterated that the virus is China’s fault, that his administration has done a “phenomenal job,” and that the “fake news” media outlets have given his administration a hard time. On the issue of a COVID-19 vaccine, Trump claimed that the vaccine timeline is political, as there is a “possibility that we’ll have the answer [to the virus] before Nov. 1st.” This rushed timeline is one that scientists have pushed against because it is likely a vaccine won’t be widely available until late 2021.
Biden criticized the president’s lack of a comprehensive plan and Trump’s late response to the virus. He stated that Trump knew how serious the virus was in January, but still allowed over 200,000 people to die from COVID-19. Biden highlighted how Trump has repeatedly misled the public regarding COVID-19; he made sure to speak directly to the camera when addressing the public and all of those who have lost family members to COVID-19.
On average, roughly 750 to 1,000 Americans are dying from COVID every day.
When Donald Trump was presented with that number, he said, “It is what it is.”
It is what it is because Donald Trump is who he is. pic.twitter.com/OOm2pVRijz
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) September 30, 2020
On Trump’s and Biden’s records
Regarding Trump’s tax returns, Trump claimed he paid millions of dollars in taxes in response to his leaked tax returns saying he only paid $750 in both 2016 and 2017. He claimed Obama’s tax code allowed him to pay a little amount, and that his “assets are extremely good.” He claimed he would disclose his tax returns once the IRS is done with his audit; the IRS has said he is free to disclose them while the audit is still in progress.
Biden told Trump to “show us your tax returns,” since Biden disclosed his tax returns prior to the presidential debate. Biden also swore that, if elected, he would close the tax loopholes that billionaires and millionaires take advantage of.
Show us your tax returns, @realDonaldTrump.
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) September 30, 2020
“I thought there was way too much interruption, and it was very immature of both candidates to be acting like that. I wish they would’ve went more in depth about their policies and plans,” said Meredith Nitchals (’21).
On the economy
President Trump harped on the strength of the economy prior to COVID-19 and that it is on an upwards trend. Trump claimed he’s brought back jobs and manufacturing, ensured the growth and stability of the stock market, and allowed businesses to reopen during the pandemic.
On the other hand, Biden stressed how he inherited the economy in a recession under the Obama administration and handed Trump a thriving economy, which he believes Trump fumbled by leading the economy into a recession. He highlighted Trump’s trade deals with China and the high trade deficits. Biden also believes that the economy cannot be fixed until the COVID-19 pandemic is resolved.
On race and violence
President Trump claimed that he has done more for minorities than Biden. A highly discussed moment of the night was President Trump’s refusal to condemn white supremacy groups; in particular, when asked to denounce white supremacy, he responded by telling the radical right wing group Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.”
Chris Wallace: "Are you willing, tonight, to condemn white supremacists and militia groups and to say that they need to stand down…"
Trump: "Proud Boys, stand back and stand by! But I'll tell you what, somebody's got to do something about antifa and the left." pic.twitter.com/4vrPocKzcu
— Axios (@axios) September 30, 2020
Trump repeatedly stated that the violence is a partisan issue caused by left wing radicals, not right wing radicals. He pointed to Antifa as one of the groups that has been causing violence. Antifa, which stands for anti-facist, is an idea, not an organization, which has been clarified by FBI director Chris Wray.
Trump also reinforced his stance on law and order. He pointed to spiking homicide rates and rising crime rates in cities like Chicago and New York as evidence that the Democrats are in favor of lawlessness. Trump also highlighted how he has the support of law enforcement groups and unions, unlike Biden.
Biden REFUSED to use the term, LAW & ORDER! There go the Suburbs.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 30, 2020
Biden spoke about how Trump’s response to the Charlottesville white supremacy marches inspired him to enter the presidential race; as a refresher, Trump said “very fine people” were on both sides of the violence and racially charged protests back in 2017. Biden claimed that Trump uses fear mongering to generate racial hatred, whereas he would stress racial unity and justice for all.
Regarding Trump’s claim that Democrats are in favor of lawlessness, Biden stressed that he doesn’t agree with defunding the police. On the contrary, Biden said he is in favor of increasing funding and assistance for police in order to reform the current policing system. Biden, who has previously been characterized as “soft on crime,” also stressed that violent protest is not acceptable. He committed to implementing law and order, justice for minorities, and ending the chaos in the streets, which he claims the Trump administration thrives off of.
On the integrity of the election
Trump has questioned the integrity of the election prior to the presidential debates, and he defended his stance during the debate. He stated that unsolicited ballots are “being sent all over the place,” which will lead to fraudulent election results. He also admitted he is counting on the Supreme Court to make decisions in his favor regarding election-related cases.
“These ballots are going to be all over. Take a look at what happened in Manhattan. Take a look at what happened in New Jersey. Take a look at what happened in Virginia and other places.”—@realDonaldTrump pic.twitter.com/0hmf6Q1W6S
— GOP (@GOP) September 30, 2020
He urged supporters to go watch the polls and refused to pledge to not declare victory until the election results are vetted. However, Trump’s voting integrity commission has found no evidence that would suggest mail-in-voting is subject to fraud.
Biden took a different stance by reassuring the public that their votes matter; he stated that people should vote by mail, in person, early, or however they see fit. He reiterated the GOP’s stance regarding the peaceful transfer of power, which is that Trump can’t refuse the transfer of power if he loses the election. Biden also pledged to not declare victory until the election results are vetted. He ended the debate by saying he will be a president for both Republicans and Democrats.
You determine the outcome of this election. Vote. Vote. Vote. pic.twitter.com/Ros3XuU16k
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) September 30, 2020
“The debate was kind of disappointing because it was frustrating that presidential candidates had not mastered the art of taking turns after seven decades. Despite this, it didn’t really sway my opinion on the candidate that I like more. My favorite moment of the debate was when Biden said, ‘Shut up, man.’ I thought it was really amusing because he is usually pretty composed and it was so unlike how he usually acts,” said Avery Rogan (‘23).
The debate was arguably one of the most divisive performances ever televised, and the winner of the night is not clear; preliminary polling suggests that Americans believe that Biden won the debate, but it’s still too early to make a definitive call. On a larger scale, the presidential debates could sway the American people into voting for Trump. Pre-debate polls show Trump trailing Biden, so a strong debate performance could sway the tide of the election in his favor.
“I plan on watching the next two debates, but if I’m completely honest, the debate felt like a waste of time. With everyone talking over each other, I could see that it would be hard for someone who was depending on the debate to figure out who they wanted to vote for to figure out the ideals and plans of each candidate. I watched this debate because despite not being able to vote, I’m genuinely curious about how my country is being run. I am well aware that whoever runs this country impacts the daily lives of millions of people. I genuinely believe that whether you are fourteen or eighty, you should be concerned about whether or not the rights of the citizens of America are being protected and that we are governed by people with our best interests at heart,” said Otte.