(Author’s Note: This is the12th in a series of political articles for CommPro.biz that I’ll be writing leading up to Election Day. FYI –My first job with a PR firm was at a political one, where I worked on local, state and presidential elections).
Instead of giving my analysis of each debate in separate columns, I decided to write one- wrap-up column, in which I would analyze each of the three presidential debates, and the single vice – presidential one. Because of the president’s Covid-19 illness, the second debate was canceled when President Trump and former Vice President Biden differed on the format of it, Trump wanting to stick to the original debate format and Biden agreeing to a virtual debate because of the president’s Covid condition.
A major problem with the way the debates are structured was evident early in the first debate, in my opinion. It was the debate organizer’s position that it is not the job of the moderator to immediately correct lies, because there will be plenty of time after the debate to do that. The problem with that scenario is that once a lie goes unchecked many viewers will believe it to be truthful. Even if the opposition candidate points out that it’s a lie, many viewers will still believe the one they support. Also, many viewers will not stick around for the after debate analysis, and many who do, believe that what Trump and Biden supporters say is nothing but untruthful spin.
Debate # 1 on September 29:
In my opinion, the most important subject of Debate # 1 was how the president’s remarks about not assuring the nation of a peaceful transfer of power would be handled by moderator Chris Wallace, President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. Other important issues were:
- Trump’s handling of the coronavirus, and other health issues, and
- The Supreme Court vacancy, and
- The president’s portrayal of Biden as a feeble old man with a mental problem.
Immediately after the debate, some TV pundits said it was a disgrace, mainly because of Trump’s behavior. Nevertheless, questions were asked and questions were either answered or not. So there has to be a winner.
Now for my analysis:
Trump handed Biden two pleasant surprises prior to the debate by 1) nominating for the Supreme Court a jurist who has spoken ill (pun intended) about the Affordable Care Act and Roe v.Wade, which polls have shown the majority of voters want to keep, when he could have waited until after the election to nominate her. And 2) for many weeks portraying Biden as a dithering old man in mental decline. (In tennis vernacular, these were unforced errors by Trump.)
How did Trump, Biden and Wallace perform?
Going into the debate Biden only had to maintain his polling leads. Trump had a much more difficult route. He had to change the opinions of voters who have said they will vote for Biden. The president failed to do that. Polling revealed that there was a significant Biden bump after the debate. Biden not only deflected personal attacks by Trump, but demonstrated that he can go toe-to-toe with Trump, had the ability to trade insults and was not afraid to call the president a liar.
Unlike many past debates, where the president is the favorite going into a debate, Trump has been trailing Biden in national and most state polls for many weeks. All of his attacks on Biden have thus far not moved the needle in his direction.
Prior to the debate, Trump said that Biden was in mental decline and shortly prior to the debate said that the former veep had to resort to injections to give him the energy to make a speech. Trump’s attacks on Biden’s mental agility have been his major strategy for many months. But, thus far, they have failed. Also failing was his defense of how he’s handling the coronavirus and the New York Times release of his tax returns that showed him paying little taxes and as an incompetent businessman. He had to convince the public that the negative stories are Fake News.
How did he do?
Trump’s strategy was obvious from the start: Try to provoke Biden into making mistakes and losing his cool. He failed in doing that. Trump also played his Fake News card and accused moderator Chris Wallace of being against him. Throughout the debate he acted like a bully, made personal attacks against Biden’s children and told lies. As he did in his almost daily sessions with White House reporters prior to becoming ill, Trump ducked specific questions about subjects he didn’t like. It was a mirror performance of his 2015 primary debates, during which he insulted his GOP rivals and his debates with Hillary Clinton in 2016, during which he lied and attempted to intimidate her. On September 29, 2020, those tactics were old hat and did not work. Perhaps the most succinct summary of the debate was one sentence in a Wall Street Journal editorial on September 30: The president interrupted the former vice-president so frequently that he wouldn’t let Biden talk long enough to make a mistake. A close runner-up was the New York Times, which said that Trump’s performance was a verbal copy of his twitter comments.
The former vice president’s main objective was to continue to convince voters that he is mentally fit to be president and that Trump is unfit. But he also had the opportunity to gain undecided voters by showing that he could factually counter Trump’s misrepresentations and lies; that Trump is a charlatan and tax evader; that Trump has divided the country and has endangered it by antagonizing U.S. foreign allies; that Trump has continually disregarded the Constitution and has displayed totalitarian instincts; that re-electing the president would cause millions of Americans to lose their health care and Roe v. Wade protection and that the president’s mishandling of the coronavirus has thus far resulted in more than 200,000 deaths, and climbing.
How did he do?
He did just fine. Despite not being able to complete a sentence before being interrupted by the president, Biden was able to make his points and did not get rattled by Trump’s insults, as the president had hoped. Importantly, when Biden was making his points, he spoke directly to the viewing audience by asking them, “How does this personally affect you”? A very effective strategy.
He had to demonstrate that he can control the candidates; make sure that they didn’t talk around his questions; that his questions were not lollypops and that he showed no favoritism.
How did he do?
As best he tried, he was unable to control Trump from not following the debate rules. Several times, Wallace had to admonish Trump for not letting Biden complete a sentence and for trashing the debate rules that were agreed to. However, by permitting Trump to lie without correcting him, he acted more like a football or basketball referee “who lets the players play,” despite rules being broken, in this case permitting outright misinformation and lies to go unchecked. I found this disappointing from television’s premier interviewer. For doing this, I give him a C-plus.
On both substance and decency Biden was the clear winner. Any but the most rabid Trump supporters have to admit that the president acted like a bully, made personal attacks against Biden, lied and degraded the office of the president. But what matters more than what any pundit says is what the viewers of the debate said: Biden’s campaign raised more than $21.5 million on September 30, the single best fundraising day for the campaign so far. The viewers obviously agreed with me that Biden was the clear winner.
Debate # 2 on October 15
Canceled because it was switched to a virtual debate by organizers because of coronavirus concerns and the president rejecting the change in format, even though it was his being infected with Covid-19 that was the cause of the revision.
Debate # 3 on October 22
In my opinion, because of the increasing Covid-19 cases throughout the U.S. there were many side issues, but only one main dish:
- Trump’s handling of the coronavirus, and other health issues.
- A side issue: Would Biden make an egregious mistake.
Now for my analysis:
Going into the debate Biden only had to maintain his polling leads. Trump had a much more difficult route. He had to change the opinions of voters who have said they will vote for Biden. The president failed to do that in their first debate. Polling revealed that there was a significant Biden bump after their first debate, with the former vice-president’s national polling lead increasing to 14 points, according to an NBC and Wall Street Journal poll. Biden leads the president, 53% to 39%, among registered voters in the poll, which was conducted in the two days following the debate. Biden held an eight point lead in a poll prior to the debate. Going into the October 22 debate, 538 said, according to national polls, Biden leads Trump by an average of 9.9 percentage points. This was Trump’s last opportunity to go toe-to-toe with Biden before a massive TV audience before Election Day. But instead of attempting to put Biden on the defensive in the days leading up to the debate, Trump played his “woe is me, no one treats me fairly” routine, first attacking Dr. Faucci, then Leslie Stahl, who interviewed him for 60 Minutes, and Kristen Welker, the debate moderator, for several days prior to the debate.
How did Trump, Biden and Welker perform?
Trump acted much calmer than he did in the first debate, when his performance was that of an individual in need of many tranquillizers. So instead of him appearing as an obnoxious, bullying liar, what we saw was a calmer fabulist, according to fact checkers. “From a lying perspective, Trump is even worse tonight than in the first debate, an absolute avalanche of lying,” said CNN’s fact checker Daniel Dale. Throughout the debate Trump acted as if he was running against Bernie Sanders and other Democrats instead of Joe Biden. On the most important issue of the debate – Covid-19 and health care, the president kept insisting that the country must open up, said that we are rounding the corner and faulted China and the Democratic governors for not being able to control the spread of the coronavirus. The CNN fact checker said that Trump, in this debate, and in the past, keeps attributing to Dr. Faucci statements that the doctor never made. Trump also could not give specifics of his health plan, except to say that it would be better than the Affordable Care Act, which he wants to terminate. The president also continually attacked the entire Biden family with criminal doings, even thought there is no evidence backing up his charges (except what commentators on Fox News says is evidence). On October 23, a story in the Wall Street Journal refuted the charges against Biden. When accused by Biden of trying to hide his involvement in foreign countries by not releasing his tax forms, Trump reverted to his four years old answer – I can’t because I’m under audit and am being treated very unfairly by the IRS. He also made the most ridiculous statement of the debate by saying, “I’m the least racist person in the room,” ludicrous considering that Kristen Welker, the debate moderator, is a Black woman. Importantly, the president couldn’t provide ant details of what he would do if re-elected.
How did he do?
At times during the debate the president spoke as if he was using Morse code, referring to the “AOC plus 3,” and the Hunter Biden laptop, that only devotees of conspiracy theories on Fox news would understand. The president did much better than during his first debate, but not much better, as a CNN instant poll of viewers and a panel of undecided North Carolina voters revealed. The panel of undecided voters, who said that that their decision who to vote for is still up in the air, voted Biden the winner with nine votes; two voted that the debate was a draw. No one thought Trump won the debate. The instant poll favored Biden 53 percent to 39 percent for Trump.
Despite making one major error by saying that he favored limiting new oil contracts (fracking), when he meant to say on federal lands, and phasing out oil, (an error because the statement will be taken out of context and used against the former vice president in states like Pennsylvania, which is a key battleground state, and other oil producing states), Biden held his own by detailing how his health plan would reduce costs and specified how his other initiatives would result in the creation of news jobs.
How did he do?
Overall, he did just fine. Biden again not only deflected personal attacks by Trump, but demonstrated that he can go toe-to-toe with Trump. Biden was able to make his points and did not get rattled by Trump’s claims of criminality. Importantly, when Biden was making his points, he spoke directly to the viewing audience by asking them, “How does this personally affect you”? A very effective strategy.
She had to demonstrate that she can control the candidates; make sure that they didn’t talk around her questions; that the questions were not lollypops and that she showed no favoritism.
How did she do?
Ms. Welker did just fine and kept the debate moving much more smoothly than Chris Wallace did in the first debate. Of course the circumstances weren’t the same and that must be taken into consideration. Wallace had no mute button, as Welker did. That made both candidates more controllable. Ms. Welker also did what neither Wallace, in the first debate, or Ms. Page, in the vice presidential debate did – she asked follow-up questions instead of just moving on.
While not winning the debate by as big a margin in their first one, I thought Biden again was the winner by a large enough margin to, maybe, even increases his lead over Trump, by a point or so. Even though Trump was much better in this debate I don’t think he did anything to change the trajectory of the campaign. He needed a first round knockout and didn’t get it. Trump’s behavior might have changed since the first debate, but not his inability to give a vision if elected to a second term or to tell the truth. However, the winners of debates are not sworn in as president on inauguration day. With the margins in pivotal swing stages still close the turnout on November 3 can be decisive, but I’d be willing to bet a fin or sawbuck on Biden.
The Vice Presidential Debate on October 7
There’s an old political bromide, parroted by many cable news pundits, that no one votes for the vice president. It was altered this year when the pundits said because of the ages of Trump and Biden it will matter. Given the fact that the president is supposedly recovering from Covid-19, the pundits say the debate for the veep position is more important than ever. (I disagree about the Covid factor. The president has assured us that it’s nothing to be afraid of and that he is cured. And he always tells the truth. Right?) Actually, I never agreed that when people vote for the president they don’t take the vice-presidential candidate into consideration. Would voters opposed to Roe v. Wade vote for a GOP presidential candidate who chooses a pro-choice veep.I don’t think so. Or would a very liberal Democrat vote for a Democratic candidate whose views were extremely right of center. I don’t think so. Also, many analysts think that John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin for vice president backfired on him. And in 1944, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt dumped his vice-president Henry Wallace for Harry Truman because party leaders believed Wallace would hurt FDR’s re-election effort because Wallace was too liberal.
This brings us to the vice-presidential debate between Vice President Mike Pence, a darling of the right of center evangelical GOP crowd, and Democratic Senator Kamala Harris, a favorite of the liberal wing of the party. Pence went into the debate with a huge problem: defending the record of President Trump and his leading of the coronavirus task force. Harris had to convince voters that she and Biden put the welfare of Americans ahead of any political considerations, playing off Biden’s Gettysburg address on October 6. According to Nielsen, this debate was the second most watched TV vice-presidential one ever, with an estimated 57.9 million viewers tuning in(Now the top three most-watched vice-presidential debates have featured female candidates.)
How did they do?
The debate actually began a day earlier than it was scheduled, when on October 6, Pence’s communications director Katie Miller told the Washington Examiner that if Harris “wants to use a fortress around herself, have at it.” This was the first blunder of the debate. All it did was bring attention to laissez-faire attitude that many in the Trump camp have expressed during the pandemic. Eventually, Pence also agreed to have a plexiglass barrier. The biggest news of the day also occurred before the debate began, when on Wednesday morning Pence said that if Trump wasn’t feeling well the next presidential debate, on October 15, should be postponed. (My translation: The president is or was sicker than he or his medical team lets on.) While both candidates were civil in their demeanor, the debate had many Trumpian moments as Vice President Pence continually refused to stop talking and continued in his filibuster mode when moderator Susan Page of USA Today said his time was up and had to ask him to play by the agreed rules. Pence continually interrupted Harris and told numerous lies, misrepresenting what Harris had just said about taxes, health care, climate change and the economy. (It was similar to what Trump does, denying what was said even though it’s on tape.) Most ludicrous was his defense of the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Most alarming was that he refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if Biden wins the election. Pence also resorted to scare tactics like calling the Democratic agenda radical. In what might have been a planned strategy, the morning after the debate Trump said Harris is a communist. Pence used what obviously was a planned line, saying to Harris, “You’re entitled to your own opinion, you’re not entitled to your own facts,” a phrase used by the former U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) several decades ago, ironic because Washington Post fact checkers have said President Trump has lied more than 20,000 times. Throughout the debate, Pence acted like a polite low key Trump. Harris was skillful in being able to transition from the moderator’s question to her talking points. Following Biden’s debate tactic, she talked directly to people by asking them questions. Like Pence’s “fact” comment, Harris also was waiting for a chance to use a prepared retort and twice said, “I will not sit here and be lectured by the Vice President,” obviously targeted at women voters.
How did she do?
She had to demonstrate that she can control the candidates, make sure that they didn’t talk around her questions; that questions were not lollypops and that she showed no favoritism. I gave her a passing grade on this portion of my scorecard. It’s an impossible task to control political debaters. But her final grade was a gentlewoman’s D. Here’s why: She bungled the most important question of the night: Would Pence commit to a peaceful transfer of power if Biden wins. When the vice-president refused to commit to a peaceful transfer, instead of following up with at least one question, Page kept to her prepared script and asked a question by an 8th grade student. A disgraceful display of journalism. (Giving Ms. Page a D for fumbling her question regarding the most fundamental aspect of our democracy is generous on my part. If I didn’t mark on a curve and include the TV pundits, I would have given her an F.)
While neither of the candidates rivaled the debating skills of Winston Churchill, (or Cicero, I’ve been told), in my opinion the night belonged to Ms. Harris. Pence had to defend the indefensible, beginning with the fact that more than 200,000 American had died from the coronavirus to the current economic slowdown, which only GOP defenders deny.
The big question that was not discussed by any of the moderators was, “Did the candidate’s performances during the debates matter to the voters.” The answer is maybe, maybe not, because a Wall Street Journal survey of 1000 voters published on September 20 revealed that more than 70% said the debates won’t matter much, including 44% who said they will not matter at all.
Did We Learn Anything New From the Debates?
Regarding the policy differences between the candidates, we learned nothing that an interested voter didn’t already know. However, many people who don’t follow politics on a daily basis, and even those who do, learned that Vice President Pence is the most nationally-elected dangerous politician in America, even more so than President Trump. That’s because of his nearly four-year-long act, everyone knows that Trump is not to be believed or trusted. Pence, on the other hand, lies as frequently as Trump, and smears his opponents with the same gusto as the president. But he does it in a gentle, understated, calming manner, free of bluster, with a smile on his face. He is the con artist of politics. But instead of money, the future of U.S. democracy is at stake. (I didn’t come to that conclusion because of the debate. During the impeachment hearings, I told my wife that if Pence becomes president, because of the way he presents himself, he’s liable to get far right wing policies enacted that will take years for Democrats and moderates to undo.) Pence reminds me of why I stopped ordering cake many years ago in a diner: Looks delicious, tastes awful.)
The debates matter more to the political pundits than to voters. To use baseball terminology it’s “inside baseball,” meaning that what is important to insiders has little relevancy to the general public. And it shouldn’t. After four years of any president, voters should have enough opinions to make up their own minds. And just as important, what candidates say during debates often has no relevancy to how they will govern, similar to platforms of political parties, except during a debate it’s spoken words, not written ones.
But A Caveat:
Occasionally, a debate can influence an election. Such was the case in the first 1960 televised debate between Sen. John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon. Nixon was seen on the small screen perspiring and with a five o’clock shadow; Kennedy young and dynamic. The comparison between the two vaulted JFK from trailing Nixon to the presidency. During a 1976 presidential debate against Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter, President Ford said, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” When given an opportunity to clarify the remark by moderator Max Frankel of the New York Times, Ford refused, insisting that Poland, Romania and Yugoslavia are free from Soviet interference. Ford’s comment haunted him throughout the remainder of the campaign, with many analysts saying it helped Carter win the presidency. And in a 1992 town hall debate between President George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot, Bush’s action of checking his watch during the debate illustrated his frustration of having to explain his actions and his distain for having to debate, unlike Clinton, who, perhaps, is the best candidate since FDR to convince voters that he cares for them by speaking directly to them.
Final Thought (from a self-anointed stable genius):
Other less intelligent pundits thought that Biden hurt himself by getting into the trash basin with Trump during their first debate. I disagree. Here’s why: In order to prove Trump wrong about his months long smear, saying that Biden was on the edge of senility and was unfit for the job, the only way Biden could counter Trump’s lies was to demonstrate in front of a national audience that he is still quick-witted and can throw his own zingers back at the president. The debate gave Biden that opportunity and he used it to his advantage.
About the Author: Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He also traveled internationally as a media adviser to high-ranking government officials. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and is on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr (at) juno.com and artsolomon4pr (at) optimum.net.