by Anna Augart-Welwood
October 26, 2020
Editor’s Note: This article was written between October 15 and October 22, hence the use of the future tense to refer to the fourth debate.
With the presidential election just around the corner on November 3, the presidential and vice presidential debates can inform voters of the candidates’ political views and public policy proposals. The first presidential debate took place on September 29, the one vice presidential debate was on October 7, the October 15 debate was cancelled amidst concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic, and the final debate is set to take place on October 22.
The first presidential debate was turbulent and disorganized, an environment created by President Trump’s frequent interruptions and heckling of former Vice President Joe Biden. The debate moderator, Chris Wallace of Fox News, was often unsuccessful at preventing Trump from talking over his opponent. Biden grew so exasperated from constantly being interrupted that he asked Trump to shut up. According to a pre-debate CNN poll, 56% of surveyed debate watchers said they thought Biden would do a better job compared to 43% in favor of Trump. However, a post-debate poll found that 60% of the same voters thought Biden won the debate, while 28% thought Trump did better. 12% thought both candidates did equally well, neither candidate was better, or had no opinion.
The vice presidential debate on October 7 involved fewer interruptions than the previous presidential debate and was overall more orderly. The moderator, Susan Page of USA Today, nevertheless had to remind the candidates, Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris, to not speak over each other, and they didn’t always abide. Pence and Harris sometimes ignored the moderator’s questions completely. Particularly worrisome was their lack of answers to the following prompt: “What would you do if the president became incapacitated?” The question carries a special importance in this election year, given both candidates’ ages and Trump’s health concerns, the most serious of which are his obesity and his recent COVID-19 diagnosis. In one memorable moment, Harris fought back after being interrupted by Pence, saying, “Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking. I’m speaking.” Perhaps the most humorous participant in the debate was the fly that landed on Pence’s head, a spectacle that Biden’s campaign quickly took advantage of. Biden began selling fly swatters approximately thirty minutes after the debate and sold 35,000 in a few hours.
Next, the October 15 debate was cancelled because of President Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis. On October 8, the Commission on Presidential Debates announced that the second presidential debate would be held virtually. While Biden agreed, Trump refused to take part in a virtual debate. Instead, Biden participated in a town hall in Philadelphia, and Trump held an opposing town hall in Miami. The final debate is still set to take place on October 22 in Nashville, and it will be moderated by Kristen Welker, a White House correspondent for NBC News. The candidates will practice social distancing and wear masks. To ensure that each candidate gets two minutes of uninterrupted speaking time at the beginning of each segment, Trump’s microphone will be muted while Biden speaks, and vice versa.
Several BUA students offered comments on the debates. Nikhil Rich ‘24 reflected on the first debate, saying, “[Trump] was able to manipulate the conversation so that he never actually had to discuss policy.” He disagrees with the “few words about policy” that Biden managed to say, and said that “when questioned on matters of policing, Biden argued from a far-right point of view in order to escape being branded by Trump as a radical leftist.” He believes that Biden’s climate change plan is “far too moderate,” and that neither candidate went into enough detail about their healthcare plan. Finally, he pointed out Trump’s failure to condemn white supremacy in telling the Proud Boys, a far-right group, to “stand back and stand by,” and called the President’s addressing of the organization “appalling.” After watching the first debate and the vice presidential debate, Alice Gamarnik ‘23 commented, “I can’t say Kamala and Biden are my favorite.” She thinks that while they spend too much time attacking their opponents, they support things that she believes in and that “[they] aren’t going to start taking away [her] rights, so settling for them is [her] best bet.” Finally, Kenzie Urbano ‘21 called the debates “embarrassing,” and Riot Weiden ‘24 compared the first one to watching a Saturday Night Live skit.
In these debates, each candidate has striven to make a case for themselves; on November 3, the outcome of their efforts will be revealed. Be sure to stay tuned.
Agiesta, Jennifer. “Post-debate CNN poll: Six in 10 say Biden won the debate.” CNN, September 30, 2020.
Bernstein, Lenny; McGinley, Laurie; Achenbach, Joel; Sun, Lena H. “President Trump’s transfer to Walter Reed reflects a cautious approach to treating his covid-19 symptoms.” The Washington Post, October 3, 2020.
Goldmacher, Shane. “Six Takeaways From the First Presidential Debate.” New York Times, September 30, 2020.
McNamara, Audrey. “When are the 2020 presidential debates and what topics will Trump and Biden cover?” CBS News, October 20, 2020.
Segarra, Marielle. “How did the Biden campaign create fly swatter merch so quickly?” Marketplace, October 8, 2020.
Walsh, Deirdre. “4 Takeaways From The Mike Pence-Kamala Harris Vice Presidential Debate.” NPR, October 8, 2020.