• Justin Dynia

Candidates Spar at the First Debate on a Hotly Contested Night

The changing of the seasons from summer to fall still could not cool down the heated conflict as millions of Americans tuned in to the first presidential debate of the 2020 election on September 29th between President Donald Trump and Vice President Joe Biden to watch a night full of disorder and dissension.


The debate, moderated by Fox News Anchor Chris Wallace, was hosted by Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. The two presidential candidates traded testy remarks back and forth while all of the three septuagenarians onstage clashed for control.



Debate moderator Wallace handpicked the topics, with each of the following six segments getting approximately 15 minutes:


• Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Amy Coney Barrett, and the Supreme Court

• America’s handling of Covid-19

• Economic recovery

• Race and violence in U.S. cities

• President Trump’s and Vice President Biden’s record in office

• Election integrity


Wallace had to remind the candidates on numerous occasions of the prearranged debate rules, attempting to provide each candidate with two uninterrupted minutes to answer each question followed by open discussion.


“COVID-19 is the next subject so let's try and be serious about it,” Wallace chided the candidates as they struggled to move on to the next segment.


Neither Trump nor Biden seemed content to let the other get through any talking points without cross-talk that frequently led to a series of juvenile tit for tat remarks.


“Folks, do you have any idea what this clown is doing?" Biden rhetorically asked the audience following one such exchange.


“Don't use the word smart with me,” President Trump fired back at Biden as the two entered an argument over their intelligence.


The hour and a half long debate did produce brief flashes of tangible policy discussions and statements on current political ongoings amidst the war of words.


Wallace’s first question on the Supreme Court allowed Trump to firmly cement his decision to nominate Judge Amy Coney Barrett for the vacant Supreme Court seat of recently deceased Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, claiming he had “a legal mandate” to do so and citing his four year term as reason enough to fill the seat.


Wallace’s second question on the government’s response gave Biden an opportunity to push his campaign’s central message that President Trump mishandled the crisis and is largely at fault for the over 200,000 Americans that have died of the virus.


Pushing back against Trump’s earlier comments downplaying the virus, Biden stated “it is what it is because of who you are.”



The rest of the debate also featured some moments of lucid discussion between the two candidates, but much of the night was marred by unceasing interventions that hindered any chance of productive dialogue. Biden, Trump, and Wallace all often looked visibly agitated while trying to hold themselves together on national television. Wallace found himself as a conductor unable to contain his orchestra from crescendoing into constant chaos.


Each candidate jabbed in several quips that sparked viral conversation on social media platforms. Biden called Trump “the worst president” in American history while Trump told Biden “nobody would show up” to his rallies. These one liners offer the best insight into a night rich with school ground insults but filled with little substantive discourse. Biden and Trump went for each others' throats far more than they attacked the heart of the issues.


The reaction from the majority of mainstream media outlets reflected the mayhem that unfolded before viewers’ eyes. Both diametrically opposed Fox News Anchor Sean Hannity and CNN Anchor Jake Tapper called the debate “a train wreck,” while CNN’s Dana Bash went a step further and bluntly called the ordeal “a shit show.” Many questions were raised regarding Wallace’s inability to reign in the disruptions and effectively facilitate conversation between the candidates as well as his direct involvement that led some to feel as if it were a tripartite debate.


Post debate polls reveal Americans too were not thrilled with the direction the debate took. According to a CBS News poll with YouGov, 83% of viewers considered the debate to be overall “negative” while 69% felt “annoyed” for most of the debate.


Although each side rushed to claim its candidate as the winner, the same poll showed that overall viewers had their opinions on Biden become more favorable after the debate (38%) than on Trump (24%). Historically, political scientists recognize that presidential debates do little to make a large impact on voter behavior, but a strong first debate performance sets the stage for the final crucial weeks in the home stretch of the election.


From football to campaign rally sizes, socialism to white supremacy, the night was a tale of two cities. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Overwhelmingly, most would concur with the latter. Not much new information came to light. Viewers who leaned towards one candidate likely had their preexisting views further reinforced. Undecided voters feel their unwitting choice will become even harder to make. The denigration of the presidential debate as a forum to earnestly discuss issues with American voters comes as no surprise in this aberrant year. It is hard to expect anything less from the bearers of the institutions that have been shaken to the core in the midst of generational turmoil. Above all, the first presidential debate revealed the unsteady ground America rests on may be more precarious than previously thought.