UNITED STATES. Republican pollster Frank Luntz moderated a focus group with 15 undecided voters from across the country who watched the first presidential debate on 29 Sept. At the conclusion of the debate, Luntz asked each undecided voter to offer one word to describe both Trump and Biden. Their summaries reveal what Americans witnessed:
|unpolished||a surprise (at how well he did)|
|crackhead||better than expected|
|confident ass||politician/presidential (x2)|
|classic Trump||predictable (x2)|
|forceful||lacking vision/nice guy|
Biden has a well-known temper, and given his disposition, he is receiving praise for keeping himself under control against Trump’s attacks, even though he too was pulled into the name-calling when he called Trump a “clown” and a “racist.”
It was difficult to untangle the candidates’ positions from the personal attacks, the subterfuge, and the evasions. The moderator, Chris Wallace of FOX News, was challenged to keep the debate focused and get his questions answered. Nearly two dozen exchanges between Wallace and the candidates were repeating a question that wasn’t answered or begging them not to talk over one another. 25 minutes in, Wallace directly implored Trump, “I think that the country would be better served, if we allowed both people to speak with fewer interruptions. I’m appealing to you, sir [Trump], to do that.”
Supreme Court Appointments. The debate began with a discussion about Trump’s right to appoint a new Supreme Court Justice in the wake of Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s death less than two months from the election, a right the Republicans denied President Obama when Justice Scalia died nine months prior to the 2016 election. Trump’s nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, is a conservative judge who Trump believes will overturn women’s right to terminate a pregnancy, established in Roe v. Wade.
Biden, however, refused to give a direct answer to Wallace’s question about “ending the filibuster and adding more justices” which is legal under the constitution. The Supreme Court discussion ended with Trump accusing Biden of wanting to “pack the court,” a bold claim from The President who has appointed two of the current nine justices, and is likely to get his third in before 3 Nov.
Healthcare. Biden focused on the threat to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), Obama’s healthcare legacy that insured millions of Americans who had been left out of the affordable healthcare market prior to its passage. Barrett is also believed to support the repeal of the ACA, which is currently under review in the courts. Biden emphasized that if the ACA gets overturned, a hundred million Americans with pre-existing conditions could lose coverage. Trump responded, “There aren’t a hundred million people with pre-existing conditions.” That was a moment of truth: in the wake of the global pandemic, more than seven million Americans were infected by COVID-19, all of whom now have a pre-existing condition.
Trump tried to corner Biden into admitting to a “socialist” healthcare plan but never gave Biden the opportunity to clarify his views about the Biden-Harris plan. Challenged by Wallace to offer just one piece of healthcare policy that he has accomplished in his four years in office, Trump focused on how he has lowered drug prices by taking on Big Pharma. Biden challenged his claims, “He hasn’t lowered drug costs for anybody. He’s been promising a healthcare plan since he got elected. He has none.” Politifact has confirmed that Trump’s claim is false.
COVID-19. The debate about Trump’s handling of the pandemic that has impacted the United States more than any other country in the world, was stranded on Trump’s speculations about how Biden would have handled it and how many more Americans would have died under a Biden presidency. Trump once again lied saying that his rallies have all been held outdoors (Oklahoma was not) in the midst of his own health experts (and many state laws) recommendation to avoid crowds, to maintain social distancing, and wear a mask. All of which were ignored in order for Trump to hold massive rallies in the lead up to the election.
Trump openly disagreed with his own healthcare experts and insisted that the COVID-19 vaccine would be available before the election. “I disagree with [Redfield]. And he didn’t say that. He said [the vaccine] could be there, but it could also be much sooner. I had him in my office two days ago.”
The economy and employment. The candidates had very different perceptions about the strength of the economy. Trump insists that the American economy has never been stronger, however, this claim is not straightforward. According to a 2020 Forbe’s report, “Since the start of the pandemic, collective U.S. billionaire wealth has surged by more than $584 billion, while $6.5 trillion in household wealth has disappeared.”
Wallace challenged Trump’s claims to having the best employment numbers. “Obama’s final three years as president more jobs were created, a million and a half more jobs, than in the first three years of your presidency.”
Trump responded to Wallace, “They had the slowest economic recovery since 1929. It was the slowest recovery. Also, they took over something that was down here. All you had to do is turn on the lights and you pick up a lot. But they had the slowest economic recovery since 1929, and let me tell you about the stock market. When the stock market goes up, that means jobs.”
Trump’s Taxes. Trump insisted that he paid “millions” in taxes during the debate, refuting a New York Times 10,000 word investigative piece on 27 Sept that revealed prior to becoming President, Trump paid zero federal taxes, and for the 2016 and 2017 fiscal years, Trump paid a mere $750 each year. By contrast, Biden released his taxes and showed that he and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, paid $300,000 in 2019.
The election. Maintaining his baseless claims about election fraud, Trump insisted, “They’re sending millions of ballots all over the country. There’s fraud. They found them in creeks. They found some, just happened to have the name Trump just the other day in a wastepaper basket.”
To prevent the rampant fraud that Trump is foreseeing without the evidence to support his concerns, he is actively encouraging his supporters to become poll watchers, he stated, “I’m urging my supporters to go in to the polls and watch very carefully, because that’s what has to happen. I am urging them to do it. As you know, today there was a big problem. In Philadelphia, they went in to watch. They’re called poll watchers, a very safe, very nice thing.” While legal, there are laws that poll watchers must abide by, including in many states, keeping a distance from the voters. One must apply to become a poll worker, and only registered voters in that state and sometimes in that county are eligible.
Law and order. Trump claimed that crime was higher during the Obama/Biden administration, but in fact, crime nationally was less under their administration than under Trump’s. According to FBI data, “For the claim about his own record, Biden did not mention the murder rate. The murder rate in 2008 was the same as it was in 2016, 5.4 murders per 100,000 people … Both the violent crime and murder rates went down in 2017 and in 2018, Trump’s first two years in office. (The FBI has not released final data for 2019.) While murders so far were up in 2020 compared with 2019, ‘violent crime is roughly even’.”
Wallace told The President, “There has been a dramatic increase in homicides in America this summer particularly, and you often blame that on democratic mayors and democratic governors. But in fact, there have been equivalent spikes in Republican led cities, like Tulsa and Fort Worth.”
Trump insisted that the crime problem is a “democrat” problem. “I think as a party issue, you can bring in a couple of examples but if you look at Chicago…if you look at New York where it’s going up, like nobody’s ever seen anything.”
When asked about his response to the protests, Trump answered, incoherently. “I’ll send in the National Guard, it would be over. That’d be no problem. But I don’t want to accept the National Guard.”
When Trump insisted that Biden wants to defund the police, Biden responded, “I support [sic] the police having the opportunity to deal with the problems they face and I’m totally opposed to defunding the police offices. As a matter of fact, police, local police, the only one defunding in his budget calls for a $400 million cut in local law enforcement assistance. They need more assistance. They need when they show up for a 9-1-1 call to have someone with them as a psychologist or psychiatrist to keep them from having to use force and be able to talk people down. We have to have community policing.”
Racism. In one of the most stunning statements among many in the debate, Trump would not denounce white supremacist groups who have been active at Black Lives Matter protests that erupted across the nation in response to the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Flloyd, and Daniel Prude, among others. Not only would he not denounce right-wing extremism, he seemed to be sending them a message, “Proud Boys [a known militia group], stand back and stand by.” America felt a collective jaw drop and social media exploded with commentary. One member of the “western chauvinist’’ group posted. “We’re ready!!” Trump basically said to go [expletive] them up! This makes me so happy.” The Proud Boys put the slogan around their logo within minutes.
Many proclaim this to be the most important election in modern American history, the cliff’s edge of democracy as we know it
Out of 15 undecided voters Luntz watched the debate with, “four said they were supporting Democratic nominee Joe Biden after watching the debate and two backed President Donald Trump. The rest remained on the fence. There were nine men and six women and they hailed from Arizona, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Nevada.”
“You just saw 90 minutes. How can you still be undecided?” an incredulous Luntz asked. “Please explain that to me?”
America awaits your answer…