President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, met for their second and final presidential debate on Thursday night in Nashville, Tennessee. The debate was moderated by Kristen Welker, the White House correspondent of NBC News, and featured a mute button to help maintain order after the chaos of the first presidential debate.
And it helped.
This debate featured a calmer, more substantive discussion on policy. Both candidates made their final appeals to the electorate and issued their final attacks on the opposing candidate. Biden sharpened his message on Trump’s failed leadership on managing the COVID-19 pandemic and the lack of a healthcare reform plan while Trump fired back, arguing that Biden represents an inactive, corrupt politician who has done nothing during his decades in public service.
Biden’s most important message of the night was unity and empathy, which seems to be winning over undecided voters. They support the idea of bringing the country together amid intense division and partisanship. According to a CNN instant poll of debate watchers, Biden did a better job in the debate. Fifty-three percent of voters who watched the debate said Biden won the debate, while 39 percent said that Trump did.
More polling will surface in the coming days about the debate and its impact on undecided voters, but early impressions indicate that it did not fundamentally change the dynamics of the race. Even Fox News contributor Doug Schoen argued that “it is safe to say the 96-minute exchange between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden will likely not fundamentally alter the presidential race. Over 48 million Americans have already voted, and few people remain undecided.”
While many agree that Trump’s performance was better this time around, it was not enough to shift the momentum of the race. But it is important to remember the CNN debate poll after the third presidential debate in 2016 showed Clinton winning by only one point less than Biden (52 percent for Clinton, and 39 percent for Trump).
With just 11 days to the election, this debate reinforced Biden’s lead. Nearly 50 million Americans have already cast their ballot, a record number. Polling shows that Democrats are voting earlier and in huge numbers, whereas Trump voters are choosing to wait, thanks to the president’s false statements that voting early would lead to voter fraud.
But none of us can forget 2016. At this point in the 2016 election cycle, most pollsters gave Hillary Clinton a 90 percent probability of beating Trump. So, what is different this time around?
The key difference is COVID-19. Trump is attempting to paint a more positive picture to show that his administration is in control of the situation, but the numbers show otherwise. Eight and a half million Americans have been infected, and more than 220,000 have died. As Biden reminded us, it is possible that another 200,000 could die by the end of the year. Infection rates are increasing across the country. There is also a sharp rise in the number of hospitalisations and deaths. The day before this debate, there were nearly 65,000 new COVID-19 cases, one of the highest daily rates on record. The economy is sputtering as this public health crisis continues to hurt American families. Families, schools, and small businesses are suffering. Americans are in dire need of leadership.
Trump uses China as a scapegoat and essentially refuses to take responsibility for how the pandemic has been managed during his presidency. He regularly attacks popular civil servants like Dr Anthony Fauci and downplays the dangers of the virus.
He reaffirmed this messaging in the debate, and it is hurting his chances. He continues to mock mask wearing and social distancing, all while denying the gravity of this crisis. Voters are also not immune to his ceaseless flood of lies. Trump regularly contradicts his own experts and insists that a vaccine will be ready by the end of the year. The lack of transparency and honesty surrounding the presidency is more unmistakable than ever.
Trump’s strategy is not working. Most Americans disapprove of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus crisis. In the debate, Trump claimed we are learning to live with the reality of the virus, but Biden fired back: “Learning to live with it? Come on! We are learning to die with it.”
This was one of the best moments of the night for Biden. Similar to his strategy in the first debate, Biden spoke directly to the camera and evoked empathy. He spoke directly to people who have lost loved ones to the pandemic, reaffirming his core message: a president should embody integrity, empathy, and compassion.
Unsurprisingly, COVID-19 and healthcare were front and centre in this debate. This unprecedented health crisis has added even more importance to the healthcare debate and highlighted concerns about what would happen if Obamacare is overturned. Even before the coronavirus crisis, healthcare was one of the top priorities for American voters. In the 2018 midterm elections, three-quarters of registered voters cited healthcare (75 percent) and economy (74 percent) as their top voting issues.
This is important because healthcare is one of Trump’s clearest failures. Trump and the Republicans have no healthcare reform plan to replace Obamacare if it is overturned by the Supreme Court. Trump promises that the millions of Americans with pre-existing medical conditions will be able to keep their health insurance, but he cannot explain how. The Republicans have had more than 10 years to propose an alternative to Obamacare, and they still have nothing. This reality is not lost on American voters, and it is more salient than ever in 2020.
In the debate, Biden set up a clear contrast between his platform and that of Trump’s, affirming that “healthcare is not a privilege, it is a right”. Biden wants to reform and expand Obamacare, while the Trump administration is supporting a lawsuit to have it thrown out with no plan for how to replace it. All this in the middle of a pandemic. Eleven days out, Trump and the Republicans still have no answer on healthcare.
Perhaps Trump’s more effective messages of the night coalesced around attacks targeting Biden as a corrupt politician. Trump called into question Biden’s 47 years in office, asking what would be different this time around. It is a fair question, and these attacks on Biden could convince some undecided voters. It worked well in 2016 against Hillary Clinton, when Trump was an outsider. But he is not an outsider any more. He can no longer promise to “drain the swamp” – he is now the essence of the swamp.
Polling and focus groups show more positive opinions of Biden than Clinton. Many independent voters who sat out in 2016 or voted for third party candidates because they so strongly disliked both Clinton and Trump are more comfortable voting for Biden. There are many reasons for this, from perceptions about the Clintons as a corrupt political family and Hillary’s personal likability, to rampant sexism that poses extra challenges to women trying to rise to the highest levels of national politics.
It is 2020, and American politics is more unpredictable than ever. There are still pathways for a Trump victory, albeit narrow ones, and there are a plethora of wild cards and uncertainties that could shift dynamics at any moment. Many of us remember, for example, when FBI Director James Comey sent a letter to Congress about Hillary Clinton’s emails on October 28, only a few days before the election, which dominated the news cycle and hurt her standing in the polls. Major pollsters claim that the Comey letter probably cost Clinton the election, only days before it took place.
It is scenarios like these that are keeping the Biden campaign up at night.
Moreover, we are voting in the middle of a global pandemic and orchestrated disinformation campaigns. There are serious concerns about foreign election interference and the impact of disinformation on social media platforms, as well as questions about voter turnout under social distancing regimes, mail-in voting, and a host of legal challenges to state voting rules.
In 2016, pollsters were unable to capture a key constituency of Trump voters – non-college-educated whites in the so-called “Rust Belt” – because they were less likely to answer phone calls from pollsters. These voters in crucial swing states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin were the key element of Trump’s 2016 win, and they are more important than ever this time around. To push back against Biden’s steady lead in the polls and in fundraising, Republicans have spotlighted their successes in voter registration campaigns in Florida, North Carolina, Arizona, and Pennsylvania, arguing that these Trump voters are not being included in polling. This will help Republicans, but I do not think it will be enough.
This debate was one of Trump’s last chances to move the needle among undecided voters. He may have been calmer and more restrained, but his outrageous statements and lies were as present as ever (at one point he said he was “the least racist person in the room”). Biden was sharper than he was in the first debate and stayed on message. His final message to Americans was one of empathy and unity, a much-needed contrast to Trump’s divisiveness and vitriol. But it is 2020, and anything can happen.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.