The first presidential debate of 2020 was a disaster for Donald Trump. His constant hectoring of both Joe Biden and moderator Chris Wallace was childish and obnoxious. It made visible all the temperamental problems that are a major reason he is so unpopular. The polling gap between him and Biden widened after the debate, as Biden’s lead in aggregate polling rose from 7–8 to 10–11 points.
In the second debate, Trump had clearly been told by his advisers to keep to his best behavior and, miracle of miracles, he listened to them. In comparison to the first debate, Trump was far more of a normal politician. He wasn’t as outwardly belligerent and determined to talk over everyone else.
To be sure, this is only relative to his own previous performance. All the normal Trump problems were there, including the constant lying (at one point he repeated his claim to have done more for African Americans than any other politician “except possibly Abraham Lincoln” and then a few minutes later denied that he compared himself to Lincoln). He also indulged in conspiracy mongering by referring to the “Biden crime family” amid attempts to make Hunter Biden’s alleged e-mails an issue. Many of Trump’s allusions to corruption could make sense only to those fully immersed in the Fox News mythos, which means they will confuse most Americans, including almost all persuadable voters.
Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo made a reasonable comparison:
Biden better on the merits but both guys playing to their preferred ways of speaking to the public, their core audiences. Trump wasn’t out of control like he was in the first debate. I thought he might be just as feral; but he wasn’t. I got that wrong.
But that’s a crazy standard. In the first debate Trump showed his absolutely worst self, someone who simply has no business being President. It pushed him from clearly losing to landslide defeat territory. Trump held it together for the first twenty minutes before sliding into conspiracy theories and nonsense. But he never got near the fusillade of petulance and predation we saw three weeks ago. He was better here. But so was Biden. Biden was sharper in this debate than three weeks ago.
Marshall’s assessment is sound. Both candidates did considerably better. But since Trump’s first debate performance was wretched, coming closer to normality means the contrast between Trump and Biden wasn’t as sharp. It’s unlikely that the debate will cause Trump to sink in the polls.
What is more probable is that the debate will be a wash, irrelevant either way. That’s because the overriding issue of Covid-19 looms large over politics, all the more so since the United States is entering into a new surge. As Zack Beauchamp of Vox observes, “One error in the debate coverage I’m seeing so far—and really, campaign coverage more generally—is underestimating how much more important the pandemic is than everything else. We’re in the middle of one of the deadliest global outbreaks in human history. It has transformed the way that *everyone* lives their lives. To think it won’t be anything but the top issue is folly.”
Joe Biden hit the exact right note by warning, “We’re about to go into a dark winter. A dark winter. And he has no clear plan, and there’s no prospect that there’s going to be a vaccine available for the majority of the American people before the middle of next year.”
Trump responded by saying, “I don’t know if we’re going to have a dark winter at all. We’re opening up our country. We’ve learned and studied and understand the disease, which we didn’t at the beginning.”
On Covid-19, Biden is accurate and Trump is not. The dark winter has already started. Both deaths and case numbers are going up. The United States could be hitting a record of 100,000 cases per day by Election Day. According to the Covid Tracking Project, yesterday’s statistics were: “States reported 1.1 million tests, 73k cases, and 41k people currently hospitalized with COVID-19. The death toll was 1,038, the highest since late September.” On the current trajectory, this country could soon see 2,000 deaths a day.
Related to the issue of how to handle Covid-19 was the question of presidential decency. Biden again drew a contrast between himself and Trump on empathy and a willingness to be a president for all Americans. Because the reality of Covid-19 is so brutal, this matters. Here also, Biden won hands down.