After the nearly unintelligible shout-fest of 2020’s first presidential debate, the last match-up between President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden felt like a throwback to something approaching normal.
In a more sedate, more substantive and more respectful sequel, the candidates still had plenty to squabble over. With just 12 days until polls open on Nov. 3, Trump and Biden sparred over the President’s handling of the pandemic, how to lower health care costs, taxes, immigration, racial justice and climate change.
Both appeared to accomplish what they came to do. Trump took a page from his 2016 playbook, painting his opponent as a corrupt career politician and himself as an outsider, despite his perch as an incumbent President. He launched unfounded attacks, inflated his accomplishments and curbed some of the haranguing that turned voters off in the first debate.
Biden, leading in national polls by about eight points, needed a steady performance and delivered one. He hammered Trump for fumbling the U.S. response to the pandemic, framed the campaign as a test of character and said that if he was elected, he would be a president who would represent all Americans, “whether you voted for me or not.”
Whether any of it can shake up a remarkably static race is another matter. It’s unclear how many people in the country can be swayed at this point. Polling shows only a sliver of undecided voters remain. More than 47 million Americans have already cast their votes.
But for Trump, it was progress, after a performance in the first debate that was widely panned. “It’s very clear the first debate moved numbers sharply against Trump and toward Biden,” says Whit Ayres, a GOP pollster and political consultant. Trump seemed to have learned his lesson. He gave Biden time to speak—the “mute button” during each segment’s opening answers helped—praised the moderator and returned to the fundamental argument that launched his political career five years ago: that he came to Washington to do battle against crooked and ineffectual career politicians.
“I ran because of you,” Trump said to Biden. He repeatedly hit Biden for failing to make progress on policy issues during his eight years as Vice President. “You’re all talk and no action,” Trump said. His message was summed up in an email from campaign manager Bill Stepien that arrived minutes after the debate’s conclusion: “This was the businessman versus the career politician, the outsider versus the Washington insider, the reformer against the swamp.”
If Trump’s task was to dig out of the hole he’s created for himself, Biden simply needed a solid performance to hang on to his lead. “It’s not about Biden or anything really he’s doing. He’s just showing that he’s an alternative who has a pulse,” says Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist. “You could run a pile of bricks next to Trump and have a large segment of the population voting for a pile of bricks.”
Biden’s performance seemed unlikely to damage his standing. He often turned toward the camera, at one point telling voters to “look at us closely,” and pitched a vote for him as a vote for “decency, honor and respect,” arguing that “the character of the country is on the ballot.”
Trump scoffed in response. “Don’t give me the stuff about how you’re an innocent baby,” he said.
The former Vice President faced an expected line of questions from Trump about his son Hunter, following a New York Post release of emails purportedly from Hunter Biden. The exchange pushed Biden onto the defensive. “I have not taken a penny from any foreign source ever in my life,” Biden said. But it wasn’t clear that Trump’s many allusions to a story that some intelligence experts consider Russian disinformation were decipherable to most voters, let alone persuasive.
Trump, meanwhile, defended his Administration’s response to COVID-19, which has killed more than 220,000 Americans. “Anybody who’s responsible for that many deaths should not remain as President of the United States of America,” Biden said. Trump urged a continued reopening of the economy, saying “we’re learning to live with” the virus. “People are learning to die with it,” Biden retorted.
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In an exchange on immigration, Biden criticized Trump for rescinding the program that provides protections for people brought to the country illegally as children and promised to send an immigration bill to Congress with a pathway to citizenship for the millions of people country illegally. Trump was challenged on his Administration’s policy of separating children from parents who had crossed the border illegally, which has caused the Department of Homeland Security to lose track of more than 500 separated families.
“We’re trying very hard” to reunite kids and their families, Trump said, claiming the children and families are “so well taken care of. They are in facilities that are so clean.” With a flash of indignation, Biden retorted, “Those kids are alone. Nowhere to go. It’s criminal.”
As the debate went on, Trump’s tone grew more heated. The candidates clashed over climate change and energy, with Trump defending his Administration’s record and arguing Biden’s polices would curb economic growth. When Biden said he would push to phase out fossil fuels over time, Trump pounced, overstating Biden’s position: “What he’s saying is he will destroy the oil industry.”
“Just because Donald Trump’s voice was calmer doesn’t mean he all of a sudden told the truth,” said Symone Sanders, a Biden senior campaign adviser.
Though the campaign is in the home stretch and tens of millions of Americans have already voted, analysts caution that the race isn’t over yet. “The challenge for Trump is the undecideds have decided they don’t like him,” says GOP pollster Frank Luntz. “But they’re nervous about Joe Biden. So it’s not liking the President versus not trusting Joe Biden. That’s the challenge. Donald Trump has to win 90% of those undecideds.”
The final days of the campaign will hinge on whether Trump can reach those voters, or bank on a robust GOP field operation to turn out enough of his supporters. Says Luntz: “You can hear the bells tolling, but they haven’t tolled for good.”
-With reporting by Charlotte Alter/New York