President Donald Trump participates in the final presidential debate against Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden at Belmont University on October 22, 2020 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photos by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
President Trump and Joe Biden actually finished their sentences without too much interruption Thursday night, and managed to sound somewhat coherent.
It’s unclear whether the final debate of the 2020 presidential election will change many voters’ minds, however. And the status quo is a problem for the president, who entered the debate trailing in the national polls by close to double digits.
After a bullying and inchoate first debate performance and cancelling the second debate because he wouldn’t debate remotely while he had the coronavirus, Trump managed to mostly rein in his most furious impulses during his final debate Thursday night — but a litany of falsehoods and focus on conspiracy theories against Biden may not move the needle in the race.
Trump spent most of the debate trying to ding Biden for trumped-up scandals and longtime talking points, while Biden focused more on the issues that polls show most voters care about: COVID-19, healthcare and the economy.
The coronavirus pandemic has dominated America and dictated the presidential debate for months, and Trump still had no good answer for why more than 220,000 Americans had died of coronavirus, the highest per capita in the world, while dissembling about what he’d done to respond to the virus.
Trump promised a vaccine within “weeks,” then backed off when moderator Kristen Welker pushed him on that point.
“No, it’s not a guarantee, but it’ll be by the end of the year,” Trump backtracked.
And when Trump said that America is “learning to live” with COVID, Biden fired back.
“You said, you know. we’re learning to live with it. People are learning to die with it,” Biden said. “Learning to live with it? Come on.”
On healthcare, Trump promised a plan to protect those with preexisting conditions — one that he’s failed to come up with for the entirety of his presidency, including during the GOP’s lengthy efforts to repeal Obamacare. And he dodged on questions about why his administration was pushing a lawsuit that could lead to the Supreme Court overturning the now-popular law that Biden helped pass, while claiming that Biden’s plan to add a public option to healthcare coverage amounted to socialism.
Trump mostly tried to pivot to new scandals he and attorney Rudy Giuliani tried to pin on Biden, looking for a redux of the overblown email scandal that helped take down Hillary Clinton and hand him the White House. Biden accused Giuliani of being a patsy for the Russians. The new debate, over an alleged hard drive from Biden’s son Hunter that purportedly backs up Trumpland conspiracies over corruption, likely sailed over most voters’ heads.
Trump’s facade started to slip in the stretch run, however.
He declared to Welker, who is biracial, that he was “the least racist person in this room.”
“I am the least racist person. I can’t even see the audience it’s so dark, but it doesn’t matter because I’m the least racist person in this room,” Trump continued.
Trump’s tone sounded almost normal when compared to some of his more unhinged previous performances.
Biden, not always a strong debater, had a mostly solid night as well.
But in the closing minutes, he handed Trump a potential attack line when he said that America would “transition” away from oil. That line could potentially hurt him in resource industry-heavy states like Texas, and potentially Pennsylvania, a crucial state with a large fracking industry. Biden has consistently led in the polls of that state by outside their margins of error, but not by such a large gap that Democrats feel comfortable about the state.
When Trump asked if he’d “close down the oil industry,” Biden responded by saying “I would transition from the oil industry, yes.”
“The oil industry pollutes significantly,” he said. “It has to be replaced by renewable energy. Over time, over time.”
“Basically what he is saying is he’s going to destroy the oil industry,” a gleeful Trump said. “Will you remember that, Texas? Well you remember that Pennsylvania, Oklahoma?”
That Biden’s comment might not play well in oil-heavy areas became clear when freshman Rep. Kendra Horn (D-Okla.), who’s facing a tough reelection fight in Oklahoma City, tweeted out her disagreement:
But as he’s emphasized throughout the campaign, Biden tried to turn the conversation back to basic decency.
When Trump was asked why his administration separated migrant children from their parents — and why the government couldn’t find the parents of 545 of them — he dodged by claiming “lots of bad people” had brought them in, rather than their parents.
Biden said that violates “every notion of who we are as a nation.”
“Their kids were ripped from their arms and separated,” Biden said, showing genuine anger. “And now they cannot find over 500 sets of those parents, and those kids are alone. Nowhere to go. Nowhere to go. It’s criminal. It’s criminal.”
The debate clearly went much better for Trump than the first debate. And it could help him recover a bit from some dismal polls, which could help Republicans stanch the bleeding down-ticket and potentially help them keep Senate control. But with less than two weeks until Election Day, he likely needed better than just an improvement to secure another term in office.