Just days after President Donald Trump touted his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and mocked his Democratic rival Joe Biden for always wearing a mask, Trump tested positive for COVID-19 and was hospitalised.
While Trump’s health and that of those around him who were exposed over a period of several days – as the president and most of his entourage chose not to wear masks – is a matter of grave concern, it should not halt discussions about last week’s presidential debate and the policy issues at stake.
In fact, it should invite even more critical conversation, revealing – as if the more than 200,000 deaths in the US were not evidence enough – in the clearest of terms, what happens when our nations’ leaders do not take a public health crisis seriously.
Most reactions to the first presidential debate rightly castigated the event’s utter chaos. It was exhausting and painful to watch for so many reasons, but the main problem with the debate was President Donald Trump’s tireless interruptions of both Biden and the Fox News moderator Chris Wallace, as well as the onslaught of vitriol from America’s commander-in-chief. He refused to condemn white supremacy; regularly brought up conspiracy theories; took cheap shots at Biden and members of his family; and bullied both Biden and Wallace for 90 minutes. At one point, the president of the United States mocked Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, for his struggle with drug addiction. Following the debate, he mocked him again, calling him “crackhead Hunter” on the Glenn Beck show.
The debate was a win for Biden for many reasons, but chief among them was that Biden did not take the bait. Yes, he called Trump a clown and told him to “shut up, man” (voicing the thoughts of many of us watching), but Trump was trying to push his buttons so that Biden would lose his temper and commit major gaffes (something he is known for), and he did not. He let Trump self-destruct in front of 73 million American television viewers.
While Biden’s performance was not perfect, the way he spoke to the camera, directly to the American people, allowed him to cut through the noise and the chaos. While Trump was spewing hatred, chaos, and narcissism, Biden did his best to counter what attacks he could and to shift the focus of the conversation to substantive issues. In the upcoming debates, he needs to do more of this and better lay out his platform and policies to lock in swing voters already leaning his way.
I was a supporter of Bernie Sanders for president, but I am voting for Joe Biden. And on Tuesday night, Biden did what he does best. He looked us in the eye and made us feel like we matter. Even if these moments were fleeting, they were present. The juxtaposition of Biden’s integrity and calm with Trump’s anger and chaos gave a clear picture of who was truly presidential material. For many of us, our lives, our societies, and especially our politics have been shaken to the core by the chaos of divisive politicians, violence and racism, and the existential threats to health and livelihood posed by an unprecedented public health crisis. Trump is not the root cause of these challenges, but he has done all he can to foment these flames for his own benefit. He is letting America burn because it serves his own purposes. This is why the biggest threat to Trump’s campaign is Trump himself. As Biden said after the debate, Trump’s behaviour was a “national embarrassment”.
The debate was also a major fundraising win for Biden. Perhaps one of the most important consequences of that debate was that the Biden campaign raised a record-breaking $3.8m in one hour during the debate. In a three-hour period from 9pm to midnight, 215,000 donations were received, including from 60,000 new donors, amounting to $10m. On September 30, the day after the debate, the Biden campaign raised $21.5m – its best fundraising day of the campaign so far.
The key question, however, is how independent swing voters responded to the debate performance. As expected, most partisan viewers sided with their preferred candidates, but early assessments of undecided voters revealed a negative opinion of Trump’s performance and mixed reviews for Biden. Some voters described how going into the debate, expectations about Biden’s performance were low and that he did better than they expected. Swing voters used adjectives like “puzzling,” “arrogant,” “unhinged,” “bully,” and “classic Trump” to describe the president.
Adjectives like “politician,” “predictable,” “leader,” “rehearsed,” “nice guy,” “compassion,” “coherent,” and “evasive” were used to describe Biden’s performance.
But how does this translate into voting? Some undecided voters said they were hoping for clarity after watching the debate and received none. Some labelled it “useless,” “ridiculous,” and “horrible.” In an interview conducted by the New York Times, one small business owner summed up the sentiments of many: “I didn’t hear anything that would impact people like me,” said Merrill Tufts, 51, of Winterville, North Carolina, but he did say he is leaning towards voting for Biden.
In a national poll conducted after the debate, Biden has a 13-point edge over Trump. According to Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball program at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, Biden is slowly securing the pivotal Midwest. Polls are showing that Biden is doing much better in northern small towns and rural areas than Hillary Clinton did in 2016. He is also capturing more white suburban voters than Clinton did. The programme’s analysis highlights how key states that voted for Trump by nearly double digits in 2016, such as Ohio and Iowa, are now toss-ups. Other crucial swing states that were decisive in Trump’s 2016 victory – like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania – are also leaning Democratic.
Very early polling has attempted to measure the public reaction to Trump’s diagnosis, which show that the impact has so far been minimal. Morning Consult/Politico polls conducted Friday and Saturday show people are “surprised” and “worried,” but concern over the pandemic and perceptions of Trump’s handling of it remain mostly unchanged from before. The polls did cite concern over the lack of transparency coming from the White House regarding the president’s health.
But the 2016 polls failed to capture the extent of Trump’s support. Why should this time be different? Firstly, Biden’s average lead is much greater and more consistent than Clinton’s was in 2016, by nearly every measurement. In other words, even if the polls are very inaccurate, Trump is still likely to lose. Secondly, the national polls in 2016 actually did reflect the popular vote, which Clinton won, but polling was off in key swing states, which pollsters this time around are paying even closer attention to.
The fact of the matter is that Trump is losing by a substantial margin in many of the key swing states and in the national polls. The race could still tighten and, as we have learned, so much can happen between now and election day. Trump’s diagnosis has added even more chaos and uncertainty to this election cycle, as the campaigns and the pundits scramble to adjust to this new reality. There has been much sympathy for the president, but it is unclear how this will impact the election.
The Biden campaign has handled the situation extremely well, further bolstering the candidate’s solid debate performance last week. They offered empathy to the president and all of those around him and took down all negative ads about Trump. They are calling for unity and asking Americans to come together while also reminding the public of the importance of wearing a mask, social distancing, and washing your hands. The Bidens are continuing to campaign and make this election about the American public and the importance of voting.
In spite of the president’s diagnosis and hospitalisation, it is important to highlight that Trump is his own worst enemy, and he may lose the election because he is losing undecided voters. His debate performance rallied his base, but it did not seem to give him a bump with more moderate voters who supported him in 2016. He needed to decisively win this debate and move the needle to gain some momentum. Early assessments of voter reactions to the debate, as well as the impact of Trump’s diagnosis, show that the president’s campaign is stuck, and that Biden is winning with undecided voters.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.