The first presidential debate – what are the numbers saying?

Biden gained somewhat of a lead after the raucous encounter, getting higher marks than the incumbent regarding performance and policies. Photo by Graham Pearsall/BU News Service.

By Toni Caushi
BU News Service

When Americans sat down on Tuesday night to commit to the hour and a half with no commercial breaks for the first of three presidential debates between President Trump and former Vice President Biden, they brought expectations – a hopeful set of six topics which ranged from the pandemic to racial issues. 

But the result was far more chaotic than viewers might have expected, with candidates battling to get their voice heard over one another. Nielsen ratings showed that as many as 73.1 million people tuned in to the event. According to a FiveThirtyEight poll, Biden gained somewhat of a lead after the raucous encounter, getting higher marks than the incumbent regarding performance and policies. 

Who were Biden and Trump trying to convince?

The debate started with the issue of the empty seat that remains in the Supreme Court of the U.S. since the Sept.18 passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Talks of a successor have taken different dimensions over the span of two weeks. They began with arguments over choosing a nominee before the November election and evolved into a discussion over women’s rights. 

“We won the election,” said Trump on Tuesday, standing by his choice, merely stating that the status quo of presidency gives him the right to nominate, which he already did so with jurist Amy Coney Barrett on Sept. 26. His choice’s conservative background relating abortion prompted him to mention support by liberal figures as a justification.

As expected, Biden disagreed, seeing the choice as disingenuous to the will of voters, saying that “the American people have a right to have a say in who the Supreme Court nominee is,” citing the November vote as a more accurate reflection for who American voters want to have in the Supreme Court. The former vice president also mentioned Barrett’s tendencies to oppose abortion rights, which are in place through Roe v. Wade. 

The statements from both candidates were in line with their previous stances. The consistency in their answers has always been reflected in issues with women’s rights, which has shown women favoring Biden in polls, the most recent on Sept. 24 in the New York Times. Their stances are bound to maintain the current support through the debates, as Trump will most probably stand by his choice and the arguments that come with it.

Tangentially, discussions about healthcare came up given Trump’s continued opposition to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and Barrett’s probable movement against it. Trump argued that the substitute for the current law, which majorly protects patients with pre-existing conditions, would offer drastically slashed prices at 80-90% and insulin prices “so cheap it’s like water.” 

On the other end, Biden reiterated the public option for ACA, saying on Tuesday that it would be an option that would be for “people who are so poor and qualify for Medicaid.” The plan has been struck down by the right as ruinous for private insurance and an attempt to create a government takeover of healthcare, a claim which Biden heavily refuted. 

As vice president at the time of the signing of the ACA, which is also known as Obamacare as a namesake, Biden is generally seen as a favorite among those who have needed or see the need for the ACA. As is, the law has covered an estimated $22-million people, driving uninsured coverage to an all-time low, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. 

According to Axios surveys from Aug. 29 to Sept. 13, Biden leads the swing vote on Trump over healthcare. Going forward into the second and third debates, voters who suffer financial difficulties and are in need of affordable healthcare will most likely continue to look towards Biden, given that Trump’s claim of an 80-90% decrease in prices is unfavorable, seeing that in 2019 drug prices only dropped down by only 0.2%. 

Regarding the minority vote, things have gotten more complicated with time for both sides. Democrats have always enjoyed the support of the Black and Latino vote, but in battleground states like Florida, Trump leads Biden 50 to 46%, according to a September 2020 NBC/Marist poll. 

During Tuesday’s debate, Biden showed zeal to appeal for the minority vote, attacking how the president has reacted to the Black Lives Matter protests and mentioning the greater rates of infection among minorities by the Covid-19 pandemic. Regarding the pandemic, Trump focused on his administration’s response in relation to China, failing to argue his opponent’s point, even though there is a plan by the US Department of Health and Human Services set in place, which specifically targets racial equity and equality.  

In addition, Trump circled around the question of condemning white supremacy, who have repeatedly expressed support for him. Instead, he gave a comment which at face value could be taken as a request to halt the nationalistic ideals by a group like Proud Boys, and instead was perceived as stronger support, according to posts on social media. 

Biden tore deeper into the issue by mentioning Trump’s reaction to the 2017 clashes in Charlottesville between seemingly white supremacist groups and groups who opposed the marching. “Close your eyes, remember what those people looked like, coming out of the fields carrying torches and accompanied by the Ku Klux Klan…remember what the president said there were fine people on both sides.”

Trump’s approach to current developments regarding the Black Lives Matter movement has generally leaned towards widely advertised “law and order” calls, which has distanced him from questions of reforming police departments across the country. 

So, who won?

A post-debate poll by CBS had Biden as the winner at 48% to Trump’s 41%, while CNN’s post-debate polls were starker, with 60% calling Biden the winner, and only 28% favoring Trump. The numbers harmonize with the approval rating of Sept. 24 through Sept. 27, findings by Monmouth University, where Biden edges out with a 50% approval rating over Trump’s 45%.

However, despite their efforts, the candidates can do only so much, given the current electoral landscape. According to a Sept. 2 national poll by Quinnipiac University, only 3% of voters were going into the debate undecided. 

With two presidential debates insight coming in October, polls have reflected an unsatisfactory grade for the performance of both candidates. A sense of “annoyance” clouded over 69% of watchers (as per CBS), even though Americans generally saw a winner in Biden. 

This raises the question of debate effectiveness and even necessity. Marred by interruptions, directionless tangents, and unfinished discussions, debates can turn off voters to stay and watch to the end, like we saw this time around. 

Today, the Commission on Presidential Debates declared that they would look at ways to revise the format of the debates. How they will do so has not been revealed yet. Still, it may be a reform necessary to make sure that voters are comfortable when taking part in the democratic process, and do not become uninterested bystanders.

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