Here are five insights from the town halls that could signal how the debates are going to go.
1. Trump struggles to handle tough questions
We saw this in high-profile TV interviews this summer, and now we see it in a town hall with skeptical voters. When the president is faced with tough questions, he stumbles, hard.
In July, Fox News’s Chris Wallace fact-checked the president on where the U.S. mortality rates for coronavirus rank and on whether Biden wants to defund the police (he doesn’t.) Each time Wallace pressed Trump, the president seemed so sure of his position, then was revealed to be relying on faulty information. In an August interview with Axios, it was a similar situation for Trump. “It is what it is,” the president said about the virus and Americans dying in both interviews.
In an ABC News town hall on Tuesday, Trump faced a number of skeptical voters who pressed him on questions that he had to know were coming, yet he struggled to have clear answers. Such as: his downplaying of the virus (he said he played it up, despite being on tape in March telling Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward otherwise and Trump’s numerous public comments to the contrary) and how he defends his handling of the pandemic (his answers were largely incoherent.)
Trump will continue to face adversarial questions and fact checks from moderators and perhaps from Biden in the debates. (The first debate’s moderator is Wallace.) Trump doesn’t seem prepared for it.
2. Biden’s stumbles seem like less of a political issue by comparison
Biden is 77 and would be the oldest president inaugurated. Trump, at 74, has tried to make Biden’s age and mental acuity an election issue.
In his CNN town hall, Biden sometimes searched for words, or went on too long telling stories about his time in the Senate, or even stumbled in what he wanted to say. But Biden also touched on how two types of vaccines work in the body, and talked about his philosophy on supply-chain economics with China, or went on about the global world order and what he would do differently from Trump.
Biden has also talked movingly during this campaign about overcoming a stutter that sometimes still manifests in his public speaking. Given that context, if the president wants to attack Biden’s stumbles in real time in the debates, it risks seeming callous. And they were small, compared with the president’s struggles to answer basic questions about his own record.
3. Trump regularly dodges the crux of issues
At his town hall, Trump repeatedly fell back on blaming China for the virus, and he did not directly answer questions about what more he could have done to stop its inevitable spread in the United States. “We also have a very big country — we’re talking a lot bigger than most countries,” he said at one point to justify higher deaths per capita in the United States than in other industrialized nations.
He was pressed over and over to acknowledge that the United States struggles with institutional racism that holds back people of color. He wouldn’t. One telling exchange:
Voter: …. you have yet to address and acknowledge that there's been a race problem in America.Trump: Well, I hope there’s not a race problem. I can tell you, there’s none with me, because I have great respect for all races, for everybody. This country is great because of it.
Polls show that this strategy is costing him in a key swing state like Wisconsin.
Biden had some questions he didn’t directly answer — like one about how he would get people back to work rather than living off generous federal unemployment benefits, other than raising wages for health-care workers. But he was nowhere near as slippery as Trump.
4. Empathy is Biden’s stronger suit
One of the places Biden thrives as a candidate is connecting with voters over struggles. (He lost two children and his first wife.) He also loves showing off his “regular Joe” persona by making small talk with voters. There was plenty of that in Thursday’s town hall for Biden — at times, it seemed as if voters wanted to guide him back to their question, as that was why they were there in the first place.
“First of all, I feel so badly for you,” Biden said as the first questioner shared losing a sister to coronavirus. “You know, we talk about almost 200,000 deaths, and it’s almost like background noise. But it means a lot of empty chairs, a lot of children without their mothers or fathers, a lot of people not able to see their parents, so my heart goes out to you and your sister, as well. And her children. It’s just incredible.”
But if Biden went on too much, the president struggled to make any connections at all during his town hall. And during his many coronavirus briefings this spring and summer, Trump sounded stilted when he offered condolences for families who have lost loved ones.
This may not manifest as much in the first debate, which is a traditional moderator-candidate format. The second presidential debate, in Miami on Oct. 15, will be a town hall.
But empathy is still a trait that voters look for in their leaders, especially during a pandemic and economic crisis. And right now Trump is facing an attack from within on this very topic: On Thursday, a former senior member of his coronavirus task force, Olivia Troye, said she’s supporting Biden because of Trump’s “flat-out disregard for human life,” and because his “main concern was the economy and his reelection.”
5. We still don’t know how the moderator, or the candidates, will fact check each other in real time
Biden seems well aware that a debate with a president so prone to false or misleading statements is going to be tricky. (Biden has offered his own false statements, too, but at a much slower rate than Trump.)
Biden has said he wants to be a fact-checker for the president in the debates. But more recently, he backed off that, saying “people know what a liar” the president is, and so there’s no need for Biden to always point that out.
Biden also said he didn’t want to get pulled into a personal fight on issues like family and appear angry onstage: “I hope I don’t get baited into a brawl with this guy, because that’s the only place he’s comfortable."
Trump’s strategy is less clear. He has not held a mock debate and has no plans to, reports NBC News. But during Biden’s town hall, Trump complained at a rally that the vice president was getting too-easy questions. (We thought the president got entirely predictable questions.)
Could Trump be signaling that he plans to work the refs and complain to the moderators if he thinks the debate is going unfairly? And how will the moderators respond? Are they going to regularly interrupt the candidates for fact checks, too?
This could get messy. (We’re not saying anything you didn’t already know.) And the town halls didn’t shed much light on a path forward on that.