After President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden debated in front of 73 million viewers on Sept. 29, the Virginia Tech community has weighed in with their thoughts.
Karen Hult, Ph.D., a political science professor at Virginia Tech with an area of research focused on the U.S. presidency, was surprised with how the debate unfolded.
“I think it was an embarrassing performance (for Trump),” Hult said. “I don't think Biden contributed to it, but the kinds of norms, and the way that Trump started and continued through the debate is simply unprecedented. I've never seen anything like that on a televised debate.”
During the televised debate, various media outlets, such as the The New York Times, fact-checked the debate. Most of Trump’s claims were labeled as false or misleading, according to the Times.
Andrew Vail, the chairman of College Republicans at Virginia Tech and a senior majoring in political science and national securities studies, felt that Trump’s claims were mostly true, and said he was not purposefully misleading. He also expressed that fact-checking done by an outside party is questionable.
“I don't think anything he said was deliberately misleading. I also don't put much stock in fact checking generally — I think it's kind of a nonsense institution,” Vail said. “Some random person working for some third party says this is mostly true, or this is partly false. I don't necessarily think that we should put total belief in that.”
Liam Barlow, a senior political science major who is also president of the Young Democrats at Virginia Tech, said he was not shocked by Trump’s performance. He also noted a resemblance between Trump’s strategies from the 2016 debate to this one.
“My initial takeaway during the debate was that Trump was performing exactly as I expected him to; it wasn't a major deviation from his behavior during the last four years of his presidency. Personal targeted attacks are a big part of his brand,” Barlow said. “He uses it as a way of deflecting his own problems from the fact that he's trailing in the polls by about 10 points now. And, to a certain extent, in 2016, it worked, so he thinks he can try it again.”
On the contrary, Vail saw a change in Trump’s performance. He felt that Trump’s strategy in 2016 led to his win for presidency, but his strategy now needs to change.
“Contrast from 2016 to now — in 2016, the strategy for the debates was, ‘everyone on this stage is a career politician, and I'm not, like the American people haven't been helped by all these career politicians for decades, and I’m a radically different option. I'm not like these people — I'm different; I’m exciting,’” Vail said. “I think now, his strategy for debating should be relaxed, take a step back, don't be quite as boisterous as he normally would be.”
One of the key moments in the debate was Trump’s response to moderator Chris Wallace’s question regarding the condemnation of white supremacy. Trump replied by addressing the Proud Boys, a neo-facist, far-right extremist group, and told them to “stand back and stand by.”
Since then, President Trump’s controversial comment has been open to interpretation; an online forum revealed that the Proud Boys saw the President’s comments as a call to arms against antifa.
“Now, one could interpret that in a couple of different ways. One could certainly interpret it the way that the president's campaign interpreted it after the fact, and said it basically was asking the Proud Boys and similar kinds of groups to stay out of the violence, and to not contribute to the violence,” Hult said. “On the other hand, if we especially see how the Proud Boys interpreted after the fact, it sounded more, as though it could be interpreted as the president saying, ‘Okay, just cool it for now, but you're on my side.’ So that was a really ambiguous part of the debate.”
For Barlow, he was not thrown off by the president’s remarks, as it seemed very on brand for him. However, Barlow acknowledged that Trump may not have been fully aware of the effect of his statements at the time. However, he felt President Trump did not condemn white supremacy nonetheless.
“Trump knows it's not his political best interest to condemn white supremacy. They’re his base, they’re his supporters –– I don't know whether he's happy about that or not,” Barlow said. “I won't preclude judgment to that, but he knew in 2017 that condemning these people wouldn't help his poll numbers. And he knows now in 2020, it probably won't help his poll numbers.”
Meanwhile, Vail expressed that Trump denounced white supremacy countless times, especially the day after Charlottesville’s Unite the Right rally in 2017. He also felt that the president being quoted about there being “fine people on both sides” has always been taken out of context.
As for Trump’s remarks about the Proud Boys, Vail viewed it not as an invitation, but as a threat.
“Because to me, if you're a kid misbehaving, and your dad is like, ‘just stand by, I'll be right back.’ To me, that sounds like a threat,” Vail said. “It sounds like he's telling them like ‘back off, and just you wait,’ you know what I mean? And people are trying to make it like it was a call to arms of some kind. I think they're twisting what he meant into what they wanted him to mean.”
Another highlight of the debate was Biden’s lack of patience with the president’s interjections. He proceeded to ask Trump, “Will you shut up, man?” and also referred to him as a clown.
Nicholas Goedert, Ph.D., a political science professor at Virginia Tech with an area of research focus in American politics, felt that Biden’s disrespect toward the president went largely ignored due to the controversy around Trump. However, if Biden was debating another candidate, then his insults would have made headlines.
Goedert also noted that it was clear Biden came prepared for the debate.
“Biden did clearly come into the debate with a clear strategy in terms of how he addressed so many answers directly to the audience and their personal experience — it was undermined a little bit by Trump's constant interruption. There were definitely parts of the beginning of the debate where Biden was a little bit lost as he does tend to do in some of these debates,” Goedert said. “I think (Biden) performed reasonably well, again being distracted by the interruptions by Trump, which I think did hurt the message of both candidates, but it probably did hurt Trump more than it hurt Biden.”
Moderator Chris Wallace also came to the center of attention. He faced criticism from both liberals and conservatives for his inability to keep the two candidates from speaking over each other, and struggling to move through the questions. Conservatives also called him a “third debater” against President Trump.
Vail appeared to agree with the criticisms, as he felt that Wallace indeed did not do a good job as the moderator, as he did not maintain the debate well.
“I don't know if it's an issue of the debate format — people need more time to talk or bounce back and forth quicker between people or something, but in general, I don't think he did a great job,” Vail said. “As far as him becoming like a ‘third debater,’ like people are saying, I feel like he went after President Trump talking over Joe Biden, probably more than he went after Joe Biden talking over President Trump. To be fair, President Trump (was) talking over Joe more than Joe (was) talking over him.”
Nonetheless, Hult felt that Wallace did not do a poor job as a moderator because he was put in a difficult position. She also thought that the moderator should have the power to cut the microphone of the candidate whose turn is up and move on.
“He was trying as best he could to adhere to the rules that both sides have agreed on,” she said. “In terms of the range of questioning for the debate, Chris Wallace said ahead of time, he would act as a fact checker throughout the debate, and that made some of the back and forth even more misleading, uninformative, and so on.”
For the second and final presidential debate on Oct. 22, however, the Commission on Presidential Debates allowed the microphones to be muted when necessary.
Some of the issues that were touched on in the debate included the response to COVID-19, the economy, rising unemployment and climate change.
However, Barlow felt that the conversations regarding these topics were not productive, and, as a young college student, he was worried that neither candidate truly understood the magnitude of these issues.
“When we talked about COVID-19, that felt like we're still debating basic facts of a pandemic that's been going on for six or seven months now,” Barlow said. “We’re still debating whether wearing masks is important or not — that debate should have been held months ago. I did not like the question (Wallace) asked: ‘Do you believe in climate change?’ I think we should be past that question. The time to debate whether climate change exists or is manmade, that was a debate for the 1970s. You know, this is 2020. We should be having a debate about what we can do to mitigate it and how quickly can we get it done. As a student who wants to see these issues addressed, it's frustrating, and I think other people have a right to be frustrated as well about.”
Overall, Goedert believed that the debate benefitted Biden the most, especially because many started voting early around the time of the debate.
“(The debate) did seem to help Biden a little bit in the post-debate polling,” Goedert said. “I think it is a relevant time frame because this debate also happened around the time that a lot of cities starting early voting, and there are lots of states that require millions of early votes, which is very important, so the debate might have helped Biden bank a certain number of early votes that really can't be taken away from him regardless of what happens.”