2020 Presidential Debates are over; two politicos weigh in on their effectiveness

By Isaiah Colbert, Staff Reporter

Gianella Goan

Dick Simpson has followed debates dating back to John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, and in his five decades of experience watching politics, he said this year’s face-offs were the worst.

“None have been quite so bad. The debates with Hillary Clinton and Trump in the last 2016 election approached it, but this was the worst of the debates that I’ve seen in 50 years of watching politics,” said Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and former 44th Ward alderperson.

Amid the pandemic, racial injustice and economic recession, the presidential and vice presidential debates conveyed to voters why each candidate was different and why they should hold office.

The first presidential debate on Sept. 29 between President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden was portrayed as a far cry from the conduct expected on the debate stage by mainstream news outlets like Vox, the Washington Post and Time Magazine.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court, COVID-19, the economy, race and violence in cities and the integrity of the election were important topics to discuss, they were overshadowed by Fox News anchor Chris Wallace’s attempt to referee a verbal boxing match between the fast-jabbing Trump and the veteran Biden who was more locked in to his traditional game plan.

Trump said the U.S. was rounding the corner on COVID-19 cases, argued no president had done more for the Black community than him—with the exception of Abraham Lincoln—and questioned the effectiveness of mail-in ballots. Biden often noted Trump’s frequency in downplaying the science in relation to COVID-19, acknowledged systemic racism within the U.S. and encouraged people to plan how they would vote through iwillvote.com.

Climate change, the economy and foreign policy were discussed with less emphasis in comparison to the pandemic, racial issues and the U.S. Supreme Court nomination of Amy Coney Barrett following the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Biden said his climate plan would create new jobs and clean the environment, while Trump said the U.S. is energy independent and Biden’s plan is a “pipe dream” because of its cost and effectiveness.

In contrast to their running mates, the exchange between Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic vice presidential nominee and California Senator Kamala Harris during the vice presidential debate on Oct. 7 highlighted aspects of what a “real debate” should entail. Each candidate adhered to their allotted time and debated while on the ropes from their opponent’s barbs until it was their turn to respond.

Simpson said the vice presidential debate was the “clearest” of the three, although fewer voters watched it.

“Most people don’t decide their vote for president just based on the performance of the vice president, but both Pence and Harris came off relatively well in the vice presidential debate,” he said.

The second presidential debate was replaced by dual town halls on Oct. 15, where each candidate was in a different location, asked questions by voters and broadcast on separate channels. The Commission on Presidential Debates canceled the debate after Trump contracted the coronavirus and refused to participate in a virtual debate with Biden, according to CNN.

Trump and Biden did meet again for the final presidential debate on Oct. 22, with the Commission on Presidential Debates’ no-interruption policy being enacted by muting each candidate’s microphone while the other was speaking. Despite those measures, the second round between Trump and Biden managed to have more false and inaccurate statements than the first, according to The Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank based in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Simpson said Biden was more effective in arguing Trump’s mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic while Trump was able to appeal to rural working class voters through his appeal to patriotism through his slogan “Make America Great Again.”

Trump’s weakest topic was the pandemic, as it reminded people of what they have suffered through this year, Simpson said.

Delmarie Cobb, a political consultant who heads the The Publicity Works firm, said past elections have been decided by candidates who ran on an issue that took place during a previous administration.

“The party that was in office when that disaster took place were clobbered with it and it certainly gave their opponents an edge,” said Cobb, who worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.

Cobb said Trump calling Biden “Sleepy Joe” lowered the bar for Biden. While Biden only had to prove he was “lucid” and draw from his “wealth of knowledge,” Trump’s answers were not substantive enough to make up for the COVID-19 mortality rate, she said.

“How can you be a sitting president at a time where you’ve got one of the biggest crises in the world and you have no plan, and you just want to wish it away,” she said.

Cobb said Trump’s reluctance to talk about COVID-19 was the biggest issue working against him.

“In general, the Biden argument tends to win over [voters] based on the public opinion polls,” Simpson said. “We’ll see on Election Day whether that holds out at the polling place.”

Simpson said foreign policy, which is traditionally discussed during the final debate, was not as heavily covered in this year’s debates, aside from the relationship between the U.S. and China.

He said today’s televised debates are shorter in length and contain fewer topics than the pre-Civil War debates of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, where arguments were clearer and longer. Although the ability to mute microphones made an improvement, Simpson and Cobb said there is still room to improve the structure of debates so candidates can give critical answers.

“It’s getting better with the two-minute answers, fewer topics, less gotcha questions and more substantive questions, but we’re still experimenting with this,” Simpson said.

He suggested the creation of a new debate format and and called for more debates in local races.

But, voters should not solely rely on what happens during a debate when choosing a candidate, Cobb said.

“For something as important as the presidential election, of all elections really, you’ve got to do your own homework,” she said.