Like other presidents who have slipped in the polls after a widely panned first debate, President Trump was the beneficiary of low expectations on Thursday night in the final debate before the election, a more civil and lower-decibel affair than the last.
But his effort to demonstrate greater discipline was most likely too little, too late to deliver the jolt to the race that he needs to lift his chances for re-election, some of the nation’s top political strategists and other observers said.
Where some saw hope for Mr. Trump, others saw the same candidate facing the same challenging campaign dynamics. “Nothing changed,” Matthew Dowd, a former top aide to President George W. Bush, said on ABC News. “He wasn’t a bull in a china shop.
That doesn’t mean he won the debate.” Though Mr. Trump needed some kind of breakthrough to overcome former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s lead in the polls, Mr. Dowd said later that he did not see that happen during the course of the 90-minute encounter. “Biden had a lead going in and has a lead leaving,” he wrote on Twitter.
The size of Mr. Biden’s lead, double digits in some national polls, is so large that any good Mr. Trump did to his campaign was probably limited by Mr. Biden’s even performance. “Biden did not do a face plant,” said Charlie Cook, the editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “That is all he needed to do.”
Ahead of the debate, many analysts saw parallels between Mr. Trump’s underdog position and the high stakes President Barack Obama faced before his second debate in 2012, when he delivered sharper and more forceful rebuttals to Mitt Romney than he had before, and soon rebounded in the polls.
Certainly, many of Mr. Trump’s defenders sought to portray his performance that way on Thursday. Many claimed that he had triumphed over Mr. Biden, seizing on the former vice president’s statement about phasing out fossil fuel use as a devastating misstep.
Some praised the president merely for not interrupting. “Trump’s self-control is very impressive right now,” said Allie Beth Stuckey, a conservative writer and podcast host. And others claimed that Mr. Biden had reinforced stereotypes of him as a career politician who inspires little passion.
David Brody, the chief political analyst for the Christian Broadcasting Network, said on Twitter that the president “has effectively hammered home a very simple theme tonight and that is this: ‘what have you done Joe during all your time in DC? You’re all talk no action.’” Mr. Brody concluded, “That message will have traction.”But it was not certain that the evening would have much effect on a race in which few undecided voters remain. Nor was it clear that the debate did anything other than reaffirm what most people already felt about both men.
Here are what observers from across the political spectrum said.
Mr. Trump’s supporters believed they had the moment that every campaign dreams of in a debate: those 20 or so seconds when your opponent makes a gaffe that can be spliced into an attack ad that can run repeatedly over the final stretch of the race.
It was not clear, however, that this is what Mr. Trump had after Mr. Biden challenged the president to produce video proving that he had said he would ban fracking, and then expressed support for phasing out fossil fuels and ending federal subsidies for oil companies.
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TV ratings for the final Trump-Biden debate fell short of the first.
“I’m not sure much is going to change or can at this point in the race, in this year, but if anything were to, that oil line is the one that will haunt him,” said Mary Katharine Ham, a conservative analyst.
Republicans quickly began circulating one such video showing Mr. Biden describing what he would do about fracking, saying, “We would make sure it’s eliminated.” The former vice president has since said repeatedly he does not support ending the practice, a major source of jobs.
“Biden thinks PA is stupid,” said Matt Schlapp, the chairman of the American Conservative Union.
Republican strategists also saw something to like in Mr. Trump’s response on how he plans to handle the growing number of coronavirus cases across the country, revealing the deep divide between many conservative supporters of the president, who want a generally more hands-off approach from the government, and most other Americans, who believe in taking steps such as mandating mask-wearing in public.
Ari Fleischer, a former aide to Mr. Bush, said many Americans would find something more hopeful in the president’s message, versus what he saw as the pessimism of Mr. Biden’s words. “Trump is right about learning to live with the virus,” Mr. Fleischer said. “We can and must fight the virus, and live our lives. I suspect Trump’s message about living with it beats Biden’s message about dying with it.
” Brad Todd, a Republican strategist, echoed that point, saying that many Americans are wary of stringent lockdowns. “Biden talks bailouts and shutdowns - Trump talks re- opening. That’s a good contrast for the President and he should hold this fight here,” Mr. Todd said.
But Tony Fratto, who also worked for the Bush administration, raised what some strategists have said is Mr. Trump’s Achilles’ heel: his drop in support among seniors. “Continuing to press the fact that young people are less likely to die will not help to close that gap with old people,” Mr. Fratto said.
Mr. Biden’s defenders appeared to anticipate that Mr. Trump would be graded on a curve. But they tried to remind people that any perceptions of a vast improvement were relative.
“I’ve watched more Trump debates than any human,” Ron Klain, an aide to Mr. Biden who helped him prepare for the debates, said less than an hour into the event on Thursday. “The ‘new’ Trump never lasts more than 40 minutes.”
And Tim Miller, a Republican strategist who is supporting Mr. Biden, said the president’s ability to demonstrate self-control should not be confused with good policy. Describing the president’s response to being challenged by Mr. Biden on his handling of the coronavirus, Mr. Miller asked: “Was the president’s task there to convince Americans he has a plan to deal with this pandemic or to convince Americans that he can behave like a good boy for 4 minutes? Because it was a whiff on the first one.”
One of the biggest unknowns going into the debate was how Mr. Trump might try to unnerve Mr. Biden by raising unsubstantiated claims about the business pursuits of his son Hunter in China and elsewhere.
But when Mr. Trump raised the issue, he found himself on the defensive when Mr. Biden turned the question back around, asking about Mr. Trump’s taxes and noting a recent New York time report that brought to light a previously undisclosed Chinese bank account belonging to the president. Even some conservatives conceded that Mr. Biden had played his hand well when Mr. Trump had to spend time explaining why he had not released his tax returns.
“Biden had a shrewd strategy on Hunter allegations to get it on Trump’s taxes and bank account, and it worked,” said Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review.
Ezra Klein, the editor at large of Vox, said that Mr. Trump appeared thrown off by Mr. Biden’s response. “It is amazing how easy it is to distract Trump from the one attack he clearly prepared for tonight by needling him on his tax returns and finances,” he said. “It’d be funny except for that same total absence of focus defines his presidency.”
President Trump posted a sharper and calmer performance during his final debate against former Vice President Joe Biden on Thursday night, but it was unclear if his better showing was enough to alter the shape of the race in its closing days, a Post panel of debate experts said. Four experts examined the 90-minute forum in Nashville, Tenn., which featured sharp exchanges over the handling of the coronavirus pandemic that’s left more than 220,000 Americans dead, the environment, immigration and foreign policy.
“Mr. Trump was more methodical, but it wasn’t enough: He needed a game-changer but didn’t get one. Biden had no significant gaffes that will hurt him over the remaining 12 days,” said David Birdsell, the dean of the Marxe School of Public and International Affairs at CUNY’s Baruch College.
Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak offered a similar take that highlighted Trump’s dramatic change in tone from his much-criticized first debate, during which the president frequently interrupted both the moderator and Biden. But he thought Trump’s change in style may still have had a benefit.
“Trump was sharper and far more disciplined tonight,” said Mackowiak, who believes the performance could provide some late momentum that could help the Republican Party hang onto its slender majority in the US Senate.
“Five or six states will decide this thing and they are all within the margin of error,” Mackowiak added. “Biden is ahead but Trump can still win.
” Trump won the White House in 2016 thanks to slender victories in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan.
Fox News’ latest polls from those states, released Wednesday, showed that Biden had opened leads of at least five percentage points among likely voters in all three before the debate.
So stanching the bleeding and winning over independents is critical to reversing those trends — and a third panelist, former Staten Island GOP chairwoman Leticia Remauro, thought Trump got the job done.
“This was Trump’s best debate ever,” the 2021 Staten Island borough president hopeful wrote. “He was thoughtful and kept to his theme that Biden couldn’t get it done.”
But longtime Democratic strategist Eric Soufer argued that Trump’s improved performance from his damaging first showing wouldn’t be enough to shift the race — and that Trump’s answers on health care and the coronavirus would come back to haunt him in the closing days.
“Biden came better prepared and demonstrated a refreshing contrast of empathy, compassion, and decency that will keep the race hurtling toward an overwhelming Biden victory,” wrote the veteran of the Obama and Edwards campaigns, who is now a top adviser at Tusk Strategies. Here’s how our panelists graded each round of the debate:
Birdsell: The president repeated clearly false assertions about the end of the virus during a third-wave peak, which is still building. Biden talked about practical solutions to balance economic needs and public safety. — Biden: A- / Trump: D
Mackowiak: More of the same from Trump on COVID. I think voters wanted to hear him take some responsibility, which he eventually did. He was strong on the creation of the vaccine. Biden was very negative not just on Trump’s record, but on the pathway forward — Biden: B / Trump: B-
Soufer: Trump kept his cool this time, but Biden clearly and effectively walked every voter through the president’s catastrophic record of failure in protecting Americans. — Biden: A- / Trump: B-
Remauro: Trump excelled in this round, clearly laying out his successes and reminding voters that he wants to get the economy back on track — an area where voters feel he is strong. Biden saying he didn’t consider red or blue states, then stating that the red states were spiking was one of many inconsistent answers — Biden: C / Trump: A
Birdsell: The President pushed the socialized medicine argument, giving the former VP his best line of the night: He’s running “against Joe Biden, Joe Biden.” This is also the point in the debate when the president began to abandon his unaccustomed calm. — Biden: A- / Trump: C-
Mackowiak: Trump was very effective messaging against Medicare for All and the threat it poses to 180 million private health plans. Trump also was very effective reminding the audience that Biden is making promises on health care now that he did not deliver on while in office. — Biden: B / Trump: B+
Soufer: You can’t beat Biden’s direct-to-camera, empathetic appeal to American families — and Trump only helped him by clumsily mocking Biden for demonstrating that empathy. — Biden: A+ / Trump: D
Remauro: This was a tie. Both men played to their base, though Trump got Biden to admit that the Biden health care plan would be costly — Biden: B / Trump: B
Race in America:
Birdsell: The president pushed his “best since Lincoln” line; Mr. Biden acknowledged pain. — Biden: B/ Trump: C
Mackowiak: Excellent answer from Biden. Empathetic, substantive. Trump was effective reminding of Biden’s crime bill. Trump also smartly pointed to his record on criminal justice reform, opportunity zones and HBCUs. — Biden: A- / Trump: B+
Soufer: Trump almost comically still thinks calling himself the “least racist” resonates with voters who care about racial equality. Meanwhile, Biden connected by acknowledging the advantages his white family enjoys but that communities of color are denied every day in America. — Biden: B+ / Trump: C
Remauro: Trump deftly ticked off his successes with the black community, from permanently funding black colleges to fixing the crime bill, which Biden admitted was a mistake. Biden wasn’t able to get out from under the hammering that he had decades as a senator and then as VP to Obama to correct but couldn’t get it done — Biden: C / Trump: A
Birdsell: The president’s claims of wanting the cleanest air and water while systematically eviscerating the nation’s most successful environmental policy was an affront to anyone who reads. Mr. Biden was factual but disjointed; he didn’t have time to adequately frame a post-fossil fuel energy economy. — Biden: B- / Trump: F
Mackowiak: Trump stood up to the left-wing environmental agenda, which will be popular in the Midwest. His recitation of record-low carbon emissions and attack on the Green New Deal was effective. Surprised he didn’t bring up fracking earlier in his answer. Biden’s environmental message was consistent and will play well with young voters and progressives. — Biden: B / Trump: A-
Soufer: Biden stuck to his plan that would transform the energy economy through job creation, while Trump did nothing but try to dismiss the realities of renewable energy and try to force Biden into a misstep about oil — something Biden was prepared for and deflected effectively — Biden: A- / Trump: C-
Remauro: Biden still weak on this issue because he can’t find a strong enough position for his base, i.e., fracking — whereas Trump has shown that he can marry climate with the economy — Biden: C / Trump: B+
Birdsell: The president misrepresented his administration’s record on a host of immigration issues; Mr. Biden went to the most appealing immigration issue — Dreamers — and walked away with that segment. — Biden: A- / Trump: D
Mackowiak: This section was forgettable. President Trump made his points on the border wall and ending catch and release. Biden was effective on the 500-plus children who have not been reunited with their parents. — Biden: B / Trump: B
Soufer: Trump inexplicably defended the most despicable exercise of executive power in a half-century by callously dismissing the suffering of over 500 children who can’t see their parents because of his immoral and incompetent child separation policy. — Biden: A- / Trump: F
Remauro: Trump continued the theme of “You couldn’t get it done, Joe,” causing an uncomfortable moment for Biden when he used the “I wasn’t the president” defense in response to Obama’s immigration failures — Biden: C- / Trump: B+
Birdsell: The president wanted to turn this segment into the Biden Family Chronicles; he didn’t directly address actual security questions. Biden was more successful talking about actual security issues. — Biden: B+ / Trump: C-
Mackowiak: I don’t even recall any discussion about national security, which is a disgrace. Amazingly, Biden brought up the Hunter Biden accusations first. Trump pushed the issue and Biden said he’s never taken overseas money, which now has to be true. — Biden: B- / Trump: B
Soufer: Biden delivered stinging takedowns on China, North Korea and Russia, while Trump retreated to his usual unsubstantiated and rhetorical claims of toughness — Biden: A / Trump: C-
Remauro: Trump put Biden off his game as he pressed the former vice president about his son’s business deal at a Ukrainian natural gas company and possible ties to a Russian politician — and contrasted that nicely with the aid he’s provided farmers funded by tariffs on imported Chinese goods — Biden: C / Trump: A
These are these top seniors most journalists and their rating are below.
These journalists do not belong to any party
Birdsell — Biden: B+ / Trump: C-
Mackowiak — Biden: B- / Trump: A-
Soufer — Biden: A / Trump: C-
Remauro — Biden: C / Trump: A+