The Opening Round: Analyzing the First Presidential Debate

A GSPM panel called Donald Trump and Joe Biden’s first debate a disaster that left many voters uninformed.

The Opening Round: Analyzing the First Presidential Debate
From left: Kelly Harris, Ryan Costello, Lucie Kneip, Lara Brown and Tim Roemer analyzed the first presidential debate as part of a GSPM panel.
October 02, 2020

By Tatyana Hopkins

American presidential debates have long served as an opportunity for potential voters to view the political opinions and public policy proposals of the candidates vying for the highest office in the land. However, the lead-off debate for the 2020 election between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden left many disappointed, according to a bipartisan panel analyzing the debate at the George Washington University.

“What was really shocking for me was how little I learned,” said Lara Brown, director of the Graduate School of Political Management.

Dr. Brown moderated a virtual discussion Wednesday evening analyzing the first presidential debate. Hosted as part of GSPM’s Frank J. Fahrenkopf & Charles T. Manatt 2020 Election Series, the panel included former U.S. Rep. Ryan Costello (R-Pa.), former U.S. Ambassador to India and Rep. Tim Roemer (D-Ind.) as well as two students from the University of Notre Dame—the original scheduled host of the event—Lucie Kneip and Kelly Harris.

When asked to give the debate a grade, the panel overall dished out failing marks in both quality and statesmanship, with some calling the debate “a disaster,” “embarrassing” and uninformative. 

“The debate lacked substance,” Ms. Harris said, noting a post-debate poll that said that 69 percent of viewers felt annoyed by what they saw.

The fiery 90-minute debate, held Tuesday in Cleveland, was marked with frequent interruptions and pointed personal attacks by Mr. Trump. During the debate, Mr. Trump claimed Mr. Biden was “not smart,” and Mr. Biden called the president a “clown.”

“It was essentially a screaming match between the two candidates,” Ms. Harris said. “There were no winners. America is the one who lost.”

The group said both candidates missed opportunities to capture potential swing voters on the fence about who they might vote for.

“Typically, only hard-core partisans watch debates,” Dr. Brown said. “There may have been a few persuadable voters engaged in watching the debates, and I imagine, frankly, that if any tuned in last night, they probably turned it off about 9:15.”

The panel agreed that in addition to Mr. Trump’s incessant interruptions, he missed key opportunities as the incumbent to address his record and highlight his successes.

“He had the opportunity to say, ‘Here’s what I’ve done my first time,’” Dr. Roemer said. “Whether you agree with Trump or not, and I disagree with virtually everything he’s done, he can say, ‘I promised to tear up trade agreements and I did it… I promised to build a wall on the southern border, and I did it, and here’s what I’m going to do the second time, and here is how that contrasts with Joe Biden.’ We never got any of that substance.”

They also agreed that while Mr. Biden was able to make points about Mr. Trump’s failed leadership in dealing with the pandemic and its economic fallout as well as unifying the growing, divided nation, he failed to stay in control through the president’s interruptions.

“He was struggling to drive his points home,” Ms. Kneip said. “Biden doesn’t have the tenacity and tactics of a skilled leader to recover when he’s knocked off balance, and to be honest it was a little like watching a small child get kicked around on the playground by a bully.” 

While the Commission on Presidential Debates announced they will restructure the remaining two presidential debates, the GSPM panel suggested reforms that could help, including time penalties and giving the moderators the ability mute unruly candidates or cancel a debate on the spot.

However, Mr. Costello was not so optimistic that rule reform would help this cycle’s future debates.

“Trump is going to do whatever he wants to do,” he said. “The rules don’t matter. Even if you turn the mic off, he’ll turn around and do something else. I think his mannerisms proved to be destructive to the fabric of democratic norms, I think that is historically significant [for future debates].”  

GSMP will host a virtual panel Thursday, October 8, at 6:30 p.m. EST to analyze the vice presidential debate.

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