Q&A: Takeaways from the Second Presidential Debate

GSPM’s Todd Belt says the debate will likely not change the mind of undecided voters.

Donald Trump and Joe Biden faced off in the second and final presidential debate on Thursday.
October 26, 2020

By Tatyana Hopkins

Presidential candidates President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden faced off at Belmont University in Nashville on Thursday evening for the second and final presidential debate of the 2020 election cycle. 

Todd Belt, Graduate School of Political Management professor and program director, shared his thoughts with GW Today as the nation moves forward to Election Day on Tuesday, Nov. 3.

Q: What was your big takeaway from the debate?

A: I think the big takeaway is that we got a very different debate. We got a bit of policy debate at the beginning and little bit sprinkled through the rest, but it still wasn’t as substantive as some have proclaimed in contrast with the first Trump-Biden debate

The “muted” first four minutes (two apiece) of each segment of the debate made for a welcome respite from interruptions, but we still heard many interruptions and needling throughout the other nine minutes of each 15-minute segment.

We heard some of Mr. Trump’s COVID-19 policies during his first segment, as well as Mr. Biden’s plans.  After that, the policy detail became eclipsed by accusations of “you did this” and “but you did this.” This back and forth was particularly acute on the issues of business dealings with China, criminal justice and immigration policy.

Q: How would you rate each candidate’s performance?

A: Mr. Trump performed better than he had in the first debate. I wouldn’t say that he achieved a level of appearing “presidential” though, especially considering the conspiracy theories he continued peddling, as well as his ever-present braggadocio. The fact that he continued to assert that he is “the least racist person here” even though he couldn’t see the audience was ludicrous.

Mr. Biden was crisp in his presentation and had some good zingers prepared to unload on the president. Mr. Trump cornered him on the issue of eliminating fossil fuels, which got much of the post-debate attention, especially after the Biden campaign walked it back the next morning. However, I don’t think this is particularly controversial considering that former oilman President George W. Bush proclaimed back in his State of the Union speech in 2006 that we needed to break our addiction to oil. Obviously, getting to carbon-neutral means eliminating fossil fuels. However, with Pennsylvania being a key state in this election, and many in the western part of the state suffering through the economic consequences of the downturn in the fracking industry, both candidates are treading lightly in this area.

Q: Did the debate yield a clear winner? 

A: I don’t think so. Many of the “snap polls” after the debate had Mr. Biden as the victor. However, the margins were not much different from the support each candidate enjoyed prior to the debate. I think it just reinforces voter’s predilections.

Q: Is this debate likely to change the minds of still undecided voters?

A: We know that debates matter very little unless there is a terrible gaffe made by one of the candidates. Generally, debates just reinforce the trends already underway as the race comes to a close. 

As we get closer to Election Day, the few undecided voters left generally make up their minds based on the personal characteristics of the candidates. These include considerations about whether the candidate can provide good leadership, is moral, trustworthy, honest and intelligent. 

I think Mr. Biden really reinforced his position on those characteristics in his closing statement. I don’t see his comment on fossil fuels as being a game-changing gaffe. So, in sum, I would say the debate did little to change anything.

Politics and Society


GSPM Panel Analyzes the Vice-Presidential Debate

October 09, 2020

A former member of Congress, a political strategist and students shared their key takeaways from the debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris.

The Opening Round: Analyzing the First Presidential Debate

October 02, 2020

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