Final Debate: Trump Bounces Back, But Was It Enough?

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Posted: Oct 23, 2020 10:25 AM
Final Debate: Trump Bounces Back, But Was It Enough?

The first presidential debate was a train wreck in which a bellicose incumbent harmed his re-election chances, according to polls, and even many of his allies.  After the second scheduled debate was jettisoned, last night's forum became President Trump's last major opportunity to regain lost ground and force his opponent into a costly stumble.  I suspect he helped his cause, at least somewhat, on both fronts.  Let's stipulate that Trump was far better in every way last evening than he was in the opening round.  Let's also stipulate that this was a low bar.   Nevertheless, he was more restrained, more fluid, less off-puttingly hostile, and quicker on his feet.  It became immediately clear that he arrived with a superior game plan, including frequent use of the 'all talk, no action' critique of Joe Biden's decades-long political career.  My immediate verdict:


On COVID-related issues, he battled Biden hard, arguably winning the exchange on a subject widely regarded as a vulnerability.  He was dead right on reopening schools, and made a strong case about the wages of continued economic shutdowns.  It may have been the most effective sustained messaging on Coronavirus I've ever seen from Trump, and it came at an opportune time. Toward the end of the program, former Vice President Joe Biden started to fade, deeply (and provably) mischaracterized his position on fracking, then stated that he aims to gradually kill the oil industry.  Republicans are going to make hay out of that in the coming days:


On healthcare, Trump offered a jumbled word salad, as usual, but at least emphasized his support for maintaining pre-existing conditions protections.  Biden pledged to lower premiums (gosh, where have we heard that promise before?) while insisting that he'd let people keep their private coverage, he outrageously claimed that nobody lost their coverage under Obamacare.  This was one of the most infamous lies of the entire Obamacare debate, eventually earning "lie of the year" honors from left-leaning Politifact.  Millions of Americans lost their plans because of that law, after Barack Obama and Joe Biden solemnly promised that wouldn't happen.  How can he be trusted about his new plan when he's recycling wild and disproven falsehoods about his last foray into this policy area?


Biden also shrugged off Trump's suggestion, and the premise of a question from the moderator, that his so-called "public option" would lead to single-payer, government-run healthcare.  The problem is that single-payer advocates are on the record saying that's precisely what it would do, which they see as a feature, not a bug:


Biden was pretty effective in deflecting the matter of Hunter Biden's business dealings into a squabble about Trump's taxes, though he also made some fact-checkable assertions that may not hold up.  He also repeated the totally unverified disinformation that the laptop containing his son's emails is somehow part of a Russian propaganda campaign.  The Director of National Intelligence and FBI have said this is not true, Biden's campaign has not denied the messages' authenticity, and one of the Bidens' erstwhile business associates has confirmed that they're real.  I'm pleasantly surprised that NBC's Kristen Welker asked about it, though I would have liked some more pointed follow-ups.  The fact-checkers should be all over Biden's 'Russia' red herring, but I suspect we'll hear more about Trump's sloppy exaggerations and seemingly made-up assertions on the issue.

And just as Biden flipped the ethics discussion back onto Trump, the president reversed race-related questions into attacks on Biden's record, contrasting it with his own accomplishments, such as criminal justice reform. Both candidates played fast and loose with the facts, making false and misleading comments all evening.  One example, on immigration, in which they both massively misfired:


All in all, the polls show Biden ahead by a significant margin, and he acted like a man in the lead.  Trump was much improved, but Biden more or less held serve, which is what he needed to do.  Trump absolutely could not afford another disaster, and he upped his game.  It's plausible that he may have helped woo back some recalcitrant or disaffected right-leaners who were deciding whether or not to "come home" on election day.  He may also have stopped the bleeding among others who are open to voting for him -- or at least who appreciate some of his policies and achievements.  If this race tightens nationally, that movement will be amplified in battlegrounds.  And if swing states end up boiling down to marginal contests, improvements at the margins would obviously represent welcome developments for team Trump.  I'll leave you with this, via Frank Luntz's focus group of undecided debate watchers, as well as two snap polls showing a response that's far closer to a draw than we've seen after any of Trump's previous four general election debates: