First US Presidential Debate – Five Key Questions Answered

On 29 September, US president Donald Trump went head-to-head with Joe Biden in the first presidential debate of the 2020 US election.

Interview Published 30 September 2020 Updated 23 October 2020 3 minute READ

Anar Bata spoke with experts across Chatham House to get their views on the key debate moments and the implications for the US election.

What role do the presidential debates serve in encouraging voter turnout?

Leslie Vinjamuri: Going into the debates, 74% of Americans were set to tune in and watch according to a new Monmouth Poll. This is striking since more than 90% have already decided who their candidate will be, and many have already cast their ballots. 

During President Donald Trump’s time in office, Americans have been far more politically engaged than in previous periods. A record 49.3% of the voting eligible population turned out to vote in the 2018 midterm elections, according to the United States Election Project. This was the highest voter turnout since 1914, and it also reversed a downward trend. 

Debates don’t change voters’ minds and last night’s debate, the first between Donald Trump and Joe Biden is unlikely to be an exception. But debates can shape public sentiment and enthusiasm, not least for voting.

Polling confirms that Trump trails Biden by an average of around 7% nationally, but also that his base is highly enthusiastic. The same is not true for Biden: the older voters that support him are far more enthusiastic than younger voters that do the same.

How credible are Trump’s claims that the US economy is experiencing a V-shaped recovery and Biden’s claims that there is a K-shaped recovery? 

Megan Greene: Off the back of an unprecedented lockdown in the US and a resultant short and sharp contraction of the economy, the immediate recovery was swift and V-shaped. This is partly a reflection of significant support to Americans in the form of unemployment benefit enhancements and to businesses in the form of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans. But as the economy reopened, growth was always going to rebound and a short-term V-shaped recovery was always going to materialize.  

Don’t be fooled by Donald Trump’s assertion that a V-shaped recovery will persist though. Most of the support for workers and small businesses expired in late July or early August and people and firms have stayed afloat by dipping into their savings. In the absence of another fiscal stimulus package—very unlikely before the end of the year—this is completely unsustainable.  

The K-shaped recovery that Joe Biden has suggested is far more likely going forward. The lockdown revealed extraordinary inequality in the US economy. The death toll of the virus on black and Asian Americans was higher than on white Americans. Huge disparities were laid bare in the labour market as well.

It was precisely those hourly service workers who saw few wage gains since the last recession who were first to lose their jobs in this crisis. The service workers who kept their jobs were real heroes—delivering our food, teaching our kids over Zoom, removing our trash—and yet have not been remunerated accordingly. Unemployment for high-income workers is nearly back to January 2020 levels, but is still down by over 15% for low-income workers.  

This trend will only get worse as small businesses go under and large, superstar companies step in to fill the void. This increase in market concentration reduces the number of potential employers from which workers can choose and reduces workers’ wage negotiating power.  

Rising inequality in the US is by no means a new trend, but as with many things it has been accelerated by the coronavirus crisis. Inequality will continue to drag on the economy if it is left unaddressed.

Did either candidate refer to America’s role in the world?

Leslie Vinjamuri: This debate could only have hurt America’s global image. This comes in the midst of a pandemic, when the gravest problems are at home, and when America’s global leadership depends on getting its house in order. Rather than restoring confidence, Donald Trump used the debates to undermine confidence in the elections and to stoke fear of violence in America’s cities.

By design, most of the debate was focused on domestic issues. But the candidates did discuss climate science, the one issue touched on that matters most beyond America’s borders. The difference between Trump’s and Biden’s plans was stark and the debates made clear that America’s global leadership on climate change hinges on these elections.

Biden articulated a clear plan to reduce carbon emissions, create green jobs and invest in green infrastructure. When it comes to global leadership, this would bring the United States back into a debate that China has been leading. Last week, President Xi Jinping committed China to achieving carbon neutrality by 2060; Biden has committed the US to achieving this goal by 2050.

But Trump repeatedly deflected the moderator’s question about whether he accepted climate science. And when asked about the link between climate change and forest fires, he launched a series of attacks on forest managers.

In addition to Trump’s comments on China and COVID-19, the only reference made to foreign policy was Biden’s comments that he would be tougher on Russia. Did this debate reaffirm the notion that the majority of Americans prefer less engagement with the world? 

Chris Sabatini: According to the themes set by the moderator Chris Wallace and the debate committee, foreign policy was not scheduled to be among the topics covered in the 29 September debates. That will come up later. When it did appear in the first debates it was around largely domestic topics: COVID-19, allegations of corruption, concerns about trade and manufacturing and suspicions of Russian influence shaping the US elections and US foreign policy. 

That foreign policy surfaced in this debate and around those specific, partisan issues demonstrates not a lack of interest by US voters in the world but the ways in which extra-national influence is seen by some (and played by the candidates) as damaging US politics, society and the economy. The problem is that such fears don’t make for coherent or constructive foreign policies, but rather reinforce a perception of the US as a victim. Let’s hope the issue of foreign policy comes up and is discussed more thoughtfully and positively in future debates when it is on the docket.

How will this debate impact the rest of the race?

Leslie Vinjamuri: For voters at home, the most disturbing part of tonight’s debates should be Donald Trump’s repeated attacks on the integrity of the electoral process.  This comes on the heels of the president’s failure last week to confirm that he would respect the outcome of the elections.

Trump used the debates as a platform to launch a series of attacks on mail-in ballots, casting them as fraudulent and saying that people should just turn up and vote. The recent debates confirmed that when it comes to the pandemic, the economy, and especially the environment, the alternatives are stark and there is a lot at stake. Whether this drives voters to the polls, or to switch off the television remains to be seen.