President Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden’s dueling town halls on Thursday night offered each of the candidates a chance to showcase their strengths and sway undecided voters.
But despite airing at the same time slot, the competing events weren’t evenly matched.
The Post’s panel of election experts — two for each town hall — generally found that the questions posed to Trump were tougher, with NBC host Savannah Guthrie acting as an adversary and fact-checker to the president.
Biden, meanwhile, was mostly lobbed softballs as ABC host George Stephanopoulos stayed largely hands-off.
“The questions were softball. I think Biden lost votes with his answers on why black voters should vote for him, transgender rights and fracking,” said longtime Staten Island Republican political strategist Leticia Remauro.
In terms of performance, our experts agreed that Trump fared better than he did during his debate with Biden last month.
“Of those who presented as undecided in the audience, it was a strong performance. The president interacted well with questioners and seemed much more contained than in his debate with Biden,” said David Birdsell, dean of Baruch College’s Marxe School of Public and International Affairs.
Matt Mackowiak, a longtime Republican strategist, thought that Trump being himself all the way also may have gained him an upper hand.
“Trump gave his standard responses on these subjects. It was interesting to see him post-COVID recovery. I think he may have helped himself marginally tonight,” said Mackowiak, a podcast host and chairman of the local Republican Party in Austin, Texas.
Meanwhile, Biden was calm and collected, which Eric Soufer, who worked on the Democratic presidential campaigns of John Edwards and Barack Obama, argued may be enough to change the minds of some ballot-casters.
“I think Biden’s decency, calm and thoughtfulness — especially when compared on a split screen to Trump — will have a lasting impact on the remaining undecided voters,” said Soufer.
Countered Remauro, “Don’t think that’s enough to get him elected president.”
Here’s how each of the candidates fared on some key questions — and where the moderators ranked, according to our panel:
- Birdsell: On masks, his own experience with COVID-19 and the state of the pandemic nationally, the answers clearly conflict with the reality people see around them. — D
- Mackowiak: Trump detailed what his administration has done and why he is optimistic. He missed an opportunity to show empathy and admit they made some mistakes early on, but they learned from them and are executing a good plan now. — B-
- Remauro: Not his best performance. While he tried to stick to his talking points saying that Trump knew about the virus but didn’t act, it was clear that Biden’s rambling had those who asked the questions — and the viewers — confused. He did get a plug in for wearing a mask though he couldn’t explain how he would do a better job than Trump in getting people to conform. — C
- Soufer: Biden gave a calm, sober explanation of how the crisis started, where Trump failed and why the American people deserved so much better. The contrast between his responses and Trump’s bluster and evasiveness on voters’ number one issue could not have been more stark. — A
- Birdsell: Trump was able to paint a rosy — and often untrue — picture of the economy both under his and his predecessor’s leadership that played well to the live audience. The rating is only high because the moderator didn’t push back on the President’s well-delivered applause lines … allowing the President an unscripted campaign ad. — B
- Mackowiak: Trump made the case for growth and a strong recovery. This contrasted with the Biden plan well. — A-
- Remauro: He was effective in making the viewer feel that Fortune 500 Companies aren’t paying taxes, leaving the burden on the shoulders of the middle class. He countered Trump’s V-shaped recovery with a K-shaped recovery where the wealthiest people recover faster. He connected with many voters with this topic. — B+
- Soufer: Biden gave a strong, comprehensive answer on how he’ll create jobs by transforming the energy sector and help rebalance the economy toward the middle class. He reemphasized his pledge to not raise taxes on those making less than $400,000 and how he’d bring the corporate tax rate back in line with reality. — A-
- Birdsell: The President turned this into a contest with media; that was a deflection, but it was working until he was asked about QAnon, which he professed not to know anything about except that adherents oppose pedophilia. — Started C, wound up D
- Mackowiak: He finally and clearly denounced white supremacy, but he refused to denounce QAnon. I wish he had. I understand he does not want to go after some of his own supporters. There was a way to thread the needle better. C-
- Remauro: This was difficult to watch and it was where Biden reminded us that he grew up in a different era when it was OK to make assumptions based on the color of people’s skin and their ethnicity. When asked about why young black voters should vote for him he gave a speech that made the viewer believe African Americans don’t have an education, struggle with drug addiction and can’t afford to buy a home or open a successful business. — C
- Soufer: Biden ticked off an impressive number of policies aimed at restoring economic and social justice for communities of color. Maybe the best he’s ever done that. Only question is if he inspired and not just informed the gentleman who asked the question. — B+
4. Supreme Court:
- Remauro: This was Biden’s worst moment. Refusing to answer the pack the court question because you want to keep the negative attention on Trump for fast-tracking Amy Coney Barrett’s appointment is an insult to voters who deserve to know what he plans to do. He loses big points for being deceptive. Frankly, I would be surprised if he doesn’t lose campaign staff after his answer to packing the court. — F
- Soufer: He made clear he’s not a fan of the practice, but won’t rule it out if Republicans continue to abuse their power. That’s the right answer. But promising an even clearer answer before Election Day wasn’t necessary. — B+
- Birdsell: Much improved over the debate in terms of his attitudinal control and the evident hostility he displayed there. The staging made this a good event for Trump, with audience members clapping in the background as he made his closing case. — C
- Mackowiak: Trump gave his standard responses on these subjects. It was interesting to see him post-COVID recovery. I think he may have helped himself marginally tonight. — B
- Remauro: I don’t think he was able to turn any of the undecided voters with policy issues but if they vote based on empathy he may have picked up a few. Joe Biden is a likable guy. He reminds you of your favorite uncle who always has bubble gum for you. Don’t think that’s enough to get him elected president. — C
- Soufer: Trump’s madness versus Biden’s calm is what will dominate news coverage — and voter impressions — over this next crucial week. Big win for Team Biden. A-
- Birdsell: Guthrie started in a much more confrontational mode at the beginning of the evening, fact-checking many claims and pushing back against the President’s misrepresentations. That ebbed dramatically, especially after the audience segment began. It’s hard to question Donald Trump, we know that, but this was an uneven performance that put her in play as an adversary rather than a factfinder. — C
- Mackowiak: She was tough, but fair — and tougher than Stephanopoulos. — B+
- Remauro: He did a good job bringing Biden back to the question. Very fair. However, voter questions were softballs. — B
- Soufer: He allowed voters to drive the town hall and only intervened to ask thoughtful follow-ups. — A-
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