- President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden participated in separate town halls on Thursday evening in lieu of a second presidential debate.
- Trump had a shorter one on NBC with “Today Show” host Savannah Guthrie, while Biden went on for longer on ABC with “Good Morning America” and “This Week” host George Stephanopoulos.
- The Trump town hall mainly focused on the myriad scandals and controversies around the White House, while Biden’s offered a more subdued look at what his administration would look like.
- Biden hung around afterward for around half an hour, mingling with voters and showing his love for retail politics.
- The tone and even the volume of the two events were polar opposites, allowing Biden to use his affability and humility to his advantage.
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The dueling town halls Thursday night between President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden were billed as a “split-screen” experience, but it was more like intentionally inflicting a technical glitch on a home entertainment system.
Trump’s town hall on NBC was loud, aggressive, and, at times, terse.
Biden’s town hall on ABC was quiet, congenial, and almost boring.
Yet former Vice President Biden proved once again that his affability, penchant for retail politics, and even his more boring streak are some of his strongest political assets, particularly in the end game shaping up around suburban women and voters 65 years of age and older in the battleground states.
‘Crazy uncle’ vs. ‘Mister Rogers’
Trump desperately needed to flip the script — just like he did going into the first debate, where he actually did substantial harm to his already worrying polling deficit — but instead, he offered more of the same.
His exchanges with NBC’s Savannah Guthrie mostly centered around the myriad controversies and scandals orbiting the White House.
The exchange about QAnon typified how Trump’s combative interview style did not adapt well to the town hall format — something that should have been a red flag after his last one before the first debate.
QAnon is a baseless far-right conspiracy theory that claims President Donald Trump is secretly fighting a “deep state” cabal of satanic pedophiles and cannibals.
When Guthrie pressed Trump on his recent tweets promoting conspiracy theories, she frankly pointed out: “You’re the president, you’re not like someone’s crazy uncle who can just retweet whatever.”
“No, no, no,” Trump interjected. “That was a retweet. I do a lot of retweets.”
—Justin Baragona (@justinbaragona) October 16, 2020
The tweets in question are linked to a QAnon baseless conspiracy theory that Osama bin Laden’s assassination was faked, and the Obama administration staged a coverup.
Trump then refused to denounce QAnon.
Despite this issue already causing headaches for his reelection campaign, Trump replied with a routine similar to various other times he has objected to condemning fringe or hateful groups who happen to be some of his supporters.
“I do know they are very much against pedophilia,” Trump said. “They fight it very hard.”
Meanwhile — in between a more collegial discussion of policy between the former vice president, ABC’s host George Stephanopoulos, and voters — Biden offered an unusually candid assessment of what he would attribute his campaign’s failure to, should he lose to Trump.
—Bloomberg QuickTake (@QuickTake) October 16, 2020
“Well, it could say that I’m a lousy candidate, that I didn’t do a good job,” Biden said. “But I think, I hope that it doesn’t say that we’re as racially, ethnically, and religiously at odds as it appears the president wants us to be.”
Somehow, Biden was able to turn a question most politicians would loathe — or really any comment about them losing — into his arguably strongest moment of the night.
There were other occasions where Biden dodged questions. He even admitted doing so when asked about “court packing” by adding justices to the Supreme Court.
Beyond the “lousy candidate” comment that would have been foreign to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, Biden was given a chance to demonstrate his penchant for retail politics and, as he would put it, being able to “level with the American people.”
Biden even stayed in the hall for around half an hour after the event concluded, chatting up voters and appearing to take questions from those who did not get to ask one.
When Biden made his comments about what it would mean if he loses, Trump’s town hall had just ended.
—Johnny Verhovek (@JTHVerhovek) October 16, 2020
Were there any undecided voters changing the channel, they would have gone from Trump shouting over voters and belittling the host to Biden lowering the temperature with a contemplative and vulnerable moment.
Once it was all over, the Trump campaign immediately pounced on the “lousy candidate” line in a two-second clip with a deliberate lack of context.
—Trump War Room – Text TRUMP to 88022 (@TrumpWarRoom) October 16, 2020
However, a tweet from one of his top campaign advisers, Mercedes Schlapp, quickly took hold online in the way it typified the night.
—Mercedes Schlapp (@mercedesschlapp) October 16, 2020
—Emma Gray (@emmaladyrose) October 16, 2020
Schlapp dunking on Biden for being “Mister Rogers” encapsulates the gamble the Trump campaign has taken, with the president and his surrogates focusing on energizing the MAGA base instead of trying to build upon his narrow 2016 coalition to be more sturdy in 2020.
Thursday night did not offer Trump a chance at pulling off a massive reset of the race.
It did not have any viral moments rivaling the fly from the VP debate or the crosstalk from Biden and Trump’s first contest — moments that would break out of the political news ecosystem and into the realm of pop culture, where undecided voters are more likely to be reached.
That kind of outcome, whether it’s a wash or a waste of time, probably qualifies as “a beautiful day in the neighborhood” for the Biden campaign.