President Donald Trump took four years of personal venom and outright lies and stuffed it all into 90 minutes of chaotic sparring with former Vice President Joe Biden on Tuesday night — a performance that, for all its sound and fury, even his allies said afterward was unlikely to change the dynamic of a contest that polls show he is losing.
One of the biggest issues Trump has faced in the polls: a large gender gap.
“The main thing keeping an anvil on Trump’s head in terms of job approval all this four years has been women. He does fine among men, but women have never given him high marks,” said Scott Jennings, a longtime adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and CNN contributor. “And I cannot imagine he did anything tonight that any female viewer who was thinking about supporting him would have appreciated.”
Trump played to his committed base of support with repeated interruptions and bitter attacks on Biden, who shot back, beseeching the President to allow him to finish his sentences. The disjointed product was another dispiriting chapter in a general election campaign marked by them.
View Trump and Biden head-to-head polling.
The debate showcased Trump as he has been since his entrance to the presidential arena, employing the same tactics that helped launch him to the White House. The issue for Trump, however, it that the bluster that helped win him in 2016 is shaping up as a disadvantage this time around.
“Narrowing the gender gap,” said a Republican operative actively working on GOP congressional campaigns, “apparently is a concept foreign to Trump and his strategy team.”
In the process of blitzing Biden, Trump only affirmed the fundamentals of the race — one in which he is trailing the former vice president, according to both national and swing state polling, with women voters and moderates who say they have been turned off by his personal behavior. For the first hour, Trump glared at Biden and cut him off repeatedly, steamrolling the moderator, Fox News anchor Chris Wallace.
“Trump has one speed. He always has. He always will. If you like it, you’ve liked it from Day One. If you don’t, you’re voting for Joe Biden,” said Matt Gorman, a former top operative as the National Republican Congressional Committee. “It was jarring but not surprising.”
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican close to the President who helped prepare him for the debate, said Trump was “too hot.”
“Listen, you come in, decide you want to be aggressive and I think that was the right thing to be aggressive, but that was too hot,” Christie said on ABC. “And so I think that what happens is, with all that heat … you lose the light. That potentially can be fixed. Maybe, maybe not.”
Trump has tried to close his gap with women by focusing on the suburbs, believing that those living outside America’s largest cities, who broke from Republicans in the midterms two years ago, can be reeled back in with a blunt message on safety and security. But Trump’s message to them has been delivered in barely coded racist appeals, including claiming that efforts to increase affordable housing in the suburbs represented an existential threat.
“If (Biden) ever got to run this country and they ran it the way he wants to run it, our suburbs would be gone, our suburbs would be gone,” Trump said. “And you would see problems like you have never seen.”
Biden was prepared for the line.
“He wouldn’t know a suburb unless he took a wrong turn,” he said of the President. “I was raised in the suburbs. This is not 1950. All these dog whistles and racism don’t work anymore. Suburbs are by and large integrated.”
Trump was on the offensive from the outset, ignoring the debate’s rules and cutting off Biden, who bristled but could not wrest control from the President. Instead, he attempted — when he could — to address viewers directly, breaking the fourth wall to make his points.
But Trump would not let down.
“Donald,” an exasperated Biden asked at one point, “would you just be quiet for a minute?”
He would not. Biden’s frustration boiled over at times, too, but even his outbursts — “Will you shut up, man?” — were subsumed by Trump’s relentless nitpicking and petty aggressions.
When Biden said “a lot more people are going to die (of coronavirus) unless (Trump) gets a lot smarter a lot quicker,” Trump ignored the mention of the pandemic and focused on the personal slight — mocking Biden’s alma mater, the University of Delaware.
“You graduated either the lowest or almost the lowest in your class. Don’t ever use the word smart with me,” Trump said. “Don’t ever use that word. Because you know what? There’s nothing smart about you, Joe.”
Biden laughed it off, saying, “Oh, give me a break.”
Trump also assailed Biden’s younger son, repeatedly, with a volley of largely unfounded or exaggerated attacks on his personal dealings overseas. He also zeroed in on the Hunter Biden’s past drug use.
“My son, like a lot of people you know at home, had a drug problem,” Biden replied. “He’s overtaken it. He’s fixed it. He’s worked on it. I’m proud of him.”
Trump, momentarily quieted, heard Biden’s words, then — unmoved — immediately ran back through his attack lines.
Distaste with Trump’s debate antics were front of mind in conversations with a CNN panel of undecided voters in suburban Columbus, Ohio, especially with women in the group — including one who said the style of Trump’s performance overshadowed a message she liked.
“It is so distracting. I found I was agreeing with a lot of what President Trump was saying, but it is not what he says, it is how he says it,” Maria said. “And it is so distracting, and he is saying it when he is not supposed to be saying it, and I am finding myself being swayed against him, not toward him, even though I believe in what he is saying.”
There was at least one potential upside for Trump, who has made no secret of his desire to drive down turnout in the election. Typically, and as he did later on in the debate, those efforts are framed by his questioning the validity of some mail-in ballots.
But the nature of the debate might have accomplished his goal in another way — by turning off voters, potentially disengaging them from the process, as they recoiled at the sour tone of the night.
“I just thought it was exhausting,” Jaclyn, one of the undecided voters, said. “It was, like two children fighting.”
She added: “I came here to really try and learn and have an open mind and try and decide who I really wanted to vote for and hear their opinions rather than what social media had to say, and I just felt like I was just watching two people argue.”
While that dynamic might satisfy Trump’s agenda, it could also trickle down — and cast a pall on Republicans running for seats in Congress and in state legislative races.
“If I were a Republican elected official, if I was someone running for office right now, I would be pretty mad at him,” former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum said on CNN. “He indulged himself tonight.”