Analysts: Trump’s bullying debate performance unlikely to win over undecided voters

  • In this combination image of two photos showing both President Donald Trump, left, and former Vice President Joe Biden during the first presidential debate Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, at Case Western University and Cleveland Clinic, in Cleveland, Ohio. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) Patrick Semansky

  • President Donald Trump makes a points as Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden listens during the first presidential debate Tuesday at Case Western University and Cleveland Clinic, in Cleveland. Morry Gash

Staff Writer
Published: 9/30/2020 7:10:02 PM

NORTHAMPTON — When President Donald Trump and former vice president Joe Biden appeared on stage for the first of three presidential debates Tuesday night, what was intended to be a serious discussion of policy quickly descended into a cacophony of insults and interruptions that was indecipherable at times.

And while many people were still reeling Wednesday from the devolution of debate decorum, instigated mainly by the president, some local political experts offered varying opinions as to what sort of impact the debate would have on the race at large.

“Biden came to play by the rules,” said Adam Hilton, assistant professor of politics at Mount Holyoke College. “Often what happens [is], Trump’s opponents come to play by the rules, and Trump shows up with firecrackers.”

With the Nov. 3 election fast approaching, recent polling shows Biden with a lead over Trump both nationally and in key battleground states, according to the website Real Clear Politics.

In Tuesday’s debate, Trump repeatedly interrupted both Biden and moderator Chis Wallace, of Fox News. And since the candidates were often talking at the same time, it was difficult at times to understand either of them.

Marc Lendler, professor of government at Smith College, said interrupting in a presidential debate is normal — Biden also interrupted Trump and name-called on Tuesday — but Lendler said there was strategy behind the president’s behavior as it took away his opponent’s speaking time.

“The purpose was not mainly to subtract from Biden’s time, it was also to throw the debate into the chaos mode that Trump thrives on,” Lendler said.

Lendler suggested that some of Trump’s behavior may have stemmed from the fact that he had someone else on the debate stage challenging him “at every moment.” Lendler called the debate an “embarrassment.”

“Trump’s reaction was essentially to explode. I think he lost control of himself,” Lendler said. “I think he had a strategy of trying to provoke Biden, but I think he went over the top even on his own strategy.”

While Lendler said most people have likely decided who they are going to vote for, some haven’t. Six percent of voters in a recent NBC News poll said they were still undecided or supporting another candidate. He questioned how undecided college-educated white voters — a group that Lendler said historically has voted Republican — would react to Trump’s debate performance.

“A performance of the kind that Trump did last night, which was sort of an expression of rage, is likely, I think, to be somewhat frightening to these people,” Lendler said.

Political consultant Tony Cignoli, of the A.L. Cignoli Company in Springfield, said of the debate that “Donald Trump showed up as most expected him to — bombastic, bullying, but even beyond what most of us expected to see.”

Cignoli echoed Lendler, saying Trump failed to “expand beyond his base, to reach key voters that he needed to,” such as undecided voters. He said Trump also failed to reach “rural, suburban women” and Obama supporters who voted for Trump in 2016.

‘Racist message’

One of the most notable moments from the debate came when Wallace asked Trump to condemn white supremacy. Prompted by Biden to use the name of an extremist right-wing group, Trump said, “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.”

“But I’ll tell you what,” he went on. “Somebody’s got to do something about antifa and the left. Because this is not a right-wing problem — this is a left-wing problem.”

Cignoli said the “racist message that can’t be denied that came from Donald Trump” will likely move undecided voters away from the president. Cignoli said that Trump’s over-the-top behavior may also lead undecided voters to vote against Republicans on down-ballot races. He said the debates were still important as they can be used for messaging on behalf of both campaigns.

“It’s a game of inches,” Cignoli said. “I don’t see a touchdown pass coming up in this one.”

In recent weeks, Trump has nominated conservative judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court; Republicans are trying to push Barrett’s nomination through Congress before inauguration day next year.

Hilton said that Biden turned away from discussing Barrett herself and instead “reframed it as an issue that will primarily put in jeopardy issues that women care a lot about” like Roe v. Wade and the Affordable Care Act.

The chance of the debate having an effect on undecided voters is slim, Hilton said, arguing that debates are instead “for those who are already going to vote — it’s supposed to rally the base [and] it’s supposed to communicate messages to the people who are already engaged.”

“I think what we got was a debate that was reflecting the state of the race, rather than being a factor in influencing it,” Hilton said. “It’s kind of a window into the state of things.”

Ray La Raja, professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said the debate showed that Trump is “doubling down on fear and driving up the base.” He said that very few undecided voters were likely watching the debate, saying that debates like Tuesday’s are more for rallying supporters, “and for some, it’s even entertainment.”

“The vast, vast majority are just looking at this debate as scoring points for their side,” La Raja said.

Paul M. Collins Jr., professor of legal studies and political science at UMass, noted that Trump, besides failing to condemn white supremacy, refused to commit to accepting the election results. He made unfounded claims about voter fraud and even seemed to call for his supporters to watch for voter fraud at the polls, which Collins said could manifest into voter intimidation. He said it will likely take weeks for a winner to be declared.

When coupling Trump’s refusal to accept the election results with his call for supporters to poll-watch, Hilton said, “the big fear is that it will lead to violence either on election night or after the election.”

Michael Connors can be reached at


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