The second and final presidential debate was much less chaotic but no less adversarial.
President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden traded barbs Thursday night about many of the biggest issues facing Americans today. Biden criticized the president’s handling of the coronavirus and Trump’s lack of a plan to replace the Affordable Care Act. Trump tried to make Biden out to be a “typical politician,” the likes of which his supporters wanted to replace by voting for him in 2016.
While none of that was new in the tense political discourse between the two presidential candidates 12 days before Election Day, debate watchers perhaps got more substance this time simply because there were fewer interruptions.
Turns out mute buttons, or at least the threat of them, can be powerful things.
After the debacle that was the first presidential debate on Sept. 29, in which almost no one – including the moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News – could get a word in over Trump’s constant interruptions, the Commission on Presidential Debates decided that Thursday's debate would include a mute function on each of the candidates' mics.
A second debate originally scheduled for Oct. 15 was canceled after Trump, who tested positive for COVID-19 on Oct. 2, pulled out when it was announced that it would be held virtually. That left Thursday night’s scheduled event as the last chance for voters to see the candidates go at each other before Nov. 3.
Thursday’s debate monitor, NBC News’ Kristen Welker, managed, at times, to effectively keep both candidates on topic. On at least one occasion, Trump’s microphone appeared to be muted as his answer ran over the two-minute time limit.
When Trump attempted to go after Biden about his son, Hunter Biden, and his involvement with a Ukrainian gas company, Welker kept the debate going by redirecting the candidates with a question on foreign influence.
“The tone couldn’t have been more different from the first debate,” wrote David Sanger, the national security correspondent for the New York Times on the newspaper’s live blog during the debate. “Trump had some strong moments – the crime bill, job creation. Biden was strongest on climate and a vision for his term. Trump was at a loss to discuss the children separated from their parents. Biden sometimes went way off course. In all cases, the absence of interruptions was welcome.”
Not everyone thought the mute button was being used enough, however.
Trump’s demeanor was more subdued during Thursday’s debate, which was held at Belmont University in Tennessee, and he was markedly less aggressive than he had been in the first debate. The president showed self-restraint in what was possibly his last chance to defend himself as polls show voters disappointed in his handling of the pandemic. More than 223,000 Americans have died as a result of the disease.
It did not mean he did not take shots at the former vice president.
Biden, for his part, tried to paint Trump as a divisive leader who had failed the country with his handling of the pandemic and would put millions at risk of losing their health insurance by abolishing the Affordable Care Act.
The fact that voters saw a real debate Thursday may have helped the few undecided voters see the candidates’ starkly different approaches, instead of just two men talking over each other as they did during last month’s debate.
Still, there might not be many minds to change this late in what looks like it could still be a close race on Nov. 3. More than 47 million voters have cast their ballots already either in early voting or by mail-in ballot. Analysts estimate that there may be only about 6% of undecided voters in most of the key swing states, such as Pennsylvania, Florida, Michigan, and North Carolina, which will be key to winning the White House.
Thursday’s debate was a departure from chaos and a return to a traditional debate format, even if nothing strikingly new was said by either candidate. There was at least one thing missing Thursday night, according to some.