The 2020 United States presidential debates between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, the major candidates in the 2020 United States presidential election, are being sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD).
The first debate took place on September 29, 2020. One debate between the vice presidential candidates Mike Pence and Kamala Harris took place on October 7, 2020.
Related: Both Biden and Trump Leave Voters With a Consequential Choice at Presidential Debate
A further two debates were scheduled to take place on October 15 and 22, though the October 15 debate was later canceled due to Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis and refusal to appear remotely rather than in person. As a result of the cancellation of the October 15 presidential debate, 2020 will have the fewest debates since 1996.
Debates sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates
On October 11, 2019, the Commission on Presidential Debates announced that it would host four debates. Three of the four presidential debates will be between incumbent president Donald Trump, Democratic nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden, and any other participants that qualify. One debate will be a vice presidential debate between incumbent vice president Mike Pence, Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris, and any third party candidates that meet the criteria.
In late 2019, Trump claimed that the 2016 debates were “biased.” After meeting with his campaign manager, the commission co-chairman said that “the president wanted to debate, but they had concerns about whether or not to do it with the commission.” Trump did not press the issue further publicly. Trump also requested additional debates to the traditional three, which Biden’s campaign declined. At the end of June, representatives of the Biden campaign confirmed that they had agreed to the original schedule.
In August, the CPD rejected a request by the Trump campaign to shift the debates to an earlier date, or to add a fourth debate in relation to mail-in voting.
On August 27, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi suggested that Biden should skip the debates, claiming that Trump will “probably act in a way that is beneath the dignity of the presidency”. Biden responded by saying that he wants to go ahead and participate so that he can “be a fact-checker on the floor while I’m debating [Trump]”.
Qualification of candidates
In order to qualify for the debates sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates, presidential candidates must meet the following criteria; vice-presidential candidates qualify by being the running mate of a qualifying presidential candidate:
- Be constitutionally eligible to hold the presidency.
- Appear on a sufficient number of ballots to have a mathematical possibility of winning a majority vote in the Electoral College. In theory, this means a candidate could win the election despite not meeting this criterion and hence not qualifying for the debates, as a candidate can win the election despite having a minority vote in the Electoral College. In practice, this has only happened once.
- Have a level of support of at least 15% of the national electorate as determined by five national public opinion polling organizations selected by the commission, using the average of those organizations’ most recently reported results at the time of determination. The five polls were chosen with the advice of Frank Newport of Gallup, based on how Newport and the commission perceived these criteria:
- The reliable frequency of polling and sample size used by the polling organization.
- The soundness of the survey methodology employed by the polling organization.
- The longevity and reputation of the polling organization.
- The five polls are: ABC/Washington Post Poll; CNN Poll; Fox News Poll; NBC/Wall Street Journal Poll and NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll
September 29 presidential debate (Case Western Reserve University)
The first debate was held on Tuesday, September 29, 2020, from 9:00 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. EDT at the Samson Pavilion of the Health Education Campus (HEC), which is shared by Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland. Chris Wallace of Fox News moderated the debate.
The debate was originally scheduled to take place in the Phillip J. Purcell Pavilion located within the Edmund P. Joyce Center at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, but Notre Dame withdrew as a host site on July 27, 2020, due to concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic.
Entering into the debate, Biden had a significant and persistent lead in the polls. Biden’s lead was compounded by a funding shortage in Trump’s campaign, with Biden’s campaign donations improving significantly.
Since Biden’s successful nomination in the Democratic primaries, Trump had attempted to cast doubt over Biden’s abilities, claiming that he was suffering from dementia and that he was taking performance-enhancing drugs in the primaries. Trump called for Biden to be drug tested before the debate. Biden mocked the idea. Trump also claimed that Biden would use a hidden electronic earpiece for the debate, demanding that Biden’s ears be searched. Again, Biden declined.
Running up to the debate, Trump made repeated claims that the election would be rigged by means of voter fraud, especially with regards to mail in ballots. When asked if he would commit to a peaceful transition of power, Trump said, “we’ll have to wait and see;” however, in a later press briefing, he said that he did believe in a peaceful transition of power. In several instances, Trump called for his supporters to vote twice—in order to test safeguards against voter fraud —even though voting more than once is a felony.
In the weeks leading up to the debate, Trump became part of various controversies. Bob Woodward released his second book on the Trump presidency, based on 19 recorded interviews with Trump. In one recording made in February 2020, Trump indicated that he understood the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic early on, which contrasted with Trump’s attempts to publicly play down the virus. Trump confirmed that he downplayed the severity of the pandemic, saying that “I don’t want to create a panic.”The New York Times published an investigation into Trump’s federal tax returns, which found that Trump had paid no tax at all in 10 out of 15 years studied, and only $750 in federal income tax for 2016 and 2017. Additionally, they reported that his businesses lost money in most years. A few days before the debate, the US reached the milestone of 200,000 deaths from COVID-19. This number represented 20% of worldwide fatalities, despite the US having only 4% of the world’s population.
Two weeks prior to the debate, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died from cancer. Ginsburg was one of four Supreme Court justices who are commonly considered liberal; the other five justices are commonly considered to be conservative. The day after Ginsberg’s funeral, Trump nominated conservative Amy Coney Barrett. Senate Republicans, under the leadership of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, moved swiftly, promising to vote on her nomination before Election Day. The move was controversial, since the same Senate Republicans had refused to consider a Supreme Court nomination by President Barack Obama in an election year.
Format and debate
The debate was divided into six segments: “Trump’s and Biden’s records, the Supreme Court, the coronavirus pandemic, race and violence in cities, election integrity, and the economy”. Each was approximately 15 minutes in length; Wallace introduced each topic and gave each candidate two minutes to speak, followed by facilitated discussion between them. The allotted time was generally not upheld; Trump repeatedly interrupted and criticized Biden during Biden’s answers to the initial questions as well as during the facilitated discussions, and was chastised by Wallace several times for doing so. On several occasions, Wallace pleaded with Trump to respect the rules and norms of the debate. At one point, Biden remarked to Trump, “Will you shut up, man?”Additionally, Biden called Trump a “clown” during the discussion about healthcare plans.
At one point during the debate, Biden and Wallace pressed Trump to condemn white supremacy groups. When Trump replied “Give me a name…”, Biden responded with “The Proud Boys”. Trump then said “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by, but I’ll tell you what, I’ll tell you what, 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.” This remark was interpreted by some members of that far-right group, as well as others, as a call to arms. When asked about his position on police reform, Biden called for an increase in police funding. He explained such funds would be used to hire psychologists or psychiatrists who would accompany police officers during 9-1-1 calls in order to defuse situations and reduce the use of force.
Fact checkers challenged many of Trump’s statements. Trump falsely said that he “brought back (college) football”; he had commented on his wish for the conferences to play, but took no official action. Trump also repeated the claim that he “got back” Seattle and Minneapolis from left-wing protesters, and continued to repeat conspiracy theories about voter fraud. He said, without evidence, that drug prices will fall “80 or 90 percent,” and exaggerated that he is making insulin at prices “so cheap, it’s like water”, despite insulin prices remaining fixed at about $300 per vial. Trump falsely said that the U.S. economy before the pandemic was “the greatest economy in the history of our country”; in actuality, GDP growth was higher under Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Bill Clinton, and the unemployment rate was lower under Eisenhower.
When Biden referred to Trump’s March 2020 remarks about injecting disinfectant to treat the COVID-19 virus, Trump claimed they had been made sarcastically. Trump then falsely stated that he brought back 700,000 manufacturing jobs; the overall number of manufacturing jobs is 487,000. Biden falsely stated that, under Trump, the trade deficit with China grew and violent crime went up (only the national murder rate has increased since Trump took office). Trump criticized Biden’s handling of the 2009 swine flu pandemic, a pandemic in which an estimated 60 million cases in the United States occurred, with an estimated death toll of about 12,000. When Biden mentioned that Trump should get “a lot smarter”, Trump said, “Don’t ever use the word smart with me, don’t ever use that word. There’s nothing smart about you, Joe,” and incorrectly claimed that Biden forgot where he went to college, referring to a video in which Biden talks about announcing his first Senate campaign on the campus of Delaware State University.
Reception and aftermath
A post-debate CNN/SSRS poll found that 60% of debate-viewers thought that Biden had won and 28% thought Trump had, with a margin of error of six points. According to a CBS News poll taken following the debate, 48% of people thought Biden won, 41% of people thought Trump won, while 10% considered it a tie, with a margin of error of three points. In the same poll, 83% of the respondents believed the tone of the debate was negative, while 17% believed it was positive.
The debate was widely criticized by commentators and journalists. It was called “a hot mess, inside a dumpster fire, inside a train wreck” and a “disgrace” (CNN’s Jake Tapper); a “shitshow” (Dana Bash); “mud-wrestling” (ABC’s Martha Raddatz); “the worst presidential debate I have ever seen in my life” (ABC’s George Stephanopoulos); and “the single worst debate I have ever covered in my two decades of doing this job” (CNN’s Chris Cillizza). The New York Times editorial board called the debate “excruciating” and wrote: “After five years of conditioning, the president’s ceaseless lies, insults and abuse were no less breathtaking to behold.” The Washington Post editorial board called the debate “a disgrace” and demonstrated that “Trump’s assault on democracy is escalating.” ABC White House correspondent Jonathan Karl said that Trump “came across as a bully” in the debate. According to the Washington Examiner, some conservatives criticized Wallace for an alleged bias against Trump due to Wallace’s frequent interruptions of Trump. After moderating the debate, Wallace described his performance as moderator as “a terrible missed opportunity” and remarked that he had not been prepared for Trump’s behavior. In response to the failure of the debate and subsequent criticism, the Commission on Presidential Debates indicated that it would modify future debates to encourage a more civilized and orderly discussion. While Biden said that he was open to changes, Trump rejected the idea, suggesting that changes would erode his advantage. Despite criticism of his moderation, the CPD defended Wallace’s moderation ability commending his “professionalism and skill”.
Trump’s “stand by” remarks received criticism. Rick Santorum, a former Republican senator, later said that it was a “huge mistake” by Trump not to condemn white supremacy properly during the debate. Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade criticized Trump for not condemning white supremacy, saying that Trump “ruined the biggest layup in the history of debates” by not doing so. Trump’s team disagreed with these criticisms, arguing that Trump has “continuously denounced” white supremacists and did so twice during the debate. The day after the debate, Trump said, “I don’t know who Proud Boys are, but whoever they are, they have to stand down.” On October 1, Trump said on Sean Hannity’s show: “I’ve said it many times, and let me be clear again: I condemn the KKK. I condemn all white supremacists. I condemn the Proud Boys. I don’t know much about the Proud Boys, almost nothing. But I condemn that.” Researcher Rita Katz, executive director of SITE Intelligence Group, told The Washington Post that Proud Boys memberships on Telegram channels grew nearly 10 percent after the debate. Proud Boys merchandise featuring the phrases “stand back” and “stand by” appeared online after the debate and was subsequently banned from sites including Amazon Marketplace and Teespring; it remained available on eBay as of October 1.
The debate had a total of at least 73.1 million viewers on television, according to Nielsen ratings. It was the third most watched debate in U.S. history, behind the first debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016 (84 million), and the only debate between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan in 1980 (80.6 million). The television viewership declined 13% compared to the debate for the first presidential debate of 2016, but an unknown number of people watched or listened to the debate via live-streaming or radio, so the total audience likely surpassed the 2016 record.
Vice presidential debate (University of Utah)
The vice presidential debate was held on Wednesday, October 7, 2020, from 9:00 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. EDT at Kingsbury Hall at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Susan Page of USA Today moderated the debate.
Changes due to COVID-19
After President Trump and a number of White House individuals tested positive for COVID-19, it was announced that Pence and Harris would stand 12 feet apart. On October 5, the Commission on Presidential Debates approved the use of plexiglass, but the next day, it said that the candidates and moderator would each be allowed to choose whether they wanted such a barrier near their own body. A commission member argued that Harris “is the one who wanted plexiglass…If [Pence] doesn’t want plexiglass, that is up to him.” Pence subsequently agreed to a plexiglass barrier, so there were two barriers; one by each candidate.
Format and debate
The debate was to be divided into nine 10-minute segments, although the moderator was only able to ask candidates about eight topics. The candidates were seated 12 feet and 3 inches apart.
During the debate, Pence echoed many of Trump’s false or misleading claims, including on topics such as the COVID-19 pandemic (Pence inaccurately said that the administration had “always” been truthful about the pandemic), health care (Pence inaccurately claimed that he and Trump had a plan to “improve health care and to protect pre-existing conditions for every American,” when no such plan has been put forth by the administration), and universal mail-in voting (Pence inaccurately claimed that this system would “create a massive opportunity for voter fraud,” a claim contrary to numerous studies). Pence also misrepresented the findings of the Mueller investigation, as well as Biden’s position on fracking and the Green New Deal. To a lesser degree, Harris also made statements that were misleading or lacked context, mostly relating to the U.S. economy.
During the debate, moderator Susan Page asked both vice presidential candidates whether they had discussed, or reached an agreement with their running mates, “about safeguards or procedures when it comes to presidential disability.” The issue had come to prominence due to the age of both presidential candidates (both are in their 70s) and Trump’s hospitalization with COVID-19 earlier that same month. Both Pence and Harris dodged the question and instead pivoted to other topics.
During the debate, Pence refused to commit to accepting the results of the election, and ensuring a peaceful transition of power, if Trump and Pence lost. Pence’s response echoed Trump’s own repeated statements refusing to commit to honoring the results if he loses. When Harris was asked if she would support an expansion of the number of justices on the Supreme Court if the Senate confirmed Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Court, she did not answer the question, instead mentioning how President Abraham Lincoln did not nominate a successor for Justice Roger B. Taney, as he had died 27 days before the 1864 presidential election. A fly landed on Pence’s head during the debate and Pence’s left eye appeared bloodshot, attracting commentary.
Shortly after the debate, the candidates’ spouses joined them onstage. Harris’s husband Douglas Emhoff wore a face mask, while Pence’s wife Karen Pence did not, in apparent violation of a Commission on Presidential Debates rule requiring that every attendee, except the candidates and moderator, wear a mask while in the debate hall. Following a backlash, a spokesman for Karen Pence stated that she had “followed an agreement established between both campaigns prior to the debate.”
The debate had a total of 57.9 million viewers on TV and had the second-largest television audience of any U.S. vice presidential debate; it was watched by an estimated 22 million more people than the amount who watched the 2016 vice presidential debate, falling behind the only debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden in 2008.
Canceled October 15 presidential debate (Arsht Center)
The second debate was scheduled to take place on Thursday, October 15, 2020, from 9:00 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. EDT, at the Arsht Center in Miami. This debate had originally been scheduled to be held at the Crisler Center at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan, but the University of Michigan withdrew as a host on June 23, 2020, over public health concerns stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. Steve Scully of C-SPAN was to have moderated the debate, which would have been in the town hall meeting format.
Trump contracts COVID-19
On the morning of October 2, the White House press office announced that the president had contracted COVID-19. One of his close advisers, Hope Hicks, had shown symptoms on the plane while returning from the first debate, and subsequently tested positive. Trump, along with First Lady Melania Trump, tested positive shortly afterwards and went into quarantine. The president was hospitalized for three days. The second debate would have been within the CDC’s recommended quarantine period of two weeks. The Commission on Presidential Debates did not immediately specify if Trump’s diagnosis would affect the second debate.
Change of format
On October 8, the Commission on Presidential Debates announced that, due to Trump’s positive COVID diagnosis, the second debate would be held virtually, with the moderator in Miami and the candidates participating remotely. Biden agreed to participate in the debate, but Trump said he would not take part in a virtual debate and would instead hold a rally. A Biden campaign spokesperson stated, regarding Trump’s declination to participate in a virtual debate, that “Biden would be happy to appear virtually, but said if the president declines to appear, the former vice president will hold a town hall elsewhere.” The Biden campaign later scheduled a nationally televised town hall on ABC with George Stephanopoulos on October 15.
Trump’s physician Sean Conley said on October 8 that Trump’s condition was stable and that he was “devoid of symptoms”; however, that evening Trump appeared by phone on Hannity and suffered several coughing fits. Conley said that he anticipated that Trump could have a “safe return to public engagements” by October 10, ten days after his diagnosis. According to the CDC, people with COVID-19 remain contagious for up to 20 days after their onset of symptoms, depending on the severity of the case; Trump’s treatment using remdesivir and dexamethasone was typical of a severe case. The Trump campaign called for the second debate to be held in person as originally scheduled, saying there was “no medical reason” for the debate to be shifted to a virtual setting, postponed, or otherwise changed “in any way.” However, Fahrenkopf said that the commission would not reconsider its decision to make the event virtual so as to “protect the health and safety of all involved.”
The commission announced on October 9 that the second debate had been canceled while the final debate would still proceed as originally planned, with Kristen Welker moderating. As a result of the debate cancellation, each candidate participated in separate town hall events televised at the same time (8:00 p.m. EDT). Biden’s town hall was broadcast on ABC and Trump’s town hall was broadcast on NBC. Biden’s town hall was watched by 14.1 million people on ABC, while Trump’s town hall was watched by 13.5 million people on NBC. More people watched Biden’s town hall, broadcast solely on ABC, than Trump’s town hall, broadcast on NBC and two of its cable channels, MSNBC and CNBC.
Columbia Journalism Review editor and publisher Kyle Pope characterized the dueling events as “a craven ratings stunt”. During the 1968 United States presidential election, Richard Nixon refused to debate Hubert Humphrey, also resulting in separate late-night television events: fundraising telethons were scheduled for mostly-overlapping time slots with the Democratic candidate similarly appearing on ABC and the Republican candidate on NBC.
October 22 presidential debate (Belmont University)
The final debate took place on Thursday, October 22, 2020, from 9:00 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. EDT, at the Curb Event Center at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, with Kristen Welker of NBC moderating. This would have been the third debate, but became only the second, following the cancellation of the October 15 debate.
Format and debate
In response to the interruptions that occurred during the first debate, the Commission on Presidential Debates announced on October 19 that each candidate’s microphone would be muted during the other’s initial two-minute response to each question. After each candidate gives his two-minute response, the microphones will not be muted. Unlike what was initially known, the muting was performed by production staff instead of the moderator.
The debate was divided into six segments: “fighting COVID-19, American families, race in America, climate change, national security, and leadership”.