Trump sat down with voters in Miami in an outdoor event on NBC News hosted by Savannah Guthrie for an hourlong town hall. Meanwhile, Biden joined George Stephanopoulos on ABC News, who previously hosted a Trump town hall, for a 90-minute town hall meeting broadcast from Philadelphia. Both events covered questions related to COVID-19, the economy, race relations, the Supreme Court and other issues that have dominated 2020. But despite similar formats and agendas, the two events could not have been more different.
The moderators didn’t come to play.
One of the biggest complaints from both the first presidential debate and the vice presidential debate was the inability of the moderators – Fox News’ Chris Wallace and USA Today’s Susan Page, respectively – to control the conversations and keep President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence on topic and within the rules of debate. By contrast, both Guthrie and Stephanopoulos controlled their town halls, asking tough questions and pressing the candidates for real answers.
Guthrie, who used to be a lawyer, came at Trump hard. At times, giving Trump a taste of his own medicine by cutting him off, repeating questions he had not answered and asking for specifics in follow-up question. She clearly made Trump uncomfortable and even angry. She pointed out when Trump was refusing to answer a question, like when he wouldn’t say whether he had actually taken a COVID-19 test on the day of the first presidential debate, as was required by the debate commission. Guthrie even brought the snark; at one point, she reminded Trump that “you’re the president, you’re not like someone’s crazy uncle” as he touted various conspiracy theories.
Stephanopoulos, meanwhile, was more conversational with Joe Biden but still pressed him on specifics. Most notably, the ABC News host reminded Biden of his reputation as a straight shooter and got the Democratic candidate to pledge that he would make his position on packing the Supreme Court clear before the election, something that Biden had been trying to avoid since Judge Amy Coney Barrett was nominated to the Court.
Both candidates were challenged on race.
Biden was confronted by student Cedric Humphrey about how the vice president would appeal to young Black voters who are skeptical of both candidates. He was also grilled by Angelica Politarhos on his role in writing the 1994 tough on crime bill that and its impact on minorities. Trump, meanwhile, was asked by Cindy Velez, a mother of a son of color and an educator, about policing and protecting Black and Latino young men.
Humphrey also asked about Biden's May remark that "you ain’t Black" if you're torn about who to vote for this election, which the Democratic presidential nominee sidestepped. Biden did lay out a comprehensive, detailed set of policies to promote Black education and economic development. He also fessed up to the “mistake” of the 1994 crime bill but also placed responsibility for the racial inequities of the law to its later implementation at the state level.
The president, meanwhile, claimed he'd done more for Black America than any president other than Lincoln, pointing to criminal justice reform, HBCU support and economic opportunity zones, among other policies.
Both candidates appealed to their Black political friends: Biden quoted the late Rep. John Lewis on the importance of Black people exercising their hard-fought right to vote. Trump touted the police reform bill proposed by Senator Tim Scott and blamed Democrats for not supporting it.
Biden continued to walk a tightrope between progressive and moderate.
As he did during his previous town hall in September, Biden distinguished his approach to environmentalism and the economy from the Green New Deal. He'd offered an ambitious but more moderate alternative that, for example, gradually phased out fossil fuels for renewable energy. He reemphasized his support for more, not less, funding for police, but also emphasized the need for reforms in how policing is conducted and argued for the incorporation of psychologists and social workers in answering calls, among other proposals.
In general, Biden avoided broad labels and instead went into specific details. At times, the level of specificity was a bit much – one doesn't expect to hear the details of a plan to “pelletize all the chicken manure and all the horse manure and cow manure” in a presidential debate.
Biden 2020: A pellet of chicken manure in every pot
This is great!
— Matthew Yglesias (@mattyglesias) October 16, 2020
But actual policy specifics, even about cow manure, were a welcome change from the figurative BS that often comes from these conversations.
Trump is a full-blown conspiracy theorist.
Given that Trump was one of the main proponents of the anti-Obama "birther" nonsense, it should not come as a surprise that Trump leaned heavily on conspiracy theories. But even by his standards, his rhetoric Thursday night was ridiculous in the sheer number of conspiracies he promoted.
Trump again speculated, without evidence, that there will be widespread voter fraud and refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses. He twisted the results of a recent small study of COVID-19 positive people to argue that “85% of the people who wear masks catch [coronavirus].” He basically endorsed the QAnon conspiracy theory, which argues that there’s a vast conspiracy of Democratic Satan-worshipping pedophiles running the country, while Trump secretly fights against them. No, really, that’s literally what they believe.
Trump also defended retweeting a conspiracy theory that President Barack Obama faked killing Osama bin Laden and secretly killed the Seal Team 6 who carried out the mission. He also claimed yet again that the Obama administration “spied” on his campaign, despite the Washington Post reporting that Attorney General William “COVID lockdowns are like slavery” Barr couldn’t find any illegal activity from Obama officials who monitored the Trump campaign’s communications with Russian agents.
Biden was presidential while Trump was petulant.
Biden was laid-back and confident throughout his appearance. As he has in the past, he told many stories, some of them a bit long. His discussion of LGBTQ+ rights illustrated his approach well. Biden discussed how his father explained a same-sex couple to him when he was young.
"It’s simple; they love each other," he recalled his father saying.
He also discussed how his late son Beau Biden, who served as Delaware Attorney General, was inspired by a transgender staff member to support trans rights. The former Vice President also specifically called out the epidemic of killings of transgender women of color.
Trump was often evasive, claiming that he didn’t know whether or not he had taken a COVID-19 test the day that he debated Biden and arguing that he did not know the details of the far-right conspiracy theory referred to as QAnon. The president was testy; he called one of Guthrie’s questions about conspiracy theories “so cute” and rhetorically asked her if she understood basic concepts like "negotiation." He was combative and irritable, claiming that Guthrie and other reporters were unfair to him compared to how the press treats Biden.
Overall, Trump’s town hall was as contentious as Biden’s was boring and, quite frankly, normal. Comparing the two, Biden sounded presidential and, perhaps more, like the adult in the room when compared to the current president. Of course, Trump has made that contrast easy, but it’s still significant to highlight the difference as America decides between these two men over the next few weeks.