The final presidential debate was held on October 22. With only 12 days to go until the election, this was likely the last big chance for either candidate to shake up the race, and one candidate in particular, Donald Trump, is in desperate need of a comeback. Trump is behind Biden by about 9% nationally in polling, and by about 6% in the key swing states he needs to win to get re-elected. That’s far outside the reach of a typical polling error and far worse than he was doing in 2016. Combine that with over 50 million early votes already cast, and Trump was in need of a big comeback going into this debate. Biden, however, only needed a tie, or even a small loss. If he could maintain his large lead for just two more weeks, he’d be on track to be the 46th president.
The debate, like the previous ones, began on the topic of COVID-19. The pandemic has been raging for nine months now with no clear end in sight. During the debate, Trump stayed with his typical messaging: that the disease isn’t that bad, that he’s been doing a great job at containing it, that it’ll be gone soon, and that it’s China’s fault anyway. Meanwhile, Joe Biden hammered in all the strikes against Trump’s pandemic response: That America has been hit hard by the virus due to Trump’s negligence, and that a Biden White House would treat the disease like the threat it is. It’s the same argument that’s been going on for months now, and Americans have made up their mind. Trump’s handling of the pandemic is unpopular, and most people don’t buy his efforts to turn that opinion around. Any extra attention on the pandemic is bad for Trump, and he didn’t do himself any favors by continuing his unpopular rhetoric on the virus.
Later in the debate, the topic of immigration came up—namely, Trump’s policy of separating undocumented immigrant children from their families and keeping them in cages. This policy is wildly unpopular, even among Trump’s own party: a recent poll by PRRI showed that 53% of Republicans disapprove of it. Biden naturally called the policy out for being a cruel, inhumane overreaction to illegal immigration, while Trump defended it as a necessary action, and falsely claimed that it had started under the Obama-Biden administration. (While the Obama administration did use chain-link cages to detain illegal immigrants, they never separated families.) This is another issue that was unlikely to help Trump, as it only appeals to the people who are voting for him anyway, and his remark that only the immigrants “with the lowest IQ” show up to their immigration trials won’t help him either.
The debate then moved onto the topic of race in America. This topic was essentially free points for Biden; Trump is regularly polling in single-digits among Black Americans. Biden highlighted his connection to Black communities in Delaware, where he served as a senator for 36 years, and acknowledged the fact that racism exists— “A Black parent, no matter how wealthy or how poor they are, has to teach their child, when you’re walking down the street, don’t have a hoodie on when you go across the street, making sure that you, in fact, if you get pulled over, just Yes or No sir, just hands on top of the wheel. Because you are in fact, the victim” —which is more than Trump has done. The Black vote is a lost cause for Trump, especially after this year’s protests, but he still tried to win their favor, saying “Nobody has done more for the Black community than Donald Trump (…) with the exception of Abraham Lincoln—possible exception.” It almost goes without saying that this won’t help him.
Throughout the entire debate, Biden made all the strikes he needed against Trump, criticizing both his policies and his behavior as president. Trump, of course, defended his record and stayed true to his normal behavior—but the thing is, Trump is unpopular. Past the first week of his presidency, he has never had a positive approval rating, and hammering in what we’ve been seeing for the past four years won’t turn that around. Trump, as we know him, doesn’t appeal to anyone outside of his base, and polling has been showing that his base isn’t big enough to win this election. Trump needed to do something different to shake up the race, but he didn’t, and as such, Biden’s nine-point lead is unlikely to drop. Of course, anything could still happen, and it’s unwise to call an election before it happens, but it’s looking more and more like Trump has squandered this debate, his last chance to turn the election back around.