Iowa political leaders question the productivity of the first presidential debate

In the first presidential debate between President Trump and Joe Biden, the candidates and moderator engaged in aggressive cross-talk that some Iowa political leaders found distracting.


New York resident Callum Melrose watches the first presidential debate on Tuesday, September 29 at The Airliner in Iowa City. Melrose stopped in Iowa City on his way to Oregon, where he will work for Habitat for Humanity, and went to The Airliner for the debate on a recommendation from a friend who graduated from the University of Iowa. (Jake Maish/The Daily Iown)

Julia Shanahan, Politics Editor

President Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden participated in the first presidential debate Tuesday night, and some Iowa political leaders say the fiery exchange was unproductive and likely won’t change the minds of many voters.

The debate, moderated by Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, was supposed to allow each candidate an uninterrupted two minutes to answer the moderator’s question to be followed by an open discussion on the topic. However, the rules were quickly broken as both candidates engaged in aggressive cross-talk, with many interruptions coming from Trump.

“I think Trump did well considering he had to debate two people tonight; Joe Biden and Chris Wallace,” said Karen Fesler, secretary of the social committee for the Johnson County Republicans.

Fesler said she doesn’t think this debate persuaded any voters to vote for a different candidate because the candidates didn’t say anything new.

The debate was broken down into policy segments, which included health care, the U.S. Supreme Court, COVID-19 response, the economy, racial justice, and climate change. Some issues blended into others as the candidates pointed fingers.

Larry Hodgden, Democratic Party chair in Cedar County, said he thought Biden handled himself well, pointing to the handful of times Biden smiled and shook his head while Trump was talking.

“It was just a shame,” Hodgden said of the constant cross-talk. “The way it was handled, the way it turned out, but I think for Donald Trump, that’s the way it’s gonna turn out. I don’t think there’s any way you can get them in a civil debate.”

A portion of the debate was spent talking about mail-in voting and other voting procedures amid COVID-19. With more people using absentee ballots, and with some state governments grappling with an overwhelming amount of mail-in ballots, Trump called the election “rigged” and said these new processes could lead to voter fraud.

Many election experts have pointed out that mail-in voting has not been proven to increase the risk of voter fraud, but mail-in voting can make it difficult for people to meet deadlines to ensure their ballot gets counted on time.

Biden encouraged Americans to vote by mail and to vote early, and pledged not to claim victory until the election is independently decided. Trump did not directly make the same pledge.

In Iowa, the Legislative Council will allow counties to begin opening the envelopes of mail-in ballots the Saturday before Election Day, a rule that does not exist in some states. Hodgden said that he’s confident Cedar County will have its official vote count by 10 p.m. on election night, and that their Republican auditor welcomes poll watchers from both parties to watch her open and process ballots.

Trump encouraged voters to vote in person and to pay close attention to how the precinct is handling the ballots. He said the Supreme Court might have to take a look at how the ballots were counted if he suspects wrongdoing, and that “people cheat.”

“Some other states … don’t allow them to open up the ballots until Election Day — that seems crazy,” Hodgen said, “because … it is going to delay the process. And with any delay in the final results, of course, it’s going to cause Trump to go ballistic … So we can’t control that, because we can only control what we can do in our state.”

David Barker, a member of the Iowa GOP state central committee in Johnson County, said he felt the point Trump was trying to make with mail-in voting is that when you implement a voting system that some states are not accustomed to, it could make the process difficult.

Barker said he thinks it would have been more productive for the candidates to engage in a completely open discussion without a moderator, despite the candidates constantly interrupting each other.

“Chris Wallace said earlier that he was going to be invisible — He was not. He was definitely one of the debaters,” Barker said. “I think that it’s a debate, and they should get out of the way and let the candidates talk.”

Barker said something that resonated with him was Biden saying, “in the kind of roundabout way that he put it,” that he might not trust a COVID-19 vaccine.

Biden said during the debate that he trusts science, and that people should listen to the information coming from scientists rather than people in the Trump administration. Trump called the vaccine “a very political thing.”

On the topic of racial justice, Biden said that a majority of people in law enforcement are good people, but that police departments need to start holding the “bad apples” accountable for racial profiling and wrongful deaths.

Biden said if elected president, he would invite civil rights groups, advocates, and law enforcement officials to the White House for an open discussion on how we can better the country’s race relations.

Trump touted his support from law enforcement groups, saying to Biden, “I don’t think you have any support from law enforcement, and you can’t even say those words because you’ll lose the radical left — we believe in law and order but you don’t.”

Tanner Halleran, Democratic Party chair Keokuk County and member of the Iowa Democratic Party state central committee, said he wanted to see the candidates talk more about policy, and instead it turned into a spectacle.

“It was important that Biden was speaking directly to Americans at home,” Halleran said.

The next presidential debate between Trump and Biden will be on Oct. 15 at 8 p.m.

Lauren White contributed the story.