Iowans say Thursday’s presidential debate was more productive

Both candidates largely followed the rules in a debate focused on the pandemic, accusations of corruption, and health care.

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Tate Hildyard

The second 2020 Presidential Debate plays on the television in Gabe’s on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020. The debate is between Democratic candidate Joe Biden and President Donald Trump.

Caleb McCullough, Politics Editor


Donald Trump and Joe Biden offered contrasting visions for America’s future Thursday night, in an exchange that was far more restrained than the pair’s first debate in September.

With less than two weeks until Election Day, the presidential race in Iowa has tightened to a tossup. Biden holds a single-point lead in the FiveThirtyEight polling average as of Thursday. Nearly 650,000 Iowans have already cast their ballots by mail, according to the U.S, Elections project

The debate touched topics including COVID-19 response and relief, corruption allegations, and health care. Biden attacked Trump as an ineffective leader while the president painted a dark portrait of a potential Democratic administration.

The conversation stood in stark contrast to the first presidential debate, which was filled with personal attacks and interruptions, especially from Trump. In this installment, the candidates’ microphones were muted during the other’s initial response times to questions, and both candidates mostly stuck to the rules.

After the last debate, some Iowans said they felt the discourse was unproductive and likely didn’t change the minds of any voters. This time around, people The Daily Iowan interviewed said both candidates appeared more controlled and the debate was easier to follow.

President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden face off in the final Presidential Debate of 2020 as University of Iowa senior, Trevor Johnson, watches in the Main Library on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020. Johnson said, “I want to see what is going to happen in this debate and if it is going to be a circus…so far it hasn’t been too bad.” He went on to say, “They haven’t he’d the need to really mute their mics, but we’ll see what happens the rest of the debate. The most important thing is that they remain civil and presidential.” (Ayrton Breckenridge)

During the debate, Trump defended his response to the pandemic, focusing on his push to reopen schools, businesses, and public areas. He said widespread lockdowns would lead to high unemployment, mental-health challenges such as drug abuse.

He initially said that a coronavirus vaccine would be announced within weeks, but he didn’t commit to a timeframe in a follow-up question, claiming it would be ready by the end of the year.

“It’s not a guarantee, but it will be by the end of the year, but I think it has a good chance — there are two companies — I think within a matter of weeks, and it will be distributed very quickly,” Trump said.

Biden hit back with criticism of the president’s reaction to COVID-19, pinning responsibility for the more than 200,000 Americans who have died from the disease.

“Anyone who’s responsible for that many deaths should not remain as president of the United States of America,” Biden said. 

Biden added that his administration would take a science-based approach to the crisis, encouraging people to wear masks and setting national standards for schools and businesses.

Trump also sought to focus the debate on Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, with accusations of corruption that he has recently been making a campaign centerpiece. 

He took several jabs at the younger Biden’s operations overseas, trying to connect the former vice president to his son’s role on the board of the Ukranian gas company Burisma Holdings. He claimed that both Hunter and Joe Biden were party to a $3.5 million payment from the mayor of Moscow’s wife, though that claim lacks evidence

Invoking Trump’s impeachment, Biden said the president was the one who was guilty of misdeeds in Ukraine, and defended his and his son’s ethics in international involvements.

Trump was impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives in February pressuring the Ukranian president to investigate Hunter Biden’s involvement with Burisma, but he was acquitted in the Senate.

“Every single solitary person — when he was going through his impeachment, testifying under oath who worked for him — said I did my job impeccably,” Biden said. “Not one single solitary thing was out of line.”

The former vice president went after Trump for conducting business in China, citing a recent New York Times report that the president’s company had a bank account in the country from 2013 to 2015.

The future of the Affordable Care Act also looms over the election, with the Supreme Court set to hear oral arguments on Nov. 10 in a case that could invalidate the law. Trump railed against the ACA, sticking to his promise to get rid of the program and replace it, though he has not proposed an alternative plan

Biden fought back against characterizations of his health-care plan as “socialized medicine,” saying he wants to strengthen the ACA and add a public option for health insurance — dubbing his plan “Bidencare.” Biden said this would lower premiums and make health insurance more affordable.

Locals react to the less chaotic debate

Throughout Iowa City, people gathering to watch the debate in bars and restaurants generally thought it was better and more substantive than the first exchange between the two candidates.

Sitting at the bar at Big Grove Brewery, 26-year-old Iowa City resident Zach Caponi said he was having a hard time following the debate due to the TV in front of him being muted, but that it seemed more professional than the last one.

“It seems a little bit more propped up like a presidential debate,” Caponi said. “I think they both probably got grilled by their teams on how much of a disaster the last one was. It definitely seems better.”

Caponi said he already submitted his vote for Biden, dropping off his absentee ballot at the auditor’s office.

Aidan Heniff, 21, was watching the debate at Yacht Club and said he thought the microphones being muted made the debate easier to watch. Heniff said he already cast his absentee ballot for Biden.

“It’s better than the first one. More clear and I am able to follow what they are saying easier…” he said. “Being able to mute the mics is helpful because there is less interruption and less snarky comments.”

Two University of Iowa sophomores, Molly Fischer and Cassidy Beshel, watched the debate on a phone at a table outside Casa Azul on South Gilbert Street.

University of Iowa students Molly Fischer and Cassidy Beshel watch the second presidential debate on a phone while eating on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020 at Casa Azul in Iowa City. (Jake Maish)

Fischer, a communications and political science double major, said she felt this debate was more respectful than the previous one, and that this debate was more in line with how candidate debates tend to go.

“I do like the format of this debate a lot more,” Fischer said. “They said they were going to mute people if they were overtalking and overstepping their boundaries, so I think that was really important because in the first debate it was so chaotic.”

Beshel, a marketing student, said she thought the candidates’ teams may have pushed them to behave differently than the last debate. Both Fischer and Beshel said they are voting for Biden in the general election.

“I think Trump’s team told him that his strategy the first time around didn’t work and didn’t appeal to either side, even his own supporters weren’t into it,” Beshel said. “You can tell he’s taking that criticism to heart and really trying to appear presidential.”

Lauren White and Brian Grace contributed to this report.

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