Dueling Town Halls

Instead of a second presidential debate, we got competing TV shows.

While I did not watch either Joe Biden’s appearance with George Stephanopoulos or President Trump’s last-minute counterprogramming with Savannah Guthrie, the consensus seems to be that both men doubled down on their brands.

NYT (“A Combative Trump and a Deliberate Biden Spar From Afar at Town Halls“):

President Trump spoke positively about an extremist conspiracy-theory group, expressed skepticism about mask-wearing, rebuked his own F.B.I. director and attacked the legitimacy of the 2020 election in a televised town hall forum on Thursday, veering far away from a focused campaign appeal. Instead, he further stoked the country’s political rifts as his Democratic opponent, Joseph R. Biden Jr., pushed a deliberate message anchored in concerns over public health and promises to restore political norms.

Mr. Trump’s defensive and combative performance came on a night that was supposed to feature a debate between him and Mr. Biden, but that morphed into a long-distance study in contrasts on different television networks after the president declined to participate in a virtual debate.

On the central issue of the election, the coronavirus pandemic, the two candidates appeared to inhabit not just different television sets but different universes. Mr. Biden has made the full embrace of strict public health guidelines the centerpiece of his candidacy, while Mr. Trump has continued to defy even the recommendations of his own government on matters as basic as the use of masks — a pattern that persisted in their opposing events on Thursday.

WaPo (“President Trump and Joe Biden clash in distant, dueling town halls“):

Separated by five states, two television news outlets and a deep trough of mutual animosity, President Trump and Democrat Joe Biden held dueling town halls Thursday that offered a jarring contrast of their opposing political styles and approaches to major issues like the coronavirus pandemic.

The events — with Trump on NBC from Miami and Biden on ABC from Philadelphia — appeared to be broadcast from entirely different dimensions. The soft-spoken Biden leaned back in a white chair, relaxed and conversational as he hit upon notes of optimism and uplift. Trump’s appearance was heated and at times abrasive, with the candidate leaning forward as he defended his record and challenged the motivations of moderator Savannah Guthrie.

NBC News (“5 takeaways from Trump’s and Biden’s dueling town halls“):

Donald Trump and Joe Biden were in different cities for the dueling town halls Thursday that replaced their debate. But they may as well have been in different universes.

Replacing the presidential debate with competing conversations with voters was a fitting symbol of a politically divided and socially distanced America. Instead of speaking to, or even shouting at, each other, Trump and Biden spoke past each other on different networks, allowing Americans to choose a favored candidate to describe reality as they want to see it.

The town halls, hosted by NBC in Miami for Trump and ABC in Philadelphia for Biden, were unlikely to attract nearly the audience a debate would, history suggests, and even many Republicans were baffled by Trump’s decision to withdraw from the second debate when he’s down in the polls and needs every opportunity possible to try to disrupt the race’s status quo.

I’ll let those interested in detailed breakdowns read the above stories for themselves but I will list the “takeaways” from the NBC headline:

  1. Trump gives oxygen to extremists — again
  2. Biden acknowledges mistakes of 1994 crime bill
  3. Biden says his approach on ‘court packing’ ‘depends’
  4. Trump forgot to attack Biden
  5. Two candidates, two vastly different tones

To the extent that anyone is still persuadable at this point, all of the above except perhaps 3 redound to the benefit of Biden, the strong frontrunner.

Trump’s decision not to appear in a second head-to-head debate with Biden once the Debate Commission decided it had to be held virtually, makes some sense. While he needs every opportunity he can get to make the case that he deserves re-election and/or that Biden is too old/liberal/whatever, he was unlikely to do that in a head-to-head format that didn’t allow him to interrupt and bully.

But the format he/his team agreed to for last night was always going to be a disaster. Most observers gave Guthrie high marks for her pacing and aggressive fact-checking and refusal to let Trump evade questions. But the format lent itself to that in a way that a head-to-head contest doesn’t.

Indeed, at one point Trump complained that Guthrie was going after him and not Biden. She, quite reasonably, pointed out that only he was on stage with her.

FILED UNDER: 2020 Election, , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. SC_Birdflyte says:

    Some of my Trumpidian friends were on Facebook this morning, complaining about Savannah being mean to their idol. It does no good to mention to them that Trump himself rejected the town hall format with both candidates present. I don’t repond to their idiocies any more, not even with an emoji.

  2. Mikey says:


    I may be wrong but this may be the first time NBC has had a rapist on at 8pm Thursday since Cosby. @realDonaldTrump

  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Biden says his approach on ‘court packing’ ‘depends’

    In other words, he will follow the constitution just as Mitch did with Garland and is doing now with Barret. Not sure how that could be bad for him.

  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    From the Guardian:

    Guthrie, meanwhile, demanded to know why Trump retweeted a conspiracy theory suggesting that Osama bin Laden was not, after all, killed by navy Seals in 2011. Trump said: “That was a retweet, I’ll put it out there. People can decide for themselves.”

    Guthrie: “I don’t get that. You’re the president. You’re not, like, someone’s crazy uncle who can just retweet whatever.”

  5. CSK says:

    This is just another example of Trump evading responsibility for the things he says and does. Recall his familiar mantra of “many people are saying.” He never specifies who’s doing the saying.

    This technique also has great appeal for the conspiracy-minded.

  6. OzarkHillbilly says:

    “You’re not, like, someone’s crazy uncle who can just retweet whatever.”

    Mary L Trump

    Actually . . .

  7. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @CSK: You forgot the idiots, but I guess that would be repeating yourself.

  8. Jen says:

    The Trump campaign has apparently put out a press statement saying that Trump defeated Guthrie, clearly a Biden stand-in, in the debate.

    And then Trump retweets something from the Babylon Bee as though it were real.

    The GOP really has embraced its ascension to the Stupid Party.

  9. drj says:

    Didn’t watch the entire thing, just some clips, but I thought Trump was… vaguely coherent. Didn’t even slur his words.

    Maybe because Guthrie’s questioning added some discernible structure to his usual rambling.

  10. Michael Reynolds says:

    In my Charlie Cook email this morning:

    Whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, liberal or conservative, predisposed toward labor or business, your eyes should now be squarely pointed to the races below the presidential level.

    Self-immolation is not the precise word to describe President Trump’s debate performance, but whatever it was, it was enormously self-destructive to his already-challenging reelection prospects and may well cost some Republican members of the Senate and House their seats.

    Anyone who doubted how bad this is for Trump should take another look at the Fox News national poll showing him now 9 and 10 points behind Joe Biden among registered and likely voters, respectively. Or the CNN poll that showed him 15 points back among registered voters, 16 among likelies. Or the ABC News/Washington Post and NBC News/Wall Street Journal polls, which show the president trailing by 12 to 14 points.

    In swing states, the news gets no better for the GOP. The latest exhibit is the New York Times/Siena College polling that put Trump 8 points behind in Michigan and 10 down in Wisconsin.

    The closer a GOP House or Senate incumbent was to the edge before the debate, the whole lot closer to that edge they are now—if not over the side. As the 2018 midterm elections demonstrated, Trump was already toxic in many suburbs. The debate performance on the heels of the coronavirus pandemic took the toxicity to a whole new level.

  11. Michael Reynolds says:

    I didn’t watch either. The only useful data was the reaction to the performances. ‘Crazy Uncle’ vs. ‘Mr. Rogers’ – not my line, I forget whose – about sums it up.

  12. Lounsbury says:

    Trump’s decision not to appear in a second head-to-head debate with Biden once the Debate Commission decided it had to be held virtually, makes some sense. While he needs every opportunity he can get to make the case that he deserves re-election and/or that Biden is too old/liberal/whatever, he was unlikely to do that in a head-to-head format that didn’t allow him to interrupt and bully.

    I think this decision only made sense inside his own head – the interrupting and bullying while difficult to watch play not to his advantage (except to the Trumpist hard core, not even merely the soft sympathisers).

    He scored once again an own goal. Virtual and even getting muted could have played for him had he had more than mere animal cunning.

  13. Raoul says:

    I read that Trump does not remember whether he tested positive for COVID the day of the debate with Biden. I call BS on that. Of course he knows. And the obfuscation tells me he was positive. What I’m saying is that Trump tried to kill his rival by infecting him- how is this not a bigger story?

  14. Jen says:

    @Raoul: I’ve been asking that for weeks. If he knew he was positive and still showed up (and I think this is 100% why he arrived “too late” to test that day), he clearly was trying to infect Biden.

    In his mind, it’d be leveling the playing field. The fact that his entire staff gave answers like “we’re not looking back but forward” to me absolutely screams that he knew he was positive when he showed up for the debate.

  15. Michael Reynolds says:


    He scored once again an own goal. Virtual and even getting muted could have played for him had he had more than mere animal cunning.

    My work has forced me to learn quite a lot more about animal instinct than I might have done had no one written me a check. Years ago my wife and I wrote a 63 book kid series in which a running theme was an internal battle between human intelligence and various animal instincts. My analogy has been that Trump is a shark – tiny brain, very effective instincts. Really good at killing sea lions, not great at math or estate planning. It can be hard to differentiate conscious choice from instinct, especially given the human ability to rationalize ex post facto.

    We were plunged into peril by the stupidity of 46% of voters, and saved from that peril by the stupidity of the man chosen by those stupid voters.

  16. Kathy says:

    Wait, wait. Are we sure Guthrie wasn’t carrying Kryptonite?

  17. Lounsbury says:


    What I’m saying is that Trump tried to kill his rival by infecting him- how is this not a bigger story?

    Because outside of political partisans it’s shrill speculation and exaggeration.

    That he cavalierly ignores the risks is a known factor. “tried to kill” is absurd hysterics.

    @Michael Reynolds: Yes, perhaps that is an adequate metaphor. His style of sales only works on a first round, on a quick flip. Or as theatrics as in the TV show (where his worst idiocies are edited out).

  18. KM says:

    @SC_Birdflyte :
    I’ve been snarking back at those types asking what exactly they expected. He’s *supposed* to be challenged as the whole point is proving why you should be voting for him. Instead, he’s so used to bitch sessions and boost-my-ego rallies that he can’t even handle softball questions anymore, let alone someone directly asking him about his screwups.

    In other words, a melting snowflake demanding his safe space. Their vitrol in response just warms me up on a chilly morning because it’s increasingly clear that even with a safe space created for him, he can’t be Alpha unless he’s alone in his echo chamber. No questions, no structure or rules, no opposition, no anything but letting the verbal diarrhea splat against the wall will make them happy. They really do just wanna watch the world burn… or in this case, get covered in excrement their God Emperor flings.

  19. KM says:


    “tried to kill” is absurd hysterics.

    If someone “cavalierly ignores the risks” and dropped a math into a pool of gasoline they’ve lied about existing when someone they hate is in the room, are they trying to kill the other or just being stupid? If someone “cavalierly ignores the risks”, intentionally drank two bottles of vodka and drove drunk off a cliff with their family in the car, are they trying to kill the other or just being stupid? If someone “cavalierly ignores the risks” by playing with highly radioactive materials, lied to others about their health status and went about spreading death to the public, are they trying to kill the other or just being stupid?

    The answer is both. It’s not mutually exclusive to be incredibly dumb and hope to hurt someone in the process. Trump may not have meant to *kill* Biden but he and his certainly intended to infect as many people as possible and get them sick. You could excuse one or two unmasked COVID+ people being dicks but ALL of them? ALL of them arrived too late for testing and sat close to people unmaksed. ALL of them lied about their status when asked and will not confirm details to help assuage concerns. ALL of them are acting like bio-terrorists deliberately trying to spread their toxin rather then stubborn people who just didn’t think it was that big a deal.

    Honestly, change “Trump” with “terrorist” and see if his actions don’t look like someone trying to kill a bunch of strangers. Intentionally exposing someone with preexisting conditions to a deadly disease and LYING about it every step of the way is clear indications of intentional malfeasance. People just don’t want to accept that POTUS & Co went that far because of the implications it has socially and politically.

  20. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @KM: I’m going to side with @Lounsbury: on this one. I doubt very much the thought ever entered trump’s tiny little feral rat brain. I suspect the only thing on trump’s mind was that he didn’t want to appear to be weak. The fact that it might endanger other’s is a concept very foreign to him. He never even thinks about others.

  21. CSK says:

    Trump not only doesn’t want to appear weak–and unmanly–he also wants to demonstrate what he’s been saying all along about the virus being no big deal.

    The Trumpkins are lauding him for overcoming the virus so handily (just like Superman!), which somewhat contradicts the message of the virus being no big deal, but as you yourself pointed out yesterday, when you’re a Trumpkin, you live with cognitive dissonance.

  22. Pylon says:

    Biden shocked me last night with his deep policy knowledge, handling of facts and historical issues and just his general sharpness. I underestimated him.

    He has a great pattern in town halls: Respectful acknowledgment of the question, cogent recitation of facts and the issues, empathy to the problem the questioner raises and his policy positions on it. With a few anecdotes and “my dad told me” schtick tossed in.

  23. inhumans99 says:

    One of these days Steven and James are going to reply to my posts that this is OTB, not Politico but I guess this post is a good as one to mention this in as any other on this great site.

    Politico had an article up yesterday or on Wed where one of the things they highlighted that is actually hurting Trump’s campaign to get re-elected is that in 2016 he ended up with a lot of earned media (or I forget what they called it) where he was not fact checked, the social media sites let him go berserk with his thoughts and comments, and he just received so much free media, but that is not the case in 2020.

    He gets fact checked, the social media sites are not amplifying his posts with wild abandon. The networks, including Fox, are willing to cut away from Trump’s “press conferences” if he rambles too much or strays too far from the reason why he called the conference in the first place.

    I think folks at the time said that Trump received the equivalent of hundreds of millions (at least) of free campaign media coverage that Clinton did not get. This time around the lack of media coverage has forced Trump’s campaign (and its surrogates such as the Koch org, Sheldon A, the Home Depot guy, etc.) to spend all the money it is taking in and them some to the point where Biden was running ads in Red States/swing states with no Trump ad’s as a counterbalance.

    It was weird to read stories talking about how the Trump campaign went dark in some key states due to a lack of money considering how much bragging Trump, the RNC, and other conservatives did regarding their vaunted fundraising machine. That machine has been chewed up and spit out by the amount of money Biden has raised in a fairly short period of time.

    It seems clear in hindsight that Trump was counting on a lot of free media coverage to make up for any money shortfalls in his campaign, which partially explains why he wants to do non-stop rallies between now and the election, of course it feeds his ego but he also desperately needs some of that free media coverage.

    That being said, he would have received more media coverage and more eyeballs watching him if he had not cancelled the virtual town hall debate, so who knows what is going through him mind right now.

    I think Eddie might be right yesterday when he boldly decided to roll his eyes that even some of the races we are being told are a horse race (Senate/House races) are not likely to break for the incumbent this year as it does feel like folks want to make some changes in D.C. and what better way to do that than to vote in new Congress critters.

  24. inhumans99 says:

    Sigh…wish there was an edit button. My last paragraph in the long post I just created makes it sound like I am saying Eddie is rolling his eyes that the incumbent has a real shot of victory when I meant to say he is disagreeing that the incumbent is a shoo-in if their poll numbers are neck and neck with their competitor.

  25. inhumans99 says:

    Ugh…my post to correct my post just made things worse (even though I think everyone gets the point I was trying to make). Going to step away from posting for a bit until my brain is fully awake this morning…lol.

  26. Kathy says:

    Shouldn’t we focus on what truly matters? Who had the highest ratings? Isn’t that what this was all about?

  27. Lounsbury says:


    The fact that it might endanger other’s is a concept very foreign to him. He never even thinks about others.

    Exactly – it is alien to Trump to think beyond his immediate needs and himself.

  28. Lounsbury says:


    Trump may not have meant to *kill* Biden but he and his certainly intended to infect as many people as possible and get them sick.

    Hysteric partisan over-reaction.
    Trump did not intend any such thing. He simply ignored the idea it was even possible. Such thoughts require Trump acknowledging the possibility of error, having even a whiff of a thought and concern that other human beings actually are to be thought of at all except in service to him.

    Trump does and did not aim to get people sick, the idea doesn’t occur to him.

  29. CSK says:

    Two good pieces in http://www.theatlantic.com:

    “Trump is Scared,” by Peter Nicholas
    “The Final Season of the Trump Show,” by David Frum

  30. Michael Reynolds says:

    It is all but impossible for normal people to understand a psychopath. Normal people have filters – morals, ethics, ideology, family, the respect of others, custom, precedent – that are engaged early in any decision-making process. Psychopaths see nothing but the bright clear line between where they are, and where they’d like to be. Those filters don’t exist for them. They’ve never downloaded those apps. There’s a simplicity to a psychopath, it’s all straight lines, the shortest distance between two points.

    So, no, Trump did not intend to kill anyone. He would have done so without the slightest hesitation if killing other people was useful, but in this case I don’t think the notion of ‘other people’ ever appeared on his radar. Why would it unless they were useful tools or frustrating impediments?

  31. Jen says:

    And, Biden won the ratings game–no small feat, considering Trump’s was run on three channels versus Biden’s on one.


  32. Lounsbury says:

    @Jen: That is brilliant and should be pushed in front of Trump’s nose, Lincoln adverts in DC air, poke him. This will certainly induce him to lash out and engage in more self-harm and stomping all over any kind of coherency. Plus it will be funny.

  33. Lounsbury says:

    @CSK: Very good indeed.

    For Trump, the supposed businessman, everything is a war, every question an attack, and every attack demands a counterpunch. Biden, the career politician, treated each encounter as a sale. When he was challenged—on fracking and the Green New Deal, for example—he did not counterpunch. He made a counteroffer.

    The supposed businessman is a nice touch.

  34. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Jen: I love this part:

    Joe Biden’s town hall on ABC averaged 13.9 million viewers on Thursday night, easily surpassing the Nielsen ratings for President Trump’s town hall on NBC. That alone was a result virtually no one in the TV business expected.

    I must be smarter than damn near every single person in the TV business because it is exactly what I was expecting. Think about it: For 4 years we have been stuck in this insane reality show with a gibbering idiot arsonist setting fire to everything in sight. Given the opportunity to inflict even more pain on themselves, a majority who cared to decided to turn on Mr Rogers instead.

  35. Lounsbury says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Well the US Activist Twitterati Left and the Political Twitterati Commentariat have been in agreement in grosso modo that Mr Biden is boring. No one wants, him. etc.
    So each, loving drama and conflict with the depth of instant attention span have misread the popular play by Biden. As one can expect the media managers to be falling largely in (or following those who follow such closely) the Twitteratiate of various flavours, they keep being surprised by Mr Biden.

  36. Mikey says:


    Well the US Activist Twitterati Left and the Political Twitterati Commentariat have been in agreement in grosso modo that Mr Biden is boring.

    He’s not, of course. I mean, he may seem boring next to Trump, in which case Biden’s exactly the sort of boring we need.

    What Biden actually is, is calm, straightforward, relatable, likable, intelligent–everything Trump is not.

  37. Lounsbury says:

    Quite, lest there be any doubt, I haven’t any respect for either of the Twitteratiate’s views in this area.

  38. CSK says:

    Assuming that Trump is going to lose the election (yes, yes, I know), I was musing on how crazily vindictive he’ll be between November 4, 2020 and January 20, 2021. He’s apparently denying funds to California for wildfire relief, which is entirely in keeping with his record of having only transactional relationships: Vote for me, and I’ll be nice to you. Don’t vote for me, and I’ll do everything I can to make your life miserable.

    He’ll be the ultimate loser. The country of which he was president repudiated him. I can see him lumbering around the White House in a psychotic rage, hurling invective at any unfortunate who crosses his path.

  39. CSK says:

    Edit function has returned, if you refresh the page multiple times.

  40. Michael Reynolds says:

    My favorite bit of Trumpian spite would be pardoning every white terrorist prisoner in federal custody. He can do it. No one can stop him.

  41. An Interested Party says:

    Meanwhile, Trump’s fluffers on Fox “News” are upset that anyone would dare to question their leader…these toadies and bootlickers are pathetic…

  42. CSK says:

    @Michael Reynolds:
    Here are some of the other things he could do in addition to pardoning terrorists–and crooks:
    1. Destroy documents, etc. that incriminate him.
    2. Have the Justice Dept. subpoena his critics on Trumped-up (ahem) charges.
    3. Push nonstop frivolous challenges to the election result.

    It’s too depressing to continue.

  43. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @CSK: 2. Have the Justice Dept. subpoena his critics on Trumped-up (ahem) charges.

    I doubt he could succeed in that. Why would anyone stick their neck out for a man who is the ultimate loser?

  44. CSK says:

    He did it to Michael Cohen. And the Justice Dept. is going after Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, who wrote a critical book about Melania.

  45. JohnSF says:

    Can I just say, my first glimpse of Joe Biden in the pic., I thought for a second it was Dr Manhattan?

  46. JohnSF says:

    I have a feeling that people are just more used to his shtick this time around.
    Instead of being astounded/dumbfounded/outraged by his performances, people just look at them more coldly, go “yep, crazeee and useless…” and move on.