For President Trump, the measure of success in last night’s debate was clear: He needed a big win.
This final matchup of the 2020 election season was his biggest remaining opportunity to substantially change the dynamics of a race that’s been slipping away from him for weeks — if not months.
But instead of getting a debate victory, Mr. Trump fought Joe Biden to a draw, and that’s not what the president needed.
There were some improvements over his previous debate performance: Following the advice of his aides, Mr. Trump focused his attention on attacking Mr. Biden, and restraining his emotional outbursts and frustrations with the moderator.
While many of his arguments were littered with false and unsubstantiated claims, he drove a consistent message against Mr. Biden, casting him as a career politician who’s been ineffectual during his decades in Washington — “all talk and no action.”
And Mr. Trump delivered red meat to his conservative base, alleging that the former vice president used his position to enrich his family — an unsubstantiated argument peddled by Rudy Giuliani and other Trump allies.
But amid all the attacks, Mr. Trump presented no clear vision to a country in the midst of a national crisis, failing to explain how he would use a second term.
Mr. Trump is no longer a political outsider able to blame the Washington establishment for the country’s failings. Yet, he seemed to dismiss the more than 222,000 people killed by the coronavirus pandemic in the United States and the plight of hundreds of children separated from their parents at the southern border.
For his part, Mr. Biden remained unfazed by the assault. He accused the president of trafficking in Russian disinformation and challenged him to release his taxes.
Even with mute buttons and social distancing, the debate ended up being a strikingly normal political event in a very strange election year. Neither man performed in a way that would automatically disqualify him among his supporters or undecided voters.
For some viewers, the debate brought back memories of 2016. Four years ago, Mr. Trump entered the final debate trailing in the polls and needing a big victory. He stuck with a more measured tone, attacked Hillary Clinton as a political insider and had his best performance of that campaign.
Then, Mr. Trump trailed Mrs. Clinton by about six points, according to polling averages. Mr. Biden now leads by around nine points nationally, and he’s made notable inroads into key parts of the president’s coalition.
Much of Mr. Biden’s strength stems from the low marks voters have given the president on the defining issue of the campaign — the coronavirus pandemic. Last night, Mr. Trump still did not have any good answers for how he would manage the spread of virus.
As he has for months, the president tried to downplay the severity of the pandemic, arguing that the virus is easing its grip on the country even as the number of new infections hit the highest point in months. The claim flouts not only current reality but also what most voters expect for the future.
Recent polling by The New York Times and Siena College found that just over half of likely voters believed that the worst of the pandemic was yet to come, compared with 37 percent who said the worst was over.
“Anyone who’s responsible for that many deaths should not remain as president of the United States of America,” Mr. Biden said.
In a particularly unpredictable election season, a Biden win is not a forgone conclusion, as my colleague Adam Nagourney detailed in the paper yesterday. But a draw in the final debate may not be enough to sharply turn the race away from him.
When the debate began, more than 48 million Americans had already voted. For Mr. Trump to win this race, he must energize a “red wave” in the final days of this contest that could overtake the Democrats’ early voting advantage. That either means turning out a sizable number of new voters or persuading a decent slice of Americans to change their opinion and back the president.
Mr. Trump may have gotten his best performance of the campaign last night, but it’s not clear that it will be enough to get him what he needs.
More debate coverage
Here’s the assessment from our recap article from the front page of the newspaper: “If the tenor of Thursday’s forum was more sedate, the conflict in matters of substance and vision could not have been more dramatic.”
Our news analysis notes that Mr. Trump “succeeded at various points in acting like the type of person he claims to disdain: a typical politician in a debate.”
The debate moderator, Kristen Welker, managed to restore order to a quadrennial institution that some believed could not be tamed, our media reporter writes.
A team of New York Times reporters fact-checked Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden, providing context and explanation for more than three dozen claims.
Win, lose or draw — what did the analysts, strategists and other observers think? Here’s a roundup of reaction from across the political spectrum.
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From Opinion: The president gives up on his party, and his party gives up on him
President Trump and the Republican Party are giving up. So argue the Times columnists Ross Douthat and Charles Blow.
“What we’re watching is an incumbent doing everything in his power to run up his own margin of defeat,” says Mr. Douthat.
“Trump isn’t even trying to make a case for a second term,” writes Mr. Blow. “He isn’t laying out a vision and a plan.”
So what is he doing? Mr. Douthat contends that “he’s making a closing ‘argument’ that’s indistinguishable from a sales pitch for a TV show or a newsletter — suggesting that even more than four years ago, the president assumes he’ll be in the media business as soon as the election returns come in.”
As Mr. Blow points out, Mr. Trump has been driven in recent weeks to speculate what he might do in the event of a loss. “Could you imagine if I lose?” he said at a recent rally. “My whole life, what am I going to do? I’m going to say I lost to the worst candidate in the history of politics. I’m not going to feel so good. Maybe I’ll have to leave the country. I don’t know.”
For Republicans in the House and Senate, frustration abounds. The president’s erratic messaging during a pandemic and a period of economic instability leaves Republican senators up for re-election in a bind. That’s especially true for Senator Susan Collins of Maine, a Republican whom Mr. Trump seems to be actively campaigning against.
Some Republicans are simply tired of the president and his antics. The Times columnist Gail Collins notes in The Conversation with Bret Stephens that Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska accused Mr. Trump of “screwing up the coronavirus crisis, cozying up to dictators and white supremacists and drawing the water for a ‘Republican blood bath.’”
That’s “too little, too late, in my view, though it’s always nice to hear what Republicans really think of their favorite president,” Mr. Stephens says.
— Adam Rubenstein
Listen to ‘The Daily’: Sudden Civility: The Final Presidential Debate
At the start of last night’s debate its moderator, Kristen Welker of NBC News, delivered a polite but firm instruction: The matchup should not be a repeat of the chaos of last month’s debate.
It was a calmer affair and, for the first few segments, a more structured and linear exchange of views.
President Trump, whose interruptions came to define the first debate, was more restrained, seemingly heeding advice that keeping to the rules of the debate would render his message more effective. And while there were no breakthrough moments for Joe Biden, he managed to make more of a case for himself than he did last month, on issues such as the coronavirus and economic support for families and businesses in distress.
On “The Daily,” Alexander Burns, a national political correspondent for The Times, recaps the night’s events.
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