Dueling Town Halls: Donald Trump and Joe Biden Battle for America’s Attention

With just 18 nail-biting days left until Election Day, candidates for president incumbentDonald J Trumpand former Vice President Joe Biden

Donald Trump vs. Joe Biden

With just 18 nail-biting days left until Election Day, candidates for president incumbentDonald J Trumpand former Vice President Joe Biden are in a life-or-death battle over the fickle attention span of American voters. On Thursday, the pair took advantage of a canceled second debate to host Town Hall meetings to address their voters. But the Town Hall meetings were scheduled for the same time, and American voters had to choose who to watch: President Trump or former VP Biden. So who came away from the night the victor? The answer has surprised both campaigns. 

Trump’s Performance Is Concerning For His Campaign 

Unarguably, Donald Trump does best when he’s in his element in front of a crowd of supporters. In rallies and Town Halls over the past 5 years, Trump connects easily with his supporters and walks away with both a boost in ratings and a boost in self esteem. However, last night’s Town Hall turned into a different story. So what went wrong?

In two words: Savannah Guthrie. In the past, Trump has used his time in front of the camera and in front of live audiences to ramp up enthusiasm for his administration and for himself. Guthrie completely broke his stride. Grilling him and taking shots at his weakest points, the Town Hall host turned Trump’s performance into a condemnation of his own handling of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Trump’s camp is already claiming Guthrie was unfair, and rude to the president. As a moderator, Guthrie systematically took aim at everything the Trump administration struggles with from a PR standpoint; namely, the coronavirus pandemic and Trump’s taxes. At one point suggesting that Trump was behaving like, “someone’s crazy uncle,” Guthrie walked the line between pressing and rude. It was effective, though, and Trump revealed opinions voters are eager for a clear answer on, but his campaign manager would have probably preferred he keep quiet. 

Biden’s Performance Was Nothing Exciting

Joe Biden speaking passionately

By contrast to the raised voices and contentious exchanges between Guthrie and Trump, Biden’s Town Hall was peaceful. Host George Stephanopolous only had to press Biden once; when asking about the possibility of Democrats packing the court if Biden is elected. On this, Biden evaded the question, but promised to release a definitive answer before the election. In stark contrast with Trump’s unwillingness to answer several questions directly, Biden’s performance was mature, and full of policy discussion. 

In an echo of the sort of politicians Americans were used to watching pre-2016, Biden behaved with decorum. To Trump’s ranting and easily offended performance, Biden offered restraint and polite rejoinders. After he ran out of time, the former VP stayed late off-camera to answer the questions of those who didn’t have time to address their concerns during the televised portion. 

But if viewers were looking to be courted, Biden’s reserved performance fell short.

So Who Drew the Biggest Crowd?

The answer to this question surprised many. Heading into the night, Trump’s people predicted that he would walk away with a larger viewer count. This result would have been unsurprising, since Trump is well known for offering a spectacle to viewers. Whether at the top of his game, or in contentious exchanges, Trump often brings large audiences who just want to see how it all goes down. 

When Nielson released a report early Friday that Biden had in fact drawn a larger crowd of viewers, networks and campaign staffers were stunned. Not only did Trump’s Town Hall air across three networks to Biden’s one, but Biden’s public performances are often ignored because he generally offers a dependable and unexciting show. 

According to Nielson, around 13 million viewers tuned in to watch Trump and Guthrie. Biden, however, drew 13.9 million viewers. 

The one caveat to these numbers is that streaming viewers are not counted, this is simply broadcast television audiences.  

What Does This Translate to As Far As the Election Goes?

Donald Trump

Not a lot. Biden has been consistently leading in polls among likely voters by 10-12%, so despite the surprising results from the Town Hall viewership counts, it just reinforces the idea that Trump is headed into the final stretch as the underdog. The President has thrived in that role before, and at this point in the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton was still expected to win. An 11th-hour Hail Mary announcement by former FBI Director JamesComey to cover his legal bases mere days before voters went to the polls may have changed everything. 18 days seems like nothing, but it’s an eternity in the fast-past landscape of American politics. Anything could happen at this point.