Candidates face individual voters and a TV audience instead of each other in competing town hall broadcasts.
Nothing symbolizes the political divisiveness in America more than dueling town halls less than three weeks prior to a presidential election.
But for the first time in the country’s history that happened Thursday night.
The two major combatants in the upcoming presidential election gave Wisconsin voters a preview of their closing arguments in nationally televised forums Thursday night—a calm appeal for national unity from Democratic former Vice President Joe Biden, and a combative appeal rooted in economic issues from President Donald Trump.
“I was prepared to debate him remotely, but he said he wouldn’t do that,” former Vice President Joe Biden told ABC’s George Stephanapolous from a town hall meeting in Philadelphia.
Some 1,200 miles away, Trump answered questions from voters in Miami at a separate town hall hosted by NBC’s Savannah Guthrie.
The road to a night of dueling debates began with the Commission on Presidential Debates announcing after Trump tested positive for COVID-19 that the town hall originally scheduled for Thursday night between Biden and Trump would instead be virtual. Trump then said he would not participate.
Trump bailing out on the virtual debate left Biden free to participate in his own. NBC then made a last-minute announcement Wednesday that it would be hosting a town hall with Trump at the same time as Biden’s.
With less than 20 days before the Nov. 3 election and roughly 18 million Americans having already cast their ballots, both men were peppered with questions from supporters and undecided voters.
Perhaps the most newsworthy answers of the night came from Biden admitting his support for the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Law Enforcement Act was a mistake and saying he will give an answer on increasing the number of US Supreme Court justices prior to the election.
Biden said again Thursday that he’s “not a fan” of so-called court packing but would make his position known to voters “depending on how they handle this,” referring to whether Republicans confirm Trump’s third justice to the country’s highest court, Amy Coney Barrett.
“They do have a right to know where I’ll stand and they’ll have a right to know where I stand before they vote,” Biden said.
For his part, Trump continued to defend his inability to release his tax records, and admitted he does owe more than $400 million to yet-unspecified lenders, although he claimed the amount “is peanuts” compared to his net worth.
“What I’m saying is that it’s a tiny percentage of my net worth,” Trump said.
Trump announced Oct. 2 he was COVID-19 positive. He was subsequently hospitalized, then released three days later. Like Biden, he was socially distanced from the host. Neither man wore masks, presumably due to the distance between themselves and audience members.
Yet Trump sends mixed messages on mask wearing
During his Town Hall on Thursday evening, Pres. Donald Trump was asked by moderator Savannah Guthrie about his rallies, where masks are not required and mask wearing is sporadic among the crowds. Trump stated that he supports mask wearing but hedged those comments saying that, “People with masks get it all the time.”
The President reiterated an incorrect interpretation of a Center for Disease Control study claiming 85% of mask wearers contracted COVID-19.
What the study actually found was that out of an extremely small group of individuals who had contracted the virus, 85% of them said that they had worn a mask often or always when they contracted the virus, but they also reported having engaged in activities such as shopping or eating in restaurants which increased their odds of catching the virus.
The president is scheduled to attend a rally and fundraiser in Janesville on Saturday despite the record-breaking spike in COVID cases in Rock County. When pressed by Guthrie on why he doesn’t implement and enforce a mask rule at his events he responded, “I’m the President, I have to see people.”
“As president I can’t be locked in a room someplace and do nothing,” he said.
Later on, after a member of the studio audience asked if his experience with COVID-19 has changed his perspective, Trump stated that he, “was okay with masks.”
“I say wear the mask. We’re on the same side,” he told Guthrie when pressed again about the lack of masks at his rallies. “I say wear the mask. I’m fine with it.”
When asked why undecided voters should choose him, Trump said, “Because I’ve done a great job.”
“The economy is strong, we’re at a level with jobs like we’ve never been before… we’ve rebuilt so much, we’ve given you the greatest tax cut in the history of our country,” Trump said. “Next year is going to be better than ever before.”
Biden is calling for a $400 billion increase in government purchases of American goods and services over four years, plus an additional $300 billion in new research and development spending in technology such as electric vehicles, artificial intelligence, and 5G cellular networks.
The president’s claims were based on the frequently cherry-picked statistics he and Vice President Mike Pence use to equate a good economy with stock market gains, tax cuts for the wealthy, and restoring only a portion of the jobs lost to the pandemic. Wisconsin’s economic recovery in cities and rural areas remains a work in progress.
Biden’s economic platform includes a $400 billion increase in government purchases of American goods and services over four years, plus an additional $300 billion in new research and development spending in technology such as electric vehicles, artificial intelligence, and 5G cellular networks. He would also reverse some of Trump’s tax cuts for corporations and raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans.
Biden said undecided voters have a chance to put aside divisiveness by casting their vote for him, adding he hopes the country is not as racially and ethnically divided as Trump “would like us to think.”
“We have to heal this nation,” Biden said. “That’s what presidents do.”
Biden and Trump are scheduled to meet next Thursday for their final debate prior to Election Day.
Christina Lieffring contributed to this report.