Chris Bradshaw


Chaotic, wild, bitter. Just some of the terms used to describe the first presidential debate; a debate that was anything but presidential.  The BBC’s Anthony Zurcher described it as the ‘political equivalent of a food fight.’ CNN’s Wolf Bliltzer suggested that the remaining debates might not go ahead. Now the president has tested positive for COVID, throwing the second debate on 15 October in Miami into doubt. The Commission on Presidential Debates is reviewing the format for next time, with one suggestion that a muting button might be used in future to silence the interruptions. As the polls continue to show him trailing, expect President Trump to be as combative as ever.

Most observers reckon that Biden won Tuesday night's brawl, however, it's worth pointing out that Clinton was widely viewed as 'winning' the debates in 2016, to little effect in the electoral college.

Donald Trump was aggressive, evasive, and interrupted Biden 73 times; still, Biden scored on the president’s response to COVID, the Supreme Court and white supremacists, a group Trump refused to condemn. Biden eventually shouted, ‘Would you shut up, man?’ but the bickering continued. It was a far cry from the Kennedy – Nixon debates and the media mastery of Ronald Reagan. These debates were formal and polite, and the moderators carried more authority than Chris Wallace could muster this week. The candidates back then played by the rules and did not talk over each other. In contrast, Trump flouted the rules, both in 2016 and in the debate with Biden.

But what does the debate tell us about American democracy and the prospects for this year’s election?

I tend to agree with most analysts that the debate itself means very little.  As few as 10% of the electorate are undecided, and over one million have already voted. Both candidates avoided a major gaffe, a victory for Biden and the rancour will not have served to enlighten any voters regarding potential policies. Traditionally the later debates attract lower audiences and even less watch the VP debate which is next up.

Amid all the clamour, one Trump exchange with moderator Chris Wallace went almost unnoticed. The president again refused to say that he will accept the election result and urged his supporters to ‘watch very carefully’ at the polls. This threatens to extend the election results period, shorten the transition (if there is one) and bring the Supreme Court into play – a court that will likely have three Trump nominees by election day.

The debates may have little effect on this most extraordinary of presidential races, but there is much to play for in the last 30 days. Trump is 6-8% behind in the national polls, albeit these polls are mostly indicative in an Electoral College system.

In the battleground states, Biden leads in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, but trails in both Carolinas. Iowa and Arizona and Florida are too close to call with most pollsters have Biden at around 70% to win. About the same figure as Clinton enjoyed in October 2016, so there is the usual word of caution about polls and in predicting anything to do with Donald Trump.

Down ballot, the contest for the House seems to be trending for the Democrats but the Senate, where the Democrats need a net gain of four seats, presents a far closer contest. There are ten seats where the Democrats might take a GOP seat, but they will also most likely lose one in Alabama.

The Republicans are defending 23 seats in this cycle and are under pressure in Maine, Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Montana, and North Carolina. In South Carolina Lindsey Graham, Trump critic turned supporter, is in big trouble against Jaime Harrison, with the latest poll showing a statistical tie.

If the Senate is tied, then the Vice president – Pence or Harris - has the casting vote. So, with four weeks to go, the full range of results is still possible. Democrats could control Senate, House and the presidency, or the Republicans could cling on to either the Senate or the White House, or maybe even both. Only one prediction from me – there will be more twists and turns and the usual ‘October surprise’ before voting ends on 3 November.


Author biography

Dr Chris Bradshaw is a Lecturer in Politics at the University of the West of Scotland and is a member of the Political Studies Association. He tweets at @Chrisbrads10. Image credit: White House/Flickr