The first presidential debate: highlights and takeaways


Abby Jay

The second presidential debate on Oct. 22 between incumbent Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden covered a variety of topics in which both candidates discussed their policies and political agendas.

On Sept. 29, the first debate took place between presidential candidates incumbent Donald Trump representing the Republican Party and former Vice President Joe Biden of the Democratic Party. 

A general consensus by news sources nationwide agreed: this debate was one of the roughest yet. A tweet by ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos stated that the night’s debate “was the worst presidential debate I have ever seen in my life.”  

Here is a quick recap of the key points from the first presidential debate and what comes next for the candidates. While it may have been difficult at times for viewers to even watch, there were several important takeaways from the night.


Key Takeaways from the first debate

  1. Trump did not condemn white supremacy. On the topic of race relations, both Biden and moderator Chris Wallace asked Trump to verbally condemn white supremacists, including the group known as the Proud Boys.  Trump told the group to “stand back and stand by,” and changed the subject to antifa. 
  2. On the same topic, Biden’s role in the 1994 tough-on-crime bill was brought up. The bill has resulted in mass incarceration of minorities in the past two decades.  Biden asked voters to focus on his current, rather than past, actions. He agreed with the acknowledgement of systemic racism and the need for racial sensitivity training in law enforcement.
  3. Trump did not commit to accepting election results.  When asked about election integrity, Trump gave no clear answer on whether a result would be contested, advising his supporters to “watch out” at the polls. Biden replied to moderator Wallace’s question with a simple “Yes.”
  4. Trump also issued statements about fraudulent mail-in voting.  “If I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can’t go along with it,” the president said.  However, as Biden pointed out, Trump uses that very same method to send his ballot to Florida.  According to Ellen Weintraub, commissioner of the Federal Election Committee, “There’s simply no basis for the conspiracy theory that voting by mail causes fraud.”
  5. Candidates attacked each other over the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Biden criticized Trump for his handling of safety regulations and prevention of the spread of the virus. He noted that the U.S. death toll currently accounts for 20 percent of the deaths worldwide while the U.S. itself only accounts for 4 percent of the world’s population.  Trump combated the attacks by claiming that, “We’ve done a great job. But I tell you, Joe, you could never have done the job we’ve done. You don’t have it in your blood.”
  6. There is a clear divide on opinions of the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett.  In one of the hottest topics of the night, Wallace noted the differences between each candidate’s stance on the nominee. Trump claimed it to be within his constitutional rights to confirm the justice before November, arguing that, “I’m not elected for three years.”  Biden, who believes the confirmation should be postponed until the result of the election, responded by saying, “He’s elected until the next election…The election’s already started.”
  7. The number 750 has been in the news recently, reported by the New York Times as the amount in taxes paid by the President in 2016 and 2017.  Trump denied the validity of the statement, claiming to have paid “millions of dollars of income tax.” When Biden asked for proof of this, Trump stated that the release of his returns would be “soon.”  
  8. After 20 years of moderators avoiding the topic in debate, climate change received its own question.  Trump acknowledged that “to an extent” humans are to blame for the damage caused to the environment, but attacked Biden for his support of the Paris Agreement.  Biden stated that, if elected, he would have the nation transition to renewable resources, building the economy and creating jobs as a result. 


What comes next?

The president himself has tested positive for the virus since the presidential debate.  As a result of safety concerns, the Commission on Presidential Debates made the decision to cancel a second debate entirely after the president declined to join a virtual debate.  

Each candidate used the extra time to raise support for their campaign.  Biden held a town hall discussion on Oct. 15 in collaboration with ABC News while Trump organized various campaign rallies and spoke with conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh.  A second and final presidential debate will take place on Oct. 22.