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A clear winner emerged from the final presidential debate on Thursday night, and it wasn’t either candidate.
This time, voters notched a win: In a far calmer debate than the first slugfest that left moderator Chris Wallace pleading for control, the candidates gave each other verbal breathing room and offered voters more glimpses of actual policy.
A few things helped.
Moderator Kristen Welker of NBC News delivered a crisp and confident performance, asking clear questions and mostly keeping candidates on-topic.
Also helpful: While each candidate delivered an opening statement on each subject of the evening, debate officials muted the opponent’s microphone. It was a drastic move designed to keep the candidates from interrupting each other and from rendering the debate unwatchable.
But President Donald Trump also muted himself: After Democratic opponent Joe Biden’s national poll numbers shot up in the wake of the first chaotic debate, Trump put the brake on interrupting his opponent and hit the gas on trying to land a message.
Two topics particularly rose to the surface over the course of the evening: Coronavirus and character.
On the coronavirus: Biden assailed Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and warned Americans they face “a dark winter” in battling the virus. Trump countered: If Americans elect Biden, he’ll close down the country.
Both stark messages offered competing visions. Biden’s “dark winter” sounded unavoidable, even if the candidate is elected. But it may resonate with Americans worried about a viral resurgence, and with voters particularly isolated by the disease’s threats.
Trump’s “open for business” could worry some voters concerned public officials are moving too fast, but it may resonate with Americans wearied by months of shutdowns and worried they can’t sustain another year of shuttered schools and stymied businesses.
On character, Biden derided Trump as a divisive and toxic leader. He appealed to what he framed as a return to civility under a Biden administration. Trump pushed back by questioning Biden’s character: The president emphasized corruption allegations against his opponent’s son, Hunter Biden, and raised questions about the Democratic nominee’s connections to the murky entanglement.
Biden leveled charges of racism against Trump, and the president responded with a hyperbolic claim: “I am the least racist person in this room.”
Trump listed policies that have benefited some African Americans, and he dinged Biden on a 1994 crime bill that led to the incarcerations of thousands of black men on drug charges. Biden has called portions of that bill a mistake and said he favors rehab instead of jail time for many drug offenders.
The candidates ticked through other topics—healthcare, immigration, climate change—while a bigger question hung over the evening: Less than two weeks before the Nov. 3 election, would the discussion sway voters? Polls report that a vast majority of voters have already made up their minds. Indeed, some 40 million Americans have already voted.
A calmer debate may have come too late to persuade a sizable chunk of Americans to pull a different lever—or to check a different box—than what they already decided weeks ago.
But in a contest that could hinge on voter turnout, the candidates’ highest goal in the waning days of a long campaign seems less rooted in moving undecided voters to make a different decision, and more steeped in motivating their supporters to make a move to the polls.