By Marc Fisher, Christine Spolar and Amy B Wang,
Despite the unseemly fireworks, President Trump and Joe Biden did accomplish something in their first debate: They united a disparate group of undecided voters in the view that the country desperately needs leaders who will take America’s troubles more seriously.
Voters who declared themselves undecided in pre-debate interviews with The Washington Post emerged from Tuesday’s 90-minute schoolyard melee with some more clarity about their choice, but mainly with overwhelming sadness and disappointment over the candidates’ guttersnipe manners and unseemly language.
The televised faceoff served mainly to deepen these voters’ sense that Trump is temperamentally unfit to be president.
“Everyone I know, liberal or conservative, was disgusted,” said Erin Tollefsrud, a teacher in rural Minnesota who said before the debate that although she didn’t like Trump’s coarse rhetoric, she did appreciate his attention to rural America and his ability to “tell it like it is.”
“I would probably lean toward Biden now, but I wouldn’t be happy about it,” she said Wednesday morning as she prepared to teach her class via Zoom. “The vitriol from President Trump was unacceptable, so disrespectful. Apparently we don’t have candidates who can be grown-ups. My young son couldn’t watch past the first 10 minutes. I wish we could have the debate we need. I’m not less inclined to vote, just less excited about the choice we have to make.”
In battleground states such as Wisconsin, Minnesota and Pennsylvania, undecided voters said that although neither candidate made a coherent case for how he would pull the country out of its coronavirus and economic crises, Biden seemed more eager to address Americans’ deep political divisions.
Scott Williams, a junior at Concordia University in St. Paul, Minn., missed the first chunk of the debate because he was working, but on his drive home from his restaurant job, he pulled up the YouTube live stream on his smartphone and heard what he described as almost incoherent crosstalk between Trump and Biden.
“I feel like I’ve had better debates with friends who are drunk,” said Williams, 21, who got home and joined his girlfriend to watch on TV. He leans more conservative, and she’s more liberal, but neither was impressed, he said.
“It’s like watching two old guys argue about how they’re going to back their fishing boat into the lake,” he said. “But when you realize they’re two old guys running for the presidency . . .”
He trailed off and said he might look into third-party candidates. He still plans to watch the remaining debates, including the vice-presidential one next week, but has low expectations.
“I one-hundred percent agree Trump is an a–, but Biden was stumbling over himself,” Williams said. “I’m still very much undecided.”
Paul Jass, a chemist who lives near Milwaukee, also found the debate useless.
“It was really sad, a middle school squabble,” said Jass, who defines himself as a social liberal and fiscal conservative who used to be comfortable in the Republican Party. “I didn’t learn anything new. If anyone had any plans, they were so overtalked that we couldn’t hear them.”
Jass said Trump was clearly to blame for the ruckus: “Trump’s the instigator, that’s for sure,” he said. “But you have to hold your composure when someone’s going off like that, and Biden didn’t do that. Telling someone to shut up — you don’t do that.”
The president was evidently out to provoke Biden, Jass said. “It’s almost genius, but it’s evil genius,” he said. “Last night was supposed to be about the country, and instead it was about the two of them personally.”
Jass, who voted for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson in 2016 after casting his ballot for Republican John McCain in 2008 and Democrat Barack Obama in 2012, had hoped to hear a clear, science-based plan for restraining the spread of the novel coronavirus and restarting the economy. It didn’t happen.
He plans to watch the other debates but has little hope for a rational discussion of policy. “I’ll have to check their websites and read more articles,” he said.
Other undecided voters put the blame for Tuesday’s mess more squarely on Trump.
“Biden seemed like a much nicer person,” said one voter from Minnesota who asked not to be named after coming under attack on social media because the earlier Post article identified the person as undecided. “I still don’t know where I end up, and nothing they said changed my mind, but Trump’s bickering certainly reminded me that he’s really not suited for this job.”
In a rural community half an hour from Pittsburgh, Karen and Marlin Boltz, lifelong Republicans who voted for Trump in 2016, agreed that the debate was, as Marlin put it, “pretty much a fiasco.”
“What did we glean?” Marlin asked. “It’s like we’ve gone through a field after the combine has been through, and we are trying to find a kernel here and there.”
But although Karen, a retired church administrator, said the debate only “furthered my confusion,” her husband said the evening pushed him to cast his ballot for Biden.
“I’m definitely leaning toward Biden now,” he said. “If I had to vote today, that is who I would vote for.”
His wife still was unsure and wanted to gauge how the vice-presidential debate goes next week.
Trump was “rude,” Karen said. “I don’t think he has a plan. Trump is more ignorant than thoughtful. Interrupting and talking when it wasn’t his turn. That was very rude. But it seemed like Biden’s train of thought came off the rails when he was interrupted. Trump’s a buffoon, but it raised in the back of my mind if Biden is fit.”
“We need change,” Karen said. “But change is hard! Trump is a definite change, but not likely the right guy, or the right change. My head feels heavy.”
The couple watched the debate in two different rooms of their home, with Karen in the kitchen and Marlin in the family room. “We kept having a conversation back and forth — ‘You have to be kidding me,’ ” Marlin said.
The more she thought about what she’d seen, the more Karen began to think that the president was at fault for the evening’s bickering. “The longer I think about who is stirring the pot the most, it’s Trump,” she said. “I guess I’m starting to lean left!”
Marlin, who managed a precision manufacturing plant before his retirement this year, said he thought Trump was so aggressive as a tactical maneuver aimed at getting Biden to flail and stutter. But the president’s behavior backfired, at least for Marlin, who said he came away from the debate wanting Biden in the White House for the first time.
Both were unhappy that neither candidate got into any detail in spelling out their plans for the coming years, especially on health care. Karen wanted to hear exactly how Biden would strengthen the Affordable Care Act, and Marlin waited in vain to hear Trump say what Americans would get if the ACA were replaced.
They had hoped Trump would have a more forthright response to the New York Times report spelling out how little he paid in federal income taxes as recently as his first years in office.
“He danced around that,” Marlin said. “If you are the smallest guy on the rung, there is very little you can do to lessen your taxes. And the bigger you are, the more you can do. And that’s wrong.”
Several undecided voters said Trump’s failure to condemn white supremacists was a disturbing reminder of his tendency to offer neutral or supportive comments about nationalist extremists.
“Whenever he was asked to condemn the extreme right wing, he did not,” Marlin Boltz said. “‘Stand down and stand by?’ I don’t even know what that means. The right answer is, we should not have anything like that in the United States. If you are looking for someone to unite the county, Biden was head and shoulders above Trump.”