Analysts and pundits are praising President Trump for turning in a more “restrained” performance at this year’s final presidential debate. Though it’s true the president presented a calmer façade, at least in comparison to his last, fractious appearance next to Joe Biden, that’s likely the result of the threat of a muted mic and skillful moderation from NBC’s Kristen Welker. The president may have shouted less, but when he spoke, he was exactly the same person he’s always been: self-focused and callous, obsessed with conspiracy theories and prone to lie. Do voters really want four more years of Trump’s act? We won’t know for a little while longer, but public opinion doesn’t favor him.
A focus group convened by Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg showed a decisive edge for Biden in the debate, who was rewarded for his empathy compared to Trump. Greenberg surveyed 150 voters from diverse backgrounds for live dial tests commissioned by the American Federation of Teachers. As usual, Greenberg and his team measured the attitudes of a diverse focus group before, during, and after the debate. “Looking at the pre- and post-results, I think that was actually a disastrous debate for Trump,” he told Intelligencer on Wednesday morning. Over 60 percent of his focus group gave Biden an A or B rating; Trump languished far behind, with the percentage of voters giving him the same A or B rating staying firmly in the 30s. Biden also increased his favorability rating twice as much as Trump did, Greenberg added.
Biden performed particularly well on measures testing his appeal to the middle class. “We have an eight point increase on improving things for the middle class,” Greenberg said, a result that builds on Biden’s previous strong postdebate performance on the same question. On the subject of health care, Biden gained five points on Trump, evidence that the president’s doom-mongering over “socialized medicine” didn’t persuade anyone who wasn’t already a Trump loyalist. To Greenberg, Biden’s strength on health care shows that “people are actually looking for change, help.”
What they seem to be looking for is empathy, which isn’t what Trump’s offering, said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, which commissioned this series of dial tests from Greenberg. The president remains dismissive toward COVID-19, and voters aren’t heartened by his fixation on reopening businesses and schools, no matter what. “Trump keeps saying, Oh, well, we have to learn to live with it, as more and more people are getting infected and more and more people are dying. Then he looks at teachers and basically says, You know, you just have to learn to live with it, too,” Weingarten said.
Trump’s recent attacks on Biden’s family only reinforce the perception that Trump’s attention isn’t actually where voters need it to be and that his cruelty is a significant problem, even for segments of the public that had once been more tolerant of his antics, according to Greenberg. “That was a really defining difference — between a president, who was focused on himself and trying to create an election around personal issues, and a Biden, who is focusing on the family,” Greenberg said.
When Biden appealed directly to families, and described the troubles he believed many were facing, the lines on live dial testing that shows the focus group’s real-time attitudes leapt up to a high of 70 — an indication of favorability. That rise was led by a group Greenberg calls the “rising American electorate,” which includes unmarried women and people of color, but also by white working-class women — a group Trump desperately needs to win. Voters responded strongly to hints that before them stood a candidate, Biden, who actually thought something about their material conditions. Trump’s comments on race in America were enormously unpopular, as were his comments defending the notorious separation of migrant families on the U.S. southern border. When Welker, the moderator, pointed out that at least 545 children have not been reunited with their deported parents because the Trump administration has no idea where their parents are, the line representing overall public opinion dropped into the 30s and low 40s and stayed there throughout Trump’s meandering answer that included how children were kept “in facilities that were so clean.”
The empathy of politicians is fickle, even when they, like Biden, possess real skill in projecting it to voters. Biden is simply the more believable actor, an advantage he might enjoy because he’s overall a more relatable figure. The electorate contains multitudes, and with Biden making inroads both with white suburbanites and white working-class men, the president’s base is shrinking precisely when he most needs its strength. Trump needed more than restraint to win back the voters he’s losing to Biden. He needed to be an entirely different person.