Republican President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, squared off for two nationally televised debates beginning Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020. Current Republican Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris had their one and only debate on Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020.
The Associated Press called the 2020 presidential election for Joe Biden on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020, which made him the de facto president-elect. The deadline for all state-level legal disputes and recounts to be resolved was Dec. 8, 2020. The electors of the Electoral College cast their votes on Dec. 14, 2020, and Congress counted and certified those votes on Jan. 7, 2021, making Biden the formal president-elect. He will be inaugurated as president on Jan. 20, 2021.
The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), sponsor of all presidential and vice presidential debates since 1987, said the debates will be moderated by a single individual and will run from 9 to 10:30 p.m. Eastern time (ET) without commercial breaks.
Each moderator will select questions for their debate, and those questions will not be known by the CPD or the candidates ahead of time. Moderators can extend segments and control them so each candidate has equal speaking time. The moderator is tasked with regulating conversation so “thoughtful and substantive exchanges occur.”
Below is a rundown of the basic details for each debate. See our recap of the highlights of each debate farther below.
|Presidential Debate Schedule|
|First Presidential||Tuesday, Sept. 29||Chris Wallace||Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic, Cleveland|
|Vice Presidential||Wednesday, Oct. 7||Susan Page||The University of Utah, Salt Lake City|
|Second Presidential||CANCELED||Steve Scully||Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Miami|
|Third Presidential||Thursday, Oct. 22||Kristen Welker||Belmont University, Nashville, Tenn.|
On Oct. 2, six days before the vice presidential debate, the White House announced that President Donald Trump had tested positive for COVID-19 as Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden tested negative. Both candidates are in their 70s and more vulnerable to the virus. The news intensified voters’ focus on the Oct. 7 vice presidential debate, where they got a chance to measure the leadership abilities of the two relatively younger candidates for vice president: Republican Mike Pence and Democrat Kamala Harris.
First Presidential Debate
The first presidential debate proceeded for 90 minutes without commercial interruptions. Commercials were the only type of interruptions not prominently featured throughout the evening. The debate on Sept. 29, 2020, was meant to be a discussion of six preannounced topics: “The Trump and Biden Records,” “The Supreme Court,” “COVID-19,” “The Economy,” “Race and Violence in our Cities,” and “The Integrity of the Election.” While these topics were introduced, little in the way of concrete policy was mentioned as Trump and Biden furiously chimed in with near-constant interruptions.
Moderator Chris Wallace struggled to keep the candidates on topic and following the rules throughout the debate. Wallace had to remind Trump multiple times that his campaign had agreed that both candidates would get two minutes of uninterrupted speaking at the beginning of each topic, and at one point became so exasperated by both candidates interrupting that he exclaimed: “Gentlemen, I hate to raise my voice, but ... why should I be different than the two of you?” Wallace even lapsed into sarcasm at one point, saying to Trump, “You know, sir, if you want to switch seats, we could very quickly can [sic] do that.”
While very little specific policy was proposed, the topics of the debate were addressed in broad strokes.
- Supreme Court: Biden argued that the 2020 voters should decide who should fill the Supreme Court seat left vacant by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, while Trump said the 2016 election voters had already decided.
- COVID-19: Biden said Trump had done a terrible and disorganized job handling the pandemic. Trump disagreed and said things would have been far worse under Biden.
- Economy: Wallace asked if the economy would have a V-shaped recovery or a K-shaped one. Trump argued that the economy has bounced back nicely and will continue to do so, while Biden argued that was not the case.
- Race and Violence in our Cities: Trump believes he has united people and that the increase in crime in a number of cities throughout the U.S. is a result of the policies of Democratic mayors. Wallace pointed out that this increase happened even in cities with Republican mayors. Biden said that while he emphatically does not support defunding the police, he thinks the solution to crime and racial strife is community policing.
- The Trump and Biden Records: Biden touted his plan to create jobs through investment in alternative energy. Trump said he was lying and that Biden was promoting the Green New Deal. Biden countered by saying he did not support it.
- Election Integrity: Biden encouraged people to vote and said that voting matters, while Trump alleged that there is widespread voter fraud through voting by mail without presenting proof. When asked if they will accept the election result, Biden said yes, while Trump did not give a definitive answer.
Vice Presidential Debate
Vice President Mike Pence and vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris clashed on Oct. 7, 2020, over Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the management of the U.S. economy, taxes, race relations, and the Supreme Court. The debate, moderated by Susan Page of USA Today, was civil compared to the chaos of the first presidential debate, but it still was marked by scathing attacks from each candidate. The mood was lightened when an errant fly landed on Pence’s head and sat there for the first minutes. Here are the highlights.
- Coronavirus Pandemic: Harris called the management of the pandemic the greatest failure of any presidential administration in American history. She recounted COVID-19 statistics showing 210,000 Americans dead and millions infected. She outlined the pandemic’s economic fallout, and the fact that Trump knew about the potential severity of the disease and “didn’t tell you.” Pence defended the president’s initial pandemic responses, including: suspending all travel to and from China, and using federal authority to accelerate the production of medical equipment and research to fight the virus. He said there will be a vaccine by year’s end.
- Economy: Pence credited Trump with cutting taxes and regulations to reignite an economy suffering from the weakest growth since the Great Depression. He said the economy today is poised for a rapid, V-shaped recovery. Pence claimed Biden will hike taxes if elected. Harris reiterated Biden’s public statements that he would not raise taxes on anyone making less than $400,000 a year. Harris criticized Trump’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, saying it gave major tax cuts (totaling $1.5 trillion) largely to wealthy Americans. She argued that the economy under Trump was benefiting from the rebound engineered during the Obama administration. She outlined several Biden proposals for renewable energy, infrastructure, and college education that would grow the economy.
- Supreme Court: Pence defended the right of Trump to select the next Supreme Court justice so close to the presidential election, while Harris said the Supreme Court choice should be decided by the next, newly elected president.
- China/Foreign Policy: Pence blamed the coronavirus pandemic on China and the World Health Organization, saying, “We will hold China accountable for the coronavirus.” Pence said Trump’s trade war is crucial to cut the trade deficit and that electing Biden would be surrendering to China. Harris argued that the trade war had led to the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs. In foreign policy, she said that Biden would collaborate with our allies, instead of betraying our “friends” and embracing dictators as she said Trump has done.
- Racism: Harris said Breonna Taylor, a Black medical worker who was shot and killed by police in her home in Louisville, Ky., did not receive justice in a grand jury’s recent decision. Harris said she supported peaceful protests for police reform and racial justice, and she proposed broad bias training for police officers. Pence defended the grand jury in the Taylor case and condemned riots and looting in the U.S. in recent months.
- Presidential Health and Succession: Though the vice president is first in line of succession if a president dies, neither Pence nor Harris would answer the moderator’s question about whether they have talked to their running mates about plans if they die or are unable to perform their duties.
Second Scheduled Presidential Debate
The second presidential debate was scheduled to be held on Oct. 15, 2020, in the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, but it was canceled after it had been changed to a virtual event.
Trump said he would not participate in a virtual event. Biden’s campaign said it would be available. Biden scheduled a town hall meeting that was broadcast on ABC News on Oct. 15, 2020, at 8 p.m. EDT. NBC News hosted a town hall event with Trump at the same time on the same day.
Final Presidential Debate
The second and final presidential debate on Oct. 22, 2020, was a stark contrast to the first, thanks in part to the addition of a mute button designed to prevent interruptions. The result was a more subdued and substantive exchange between the candidates.
Topics presented by moderator Kristen Welker of NBC News included COVID-19, National Security, American Families and the Economy, Immigration, Race in America, Climate Change, and Leadership.
In sharp contrast to the first debate, the candidates largely stayed on topic, with the exception being long digressions by Trump concerning a conspiracy theory about Biden’s son, Hunter. Whether the debate will matter is an open question since at the time of the debate, 50 million voters had already cast their ballots.
Fighting COVID-19: Trump, noting his recent recovery from the virus as a positive sign, praised his administration’s response to the pandemic. He also said that further lockdowns to prevent the spread of COVID-19 would cause more damage than the pandemic, saying, “We can’t close up our nation or you’re not going to have a nation.” He incorrectly claimed that the pandemic was “going away.” The number of new COVID-19 cases is rising, not falling.
Biden said the president had no national strategy for dealing with the pandemic and had misled Americans about the danger of COVID-19. Biden then incorrectly stated that COVID-19 infection rates are predominantly rising in red states. Rates of COVID-19 infection are rising in most states, both Republican- and Democrat-run. “Anyone who’s responsible for that many deaths should not remain as president of the United States of America,” Biden said. Biden also said that preventing COVID-19 deaths and helping the economy recover were not a tradeoff, and that businesses and schools could reopen and the spread of the virus could be halted given enough resources.
National Security: Regarding foreign interference in U.S. elections, Biden said, “I made it clear that any country, no matter who it is, that interferes in American elections will pay a price.” Trump continuously raised a conspiracy theory alleging that Biden enriched himself through corruption in Russia and China. A report by Senate Republicans released in late September found that there was no evidence to substantiate any allegations of improper conduct by Biden. Trump then said that he had convinced North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) nations to pay more to “guard against Russia.”
Biden responded by saying, “I have not taken a penny from any foreign source ever in my life,” then accused Trump of embracing “guys like the thugs like in North Korea.” Trump defended his attempts to deal with North Korea by saying it was important to have a good relationship with leaders of other countries. Biden retorted by saying, “We had a good relationship with Hitler before he in fact invaded Europe, the rest of Europe.” He also said he would meet with Kim Jong Un only on the condition that North Korea draw down its nuclear arsenal.
American Families and the Economy: Trump, noting that he had gotten rid of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) individual mandate, said the ACA was “no good” and that he would replace it with a much better plan. He declined to give details on what this plan was. He incorrectly said that Biden proposed ending private health insurance and implementing single-payer healthcare.
Biden said that his plan would offer people the option to have public health insurance, not replace private insurance as under the Medicare for All plan. He promised that nobody would lose private insurance under his healthcare plan, which he called Bidencare.
Each candidate accused the other’s party of being the one that was holding up further stimulus and relief.
Biden argued that raising the minimum wage would not hurt small businesses and would be helpful to the economy. Trump said that the minimum wage ought to vary more on a state-by-state basis and that raising it on a federal level would hurt small businesses.
Immigration: On immigration, Biden acknowledged that the Obama-Biden administration had been unable to pass immigration reform. Trump was asked what he would do to reunite 545 children whose parents cannot be located after his administration separated them under his now-reversed zero-tolerance policy. Trump said that his administration was trying “very hard” to find those parents. Biden called the situation “criminal.”
Trump pointed out that the Obama administration had also used detention facilities with cages. Biden said that in his first 100 days as president, he would send a bill to Congress that would grant a pathway to citizenship for the “Dreamers” and recertify the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
Race in America: Biden discussed “the talk” that Black parents have with their children about relationships with police and other authorities, saying not enough progress had been made on combating racism. He then accused Trump of making racism in the U.S. worse. Trump said the former vice president had 47 years to make substantive policy changes to address racism and never did, adding that the 1994 crime bill did great harm to the Black community.
Biden said that the crime bills he had supported in the past were mistakes, that mandatory minimum sentences should be eliminated, and that drug addiction should be treated with rehabilitation rather than jail time.
Citing the First Step Act, a criminal justice reform law passed during his term, Trump claimed that “Nobody has done more for the Black community than Donald Trump”—adding the caveat “with the exception of Abraham Lincoln.”
Climate Change: Trump incorrectly claimed that Biden had said he was going to ban fracking. Biden had previously advocated banning fracking on federal land, and restated that position during the debate. Biden also stated his support for natural gas as a transitional fuel source. At one point, Biden said he planned to transition from oil to renewable energy. Trump seized on that moment, saying, “Will you remember that, Texas? Will you remember that, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma?”
Trump again said that Biden supports the Green New Deal, which Trump said would cost $100 trillion. Biden said that was incorrect and that he has his own environmental plan, which differs substantially from the Green New Deal.
Leadership: Responding to a question about how he would address America following his inauguration, Trump said, “We have to make our country totally successful, as it was prior to the plague coming in from China. Now we’re rebuilding it and we’re doing record numbers, 11.4 million jobs in a short period of time.” He then discussed how he felt he had the ability to bring America together based on the fact that before the pandemic, “I was getting calls from people that were not normally people that would call me. They wanted to get together.”
Biden’s response to the same question was, “I’m the American president. I represent all of you whether you voted for me or against me. And I’m going to make sure that you’re represented. I’m going to give you hope. We’re going to move. We’re going to choose science over fiction. We’re going to choose hope over fear. We’re going to choose to move forward because we have enormous opportunities, enormous opportunities to make things better.”
Commission on Presidential Debates. “CPD Announces 2020 Debate Moderators.”
Daily Mail. “Read the full transcript and watch the whole debate.”
Rev. “Kamala Harris & Mike Pence 2020 Vice Presidential Debate Transcript.”
USA Today. “Debate transcript: Trump, Biden final presidential debate moderated by Kristen Welker.”
U.S. Elections Project. “2020 General Election Early Vote Statistics.”
The New York Times. “Coronavirus in the U.S.: Latest Map and Case Count.”
The New York Times. “Fact-Checking the Final Presidential Debate.”
The New York Times. “Republican Inquiry Finds No Evidence of Wrongdoing by Biden.”