SALT LAKE CITY — President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden met on the debate stage for the second and final time Thursday night in Nashville for an opportunity to make a final pitch to Americans before Election Day arrives in less than two weeks.
The first debate was characterized by interruption and frustration, but the second was able to proceed much more civilly despite fiery moments from both candidates. Some of that might have been because the candidates' microphones were muted while their opponent gave their initial two-minute question response, but it also seemed like both men were making an effort to interrupt less often.
This allowed moderator Kristen Welker of NBC News to dive deeper into questions about the COVID-19 pandemic, race in America, climate change and the economy. Here are four takeaways observed from the final presidential debate that Utahns can use to inform their vote, if they haven't returned their ballot already.
Battling a resurgent pandemic
As Utahns well know, the coronavirus pandemic isn't going anywhere; in fact, in places like Utah, the case numbers are worse than ever. So that's where Welker began the debate, first asking Trump and then Biden how they will handle the "next stage" of the pandemic in America.
The candidates didn't cover much new territory during their back-and-forth, though. Trump defended his administration's virus response, including the decision in late January to impose travel restrictions on China to avoid even greater loss of life. He said a coronavirus vaccine could be approved "within weeks."
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said Wednesday that a vaccine may be available to vulnerable populations by the end of the year and to most Americans by spring 2021. Trump expressed confidence that the military would expedite the logistics of vaccine distribution even faster than experts predict.
For his part, Biden said anyone "responsible for that many deaths" — the coronavirus is estimated to have killed about 223,000 Americans so far — "should not remain as president of the United States of America."
"We're about to go into a dark winter," Biden said, accusing Trump of having "no clear plan" with "no prospect that there's going to be a vaccine available for the majority of the American people before the middle of next year."
Trump and Biden wrangled over the balance between safety and prosperity. Trump characterized Biden's safety plans as too rigid for struggling small businesses; Biden said the country "ought to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time," finding a way to stay open and stay safe.
Will there be another stimulus?
Congress passed a massive, $2.2 trillion coronavirus aid bill in March that, among other things, provided checks to millions of Americans at a time the government was asking them to stay home from work. But the House, Senate and White House have been unable to reach an agreement on a second relief package since negotiations began over the summer.
There has been some recent optimism that a deal could be reached before the election, but prospects fade with each passing day.
Trump said Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi doesn't want to approve a bill that might benefit him politically. "We are ready, willing and able to do something," Trump said. Biden countered that the Republican Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, says he can't get the bill approved in his chamber, either. "If we made a deal, the Republicans would pass it," Trump responded over a Welker follow-up question.
Biden pointed out the House Democrats' plan, the so-called Heroes Act, has existed since May. But regardless, the exchange of blame didn't seem to bode well for the prospects of an agreement before Nov. 3.
Competing visions for American health care
Health care cost and accessibility were determined to be the No. 1 most important issue for Utah voters in an August 2020 report from the Utah Foundation. During Thursday's debate, Trump defended his health care record while Biden laid out a plan to "expand" the Affordable Care Act and rebuffed claims that his ideas are a stepping-stone on the road to a single-payer system.
"What I'm going to do is pass Obamacare with a public option," Biden said, creating "Bidencare." The public option would be only for Americans who qualify for Medicaid but don't have the "wherewithal," as Biden put it, to receive Medicaid in their state.
As he did in the first debate, Biden reiterated his disagreement with more left-leaning members of the Democratic Party who want to see private insurance completely replaced. "I support private insurance," he said.
A challenge to the Affordable Care Act, former President Barack Obama's health care law, will soon be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. If the law is struck down, so too will be its protections for Americans with preexisting medical conditions. Trump has said repeatedly that he will defend the preexisting condition protections but hasn't yet detailed how.
"There's no way he can protect preexisting conditions," Biden said. "None. Zero."
"We'll always protect people with preexisting (conditions)," Trump countered.
Holding serve, but not changing minds
America hasn't had a one-term president since George H. W. Bush. But Trump needed a strong performance Thursday, as polls suggest he is trailing both nationally and in several key swing states like Florida, though he overcame a polling disadvantage to win the 2016 election.
Trump's more restrained manner and his swings at Biden's record likely reassured Republicans Thursday. But despite the trials and travails of 2020, Trump's average approval rating has hovered in the 40 to 45% range throughout. In other words, it seems like most Americans have made up their mind about the president, and Thursday's debate was unlikely to change that.
Trump's strategy, one that he used with success in 2016, was often to cast doubt on his opponent rather than broaden his own appeal. Trump seized upon recent New York Post reporting about Biden's son, Hunter Biden, to allege that the Biden family used the power and prestige of elected office for personal financial gain.
The Post's reporting has not been confirmed by other sources and Biden suggested the articles were the products of Russian disinformation — to which Trump asserted that Democrats were creating a new "'Russia, Russia, Russia' hoax."
For his part, Biden sought to avoid the verbal gaffes and long digressions that sometimes characterize his public speech. He largely succeeded. While the former vice president sometimes searched for words or had to correct himself, the meltdown some Democrats had feared was avoided.
The candidates held serve. But were any minds changed? It took a relative handful of votes in a handful of states to swing the 2016 election in Trump's favor — only time will tell if he can duplicate that electoral map, or whether Biden has presented himself as a favorable alternative. The outcome in Utah will likely not be such a nail-biter.
Increased mail-in voting, COVID-19, and a variety of state-by-state election formats contribute to a unique 2020 election. As a result, it is likely that many close House and Senate races, as well as the presidency, will not be called on Nov. 3. States may also shift in outcome in the days or weeks following the election — an expected change experts have warned about as results are returned. While human error happens, both mail-in and in-person voting have extremely low rates of fraud. The state of Utah has used vote-by-mail since 2012. It has safeguards in place to make sure every ballot it receives is legitimate.