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Just days after the first of three planned presidential debates, President Trump has tested positive for COVID-19, putting the likelihood of further debates in serious doubt ahead of Election Day on Nov. 3. But after the debacle that was the first debate, a second appears unnecessary anyway.
Commentators ranging from the New York Times editorial board to Democratic New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez called Tuesday’s debate— an unproductive shouting match levied with personal insults and constant interruptions—a “national disgrace.” The debate did little to swing decided voters to the other side, while perhaps the most significant aim of a presidential debate—convincing undecided voters—had a minuscule pool to work with in the first place.
A recent NBC News poll from Sept. 20 found that just 6% of voters were undecided, suggesting little room for the election to dramatically swing either way following a debate. Meanwhile, a FiveThiryEight poll in conjunction with Ipsos found that voters planning to vote for Biden only changed from 5.0 to 5.2 on a scale of 10 (with 10 meaning absolutely certain). Trump voters only changed from 3.8 to 3.7.
Furthermore, a CBS News survey found that just 17% of respondents felt “informed” by the debate. The majority, 69%, said their main takeaway from the debate was feeling “annoyed.”
It’s unclear if Americans would have wanted to proceed with the debates even if Trump hadn’t tested positive for coronavirus. Calls to cancel the remaining debates following Tuesday’s showing echoed across social media. “The debates are now a danger to public safety and a direct threat to Black life. Cancel the debates,” former MSNBC host Melissa Harris Perry tweeted, referencing the President’s refusal to condemn white supremacy during the event.
“Presidential debates rarely make much difference in the race. Even the most infamous debate gaffe of them all, Gerald Ford’s 1976 insistence that there was ‘no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe,’ had no real effect on the election,” argued The Atlantic‘s David A. Graham. “This is likely to be especially true this year, when the polls have remained surprisingly stable. Beyond that, tens of thousands of voters have already cast their ballot, and more are returned each day.”
The next debate is scheduled for Oct. 15. Given the timeline of the diagnosis, Trump could potentially recover in time—but polling data suggests there’s no reason for him to rush back.
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