Dueling town halls show Trump struggling to catch up in marathon race

Trump did nothing to move undecideds or citizens who support Biden toward him.

October 16, 2020, 4:02 PM

America is now 18 days from the end of this 2020 voting period. I say it this way because Nov. 3 really isn’t Election Day since the majority of Americans will have voted before then. In fact, by Friday evening roughly 20 million citizens will have voted across this country.

Why does this matter? Well, when we look at any analysis of the "dueling" town halls last night we must understand them in the context of where we are and what is going on.

I have always said presidential campaigns are like marathons. It is a long and grueling process and no one moment is determinative. A little over two weeks ago, President Donald Trump went into the first debate behind Joe Biden by an average of seven points. Trump’s primary goal was to move up on Biden and close the distance. Going into Thursday night’s town halls, not only did Trump not close the gap in this marathon, he is now on average more than 10% behind Biden, according to FiveThirtyEight. And the macro headwinds of this race are still difficult for Trump: As an incumbent, a majority of Americans disapprove of his performance as president and believe the country is headed in the wrong direction.

PHOTO: ABC News' Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos speaks to former Vice President Joe Biden during an ABC News Town Hall in Philadelphia, Oct. 15, 2020.
ABC News' Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos speaks to former Vice President Joe Biden during an ABC News Town Hall in Philadelphia, Oct. 15, 2020.
ABC News

The goals of each candidate going into these two town halls was very different in a race where Biden has over 50% of the vote nationally and in all the key target states in the Electoral College. Trump’s goal was to move the tiny number of undecideds toward him (even doing this isn’t enough since he could get every undecided voter and still lose). But more importantly, he needed to move voters who currently are voting for Biden toward either being undecided or toward himself.

Biden’s main goal was to reassure voters who are already for him that their decision was correct and to make them comfortable and confident in a choice they have already made. Biden could lose a little ground in this presidential race and still win.

The contrast in these two town halls couldn’t have been more dramatic. Not only were there huge differences on clarity of policy and a vision for the country, but the tone and style of each were polar opposite. And as is often the case in debates or town halls, the most crucial factor is the tone and style of a candidate.

Biden came across as calm, clear, at times humble and compassionate -- connecting with participants in a real way. Trump presented himself as chaotic, confusing and a good bit disconnected from a large swath of America.

While Trump’s performance did little to cut into the nearly 42% of America that supports him, he did nothing to move undecideds or citizens who support Biden. Biden, on the other hand, was reassuring and likely solidified the supporters he already has in his column. And that is a win for Biden and a loss for Trump.

PHOTO: President Donald Trump speaks during an NBC News Town Hall with moderator Savannah Guthrie, at Perez Art Museum, Oct. 15, 2020, in Miami.
President Donald Trump speaks during an NBC News Town Hall with moderator Savannah Guthrie, at Perez Art Museum, Oct. 15, 2020, in Miami.
Evan Vucci/AP

It is likely that after Thursday night little will change in this race, with Biden maintaining his solid lead. I expect this race to naturally close a little as most political races do as we approach the end of the election on Nov. 3. But it will not be close enough on its own to give Trump a realistic chance.

So how does Trump close the distance in this marathon race? First, he has to hope Biden has a few major stumbles on the short road ahead including at the last debate expected to be held next week. Second, the president must alter the makeup of the electorate in a way that redefines what we think it is likely to look like. Trump must have a major over performance of the base of his support in comparison with Biden’s. This is a difficult task since millions have already voted. And third, Trump must hope for a rather impactful unexpected external event that alters perceptions of him or Biden. An event both he and Biden have no control over.

And finally, I found it striking that some folks on Fox News compared Joe Biden to Mr. Rogers in his debate performance and those folks thought this was a negative. Mr. Rogers, a beloved calming and compassionate figure in American life, was born and grew up in Pennsylvania, which is where Biden’s town hall was conducted. Comparing someone to Mr. Rogers in Pennsylvania is probably one of the best compliments you can give at this time in a disruptive, divisive America. I think if you asked most Americans who they would rather have as president right now, they would say the kind Mr. Rogers instead of the bully Biff Tannen from "Back to the Future."

Yes, the finish in this marathon is still a few miles ahead, but the clock is the greatest enemy for Trump as he tries desperately to catch up.

Matthew Dowd is the chief political analyst for ABC News. Opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the views of ABC News.

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