Biden aced the town hall. Why didn't Trump?

Early Returns

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Donald Trump is lucky that presidential elections aren't decided by televised town-hall meetings. If they were, after his effort on ABC on Tuesday and Joe Biden's on CNN Thursday, Trump would be lucky to clear 100 electoral votes. It's not that Biden was all that great — he was fine, but nothing special. It's that Trump was that bad, and in ways that made his opponent look even better.

The secret of these events, in which candidates answer questions directly from voters, is that they're easy. For one thing, voters tend to ask policy questions, not process ones, and they're usually pretty straightforward — what are you going to do about such-and-such? Normal politicians can easily anticipate the topics, and usually have a prepared riff or a five-point plan to address them. Biden did some of that Thursday night. He's not great at it, not nearly as strong as (for example) Senator Elizabeth Warren is. But he's good enough. And he's usually excellent at taking advantage of the other opportunity the format provides, which is to show the ability to connect with voters and empathize with them.

Trump is barely able to do either of these things. He did manage to demonstrate empathy a couple of times on Tuesday, but unfortunately in one case he misunderstood the questioner and thought that her mother had died from the pandemic when in fact she had died of cancer. Most of the time, though, he didn't bother. It's not just that he didn't get emotional. He didn't seem to be listening to the questions. So when the same woman asked about immigration, Trump immediately said that "we are doing something with immigration that I think is going to be very strong" but he never got around to saying what this "something" would be. Then he started talking about a vaccine and other medications for the virus.

It's not that ducking questions is necessarily bad; Biden did so a couple of times on Thursday. But he did so by answering a somewhat different question on the same general topic, and in ways that at least connected back to the original. Trump just doesn't know how to do that.

Another problem for Trump is that he remains unable to talk coherently about most areas of government and public policy. So when he's asked, for example, about pre-existing conditions, he gives no indication that he has any idea what the topic is about; I've heard him many times on the subject now, and as far as I can tell he's aware that there's something called pre-existing conditions, and that it has something to do with health care, and that he's supposed to be for it. But it might as well be ice cream or violins. So on Tuesday he claimed that Biden is for "socialized medicine" and therefore would "get rid of pre-existing conditions." Which, outside of not being true, simply doesn't make sense.

The part about not being true brings up a final reason Trump struggles with the format. He got much tougher follow-ups from George Stephanopoulos than Biden got from Anderson Cooper, but that was because Trump's answers were chock full of false statements. So when Trump said that the U.S. has so many Covid cases only because it tests so much, a ridiculous claim, it's hardly surprising that Stephanopoulos would push back. Or when Trump criticized Biden for failing to implement his proposed mandate on masks, it didn't take much preparation to point out that Biden is not, in fact, president and therefore couldn't have done so yet.

These sorts of events aren't likely to affect the November outcome, at least not directly. Even debates, which have much larger audiences and dominate coverage for a few days, don't usually produce much beyond a short-lived bounce. But I would say that the town halls show the difference between a politician who does his homework and learns the basic skill set needed for the job and one who doesn't. And that difference shows up in all sorts of ways — in both the campaign and in governing.

1. Simon Gilhooley at A House Divided argues that we observe Constitution Day on the wrong date.

2. Matthew Green on the House Freedom Caucus's attempt to get a show vote on Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

3. Josh Huder on the risks to Republicans of making that effort.

4. Sean Trende looks for the signs that Trump could win.

5. Rick Hasen on Attorney General Bill Barr's attempts to undermine the integrity of elections.

6. Susan Hennessey and Benjamin Wittes on a partisan political Justice Department.

7. Neal K. Katyal and Joshua A. Geltzer also on Barr's DOJ.

8. Sarah Posner on evangelicals and QAnon.

9. Catherine Rampell on Trump's super-top-secret health-care plan.

10. And Greg Sargent on the Democrats' get-out-the-vote operation.

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