First-time independent voter Benaja Richardson tuned into Tuesday’s now infamous debate between US presidential candidates Donald Trump and Joe Biden hoping to be presented with a vision of the future and unity amid the turbulence of the current climate.
Instead the 18-year-old student from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, a potential swing state, said it opened her eyes to “truly what catastrophic times we’re in”.
“That night was supposed to be about what kind of change is going towards our future, what kind of new policies are going to be enacted and it was just about the two candidates ripping apart each other’s past, so it didn’t get us anywhere,” said Richardson, who plans to vote for Democratic former vice-president Biden.
In the next planned two debates – if they go ahead following the president’s coronavirus infection and refusal to agree to new debate rules – she said she wants to see “more professionalism from everyone … and not just a bunch of bickering back and forth”.
The unprecedented televised debate – which saw chaotic scenes of persistent interruptions and outbursts, largely led by Trump, including a refusal by the president to condemn white supremacists – was met with near universal condemnation from viewers, journalists and commentators.
CNN’s chief political correspondent Dana Bash, immediately pronounced it a “shitshow” live on air, while her colleague Jake Tapper described it as “a hot mess inside a dumpster fire inside a train wreck”.
Even Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, who moderated the debate and was criticised for not applying more control to proceedings, said afterwards: “I never dreamt that it would go off the tracks the way it did.”
Raffaello Vancouten, a restaurant and bar owner from Brooklyn, agreed with Bash’s verdict. “It was an absolute shitshow,” said the 40-year-old, who did not say how he plans to vote.
“The idea of it is to move votes, right? To get people motivated to go out there and vote. Neither side did that. As a business owner, as a fiscally conservative person, a little Democratic, there was nothing done for either side. They didn’t go to cross the aisle whatsoever.”
Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia (UVA) Centre for Politics, has watched every single televised debate in US presidential history since the tradition started with John F Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960.
“This wasn’t just the worst … this was a disaster. It was horrible. It was mainly, I would say 75-80% because of Donald Trump. And then the larger portion of the remaining 20-25% would be Chris Wallace for not doing his job.”
But he said Biden should not have called Trump a “clown”, adding: “We’re not used to that kind of thing in presidential debates. We expect candidates to maintain a modicum of dignity.”
The biggest impact of the debate will be on Trump, he said, taking away his “greatest opportunity to make up ground”. The president is currently behind in the polls – trailing Biden by 7.2 points nationally in the RealClearPolitics average.
Polls also show that the majority of American voters believe the president lost the first debate. A CNBC/Change Research poll found 53% of likely voters said Biden had a better debate performance, compared with 29% who thought Trump won.
“If he’d won that debate, people would’ve started talking about a Trump comeback,” said Sabato, who estimates that only between 3% and 5% of Americans have yet to make up their minds about how they will vote.
By the next debates, he said millions more people will have already cast their votes. And by the final debate, he estimates that “a third or more” will have voted.
The disastrous event led to plans for “additional structure” for the remaining debates. But Trump indicated on Thursday that he would not agree to any rule changes, tweeting: “Why would I allow the Debate Commission to change the rules for the second and third Debates when I easily won last time?”
Sabato called for the remaining debates to be cancelled. “They ought to just cancel them … You cannot have a civil discussion with Donald Trump. Surely we know that by now,” he said.
Michigan student Tuhin Chakraborty, 20, who supported Pete Buttigieg in the Democratic primaries, said he was impressed by Biden’s performance but that Trump “behaved like a child”. He added: “When I hear the term ‘Mr President’ I really hope not to hear that kind of behaviour and I was very disappointed that he behaved like a child, not a president.”
Chakraborty, who lives in Ann Arbor said the Commission on Presidential Debates “needs to do a much better job of maintaining a different rule structure to make sure that candidates are able to express not just rhetoric but also what their policy ideas are”.
But by the next debate, it could be too late in many cases to have an impact on voters.
In the critical swing state of Florida, Matt Florell, president of St Pete Polls, said trends have solidified in recent months, with only 1-2% of voters still undecided and “unprecedented” enthusiasm for early voting. “It doesn’t really seem like many outside events are influencing people at this point in time to change minds.”
Jacqueline Salit, president of Independentvoting.org, a national organisation representing interests of independent voters in US, believes a lot of independents didn’t watch the debates because they are “sick of the process now”. But she predicts that most independent voters will vote for the Democrats.
Many female independents she has spoken to who saw the debate compared it to “watching two little boys in a sandbox have a fight”. She added: “Trump revealed the level of his bullying to a new level.”
Chris Jackson, head of public polling for Ipsos in the US, said the debate “crushed even the lowest of expectations”.
“The extremely divisive tone, the extremely disrespectful tone, particularly from President Trump towards Joe Biden was just shocking for most people who are used to a much more sort of decorous debate environment, particularly at the presidential debates.”
But functionally, he does not expect it to have much impact on the election. According to their polling, there was “almost no movement” in people’s voting intention for either candidate. But, he said, “Biden may have solidified support behind him a little bit.”
He predicts a different tone from vice-presidential candidates Mike Pence and Kamala Harris on Wednesday night in Salt Lake City, which he expects to be “relatively pleasant”.
But when it comes to the final two presidential debates, currently scheduled for 15 October in Miami and 22 October in Nashville, “all bets are off”. He added: “If 2020 has taught us anything, is that it can always get worse.”