In the Last Presidential Debate, Trump and Biden Make Their Final Pitch To Women

Some have already cast their votes, as Trump attempts to close the gender gap.

In the Last Presidential Debate, Trump and Biden Make Their Final Pitch To Women
(Screenshot from CSPAN)

This post originally appeared on The 19th.

In the final stretch of the campaign, the gender gap has swelled to double digits in key battleground states, favoring Biden, with suburban and rural white women voters in the spotlight. 

On the campaign trail in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, last week, Trump pleaded at a rally: “Suburban women, will you please like me? I saved your damn neighborhoods!”—a pitch reminiscent of his 11th-hour overture to Black voters in 2016, when he posited the question, “What the hell do you have to lose?”

With less than two weeks to go before Election Day, Thursday’s debate was a more muted, substantive exchange, with a focus on many of the issues disproportionately impacting the majority of the electorate: women.

There were specific questions about women and people of color, though the candidates spoke obliquely about education and families without directly addressing women on the debate stage amid the country’s first female recession. There was again no mention of LGBTQ+ issues—something voters care about, as evidenced by the topic surfacing during last week’s town halls. But the issue of immigration, and specifically family separations, made its debate stage debut on Thursday. The topic is one that resonates strongly with women voters. 

Trump’s final debate performance was markedly more mild-mannered than the first debate on September 29, where the president endlessly interrupted Biden and moderator Chris Wallace. 

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On Thursday, moderator Kristen Welker of NBC News won praise for her performance—including from Trump, who told her from the podium, “I respect very much the way you’re handling this.”

Leading up to the debate, the president tweeted negatively about Welker, only the second Black woman to moderate a general election presidential debate. The first was Carole Simpson in 1992. 

Welker was assisted Thursday by new debate commission rules that muted both candidates to permit their opponent to give two-minute responses to questions uninterrupted. The result was a largely robust conversation revealing clear contrasts in policy, personality and politics.

“[Trump’s] calm demeanor might’ve calmed some of the fears of these women, but the substance of his remarks was still repulsive, even though he was well-behaved,” said Meghan Milloy, co-founder and executive director of Republican Women for Progress. 

The pandemic has been political for women voters, who have borne the economic brunt of the coronavirus crisis. 

Sarah Longwell, one of the founders of Republican Voters Against Trump, said Biden is the only candidate who has been addressing kitchen table priorities for voters. 

“[The pandemic] is the only issue,” said Longwell, who has been doing focus groups for three years and said she has watched Trump’s support with women erode in the last six months. “I watched him alienate these voters in real time … 2020 is not 2016.”

Longwell said that for Trump to be “a toned-down version of himself” for 90 minutes isn’t going to change the past four years, particularly for the women voters who have abandoned him. 

“This debate wasn’t about Trump; this debate was about Biden and whether he could continue to demonstrate he is capable of having this job. People ask me what Trump could do differently. He could get in a time machine and go back and handle this pandemic.”

Women have two questions to consider coming out of this debate, said Cat Parks, the vice chair of the Republican Party of Texas: Are they better off than they were four years ago, and do they believe Biden will accomplish the things he promises after more than four decades in politics and eight years serving as vice president?

For some women, the pandemic has changed the calculus, especially after the president’s coronavirus diagnosis earlier this month. On Thursday night, Trump acknowledged his bout with the virus, saying that he learned from the experience, emphasizing that the majority of the nearly than 8.5 million people who have had the disease in the United States have recovered and that the country should reopen.

Biden reiterated his position that the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic has been incompetent and insufficient, and that he would prioritize science.

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Errin Haines is The 19th's editor-at-large. An award-winning journalist with nearly two decades of experience, Errin was previously national writer on race for the Associated Press. She’s also worked at the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post.