Second debate signals change in tone, but is it enough to sway voters?

RALEIGH (WTVD) -- Thursday night's debate featured a noticeable change in tone from both candidates, who avoided the numerous interruptions that overshadowed the first debate.

"How (President Trump) appeared compared to how he appeared in the first debate - I think it very effective. Whether that's enough, and I would say it's not, to change the dynamics of the race, I don't think so," said Dr. Steven Greene, a political science professor at NC State.

Trailing in the polls, the final debate presented the president a key opportunity to draw a contrast between himself and Joe Biden, in an attempt to energize his base and win over undecided voters.

"What he kind of needed to do was find some way to really knock Joe Biden off his game, or trap Joe Biden into saying something really damaging and maybe drive the media coverage about him for a few days. And Joe Biden had some not great answers in various ways, but there's certainly nothing where the story is 'look at what Joe Biden did' or 'look at what Joe Biden said,'" explained Greene.

Greene believes the president's personal attacks on Joe Biden have not been as effective as they were on Hillary Clinton in 2016.

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"2016 was the two most disliked, unfavorable political candidates we've ever had for president. And that's not the case this time around. Joe Biden is liked incredibly more than Hillary Clinton was in 2016," explained Greene.

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President Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by about 173,000 votes in 2016, which is about a 3.5% difference. While this was larger than Mitt Romney's margin of victory in 2012, it was less than the combined number of third-party votes, foreshadowing a likely close race this year.

President Trump has campaigned across the country over the past couple weeks, holding high-energy rallies in front of packed crowds in several swing states, including North Carolina. That's in stark contrast to the Biden campaign, which has opted for smaller, socially-distant events in large part due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"There is more enthusiasm for President Trump. There's also more enthusiasm against President Trump. But enthusiasm against Trump doesn't drive people to a Biden rally," said Greene.


Early and absentee voting may also diminish the importance of Thursday night's debate; as of Friday morning, there were nearly 2.7 million votes already cast in North Carolina, accounting for 37% of registered voters. Compared to 2016, this would equal nearly 57% of all votes cast.

"With more and more people voting earlier this time around, even if there is something that maybe puts a dent in Joe Biden to a degree, that the impact of that is going to be significantly muted," said Greene.

North Carolina is an extremely important race specifically for President Trump, as no Republican has won the presidency without winning the state since Dwight Eisenhower in 1956.

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