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Political Scientists from Syracuse University and SUNY Cortland Give Their Takes on Debate

Gage Skidmore

Political experts from Syracuse University and SUNY Cortland  weighed in on waht they saw as a 'disaster' and chaotic in teh first presidential debate, while finding some meaning in some of the answers and non-answers to questions.

  The contest between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden left two thoughts in the mind of Syracuse University Political Science Professor Grant Reeher: 

“The first one is national embarrassment, and the second set is total disaster. It was by far the worst presidential debate I’ve ever seen in my life.”

SUNY Cortland Political Science Chair Bob Spitzer also described the debate as chaotic, as President Trump’s aggressive performance set the tone from the beginning, and frequent attacks eliminated any substance from the event.  

“He, without question, was out to, it's hard to know exactly what his strategy was: To sabotage the debates, to try and throw Joe Biden off his game, to confuse, to appear as a dominant sort of figure,” Spitzer said.


Spitzer adds that he doubts the American public got much out of the exchange between Trump and former VP Joe Biden, but they've likely already made up their minds.  

Reeher characterized the debate as a “food fight” of personal attacks, mischaracterizations and wild claims mainly from Trump.  He says Biden stooped to Trump’s level at times, launching his own insults, which might have helped his base. 

Reeher also notes that Biden avoided the ongoing discussion of a Democratic response to the possible confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court to fill the seat left by Ruth Bader Ginsburg. 

“He did very clearly dodge two important questions. One was whether he would support adding more justices to the supreme court, and the other on whether he would support ending the filibuster in the senate for legislative issues,” Reeher said.

A key moment in the debate came when moderator Chris Wallace asked Trump to condemn White Supremacist groups. Spitzer says the President’s answer was puzzling. 

“I was a bit surprised that president trump did not say anything about condemning violence, or condemning right-wing violence, he could've said something that would have at least seemed to address that concern or that question, and he just didn’t go there at all.”


If there was a winner to declare, the Professor Spitzer says he would declare it as Biden because he maintained his composure, even when Trump insulted Biden’s sons.

Professor Reeher wonders how viewership and polling on public reaction might impact future debates, while The Commission on Presidential debates announced they are considering a change in format to minimize the disruptions.  

The next debate will take place on October 6th between Vice President Mike Pence and Kamala Harris. Spitzer predicts both will conduct themselves more appropriately and bring some sense of normalcy to what the national debate stage should exemplify.

John Smith has been waking up WAER listeners for a long time as our Local Co-Host of Morning Edition with timely news and information, working alongside student Sportscasters from the Newhouse School.
Scott Willis covers politics, local government, transportation, and arts and culture for WAER. He came to Syracuse from Detroit in 2001, where he began his career in radio as an intern and freelance reporter. Scott is honored and privileged to bring the day’s news and in-depth feature reporting to WAER’s dedicated and generous listeners. You can find him on twitter @swillisWAER and email him at