Not that the negative interactions were all his fault. This was billed as a conversation with “uncommitted” voters, which is, charitably, baloney. Most of the questions were hostile, and several of the questioners quite clearly have no intention whatsoever of voting for Trump.
It actually speaks to a larger question about the American electorate — is there really anyone uncommitted at this point? There is no ambivalence about Trump. You love him or you hate him. And some people who love him are going to vote against him, because they are exhausted. And some people who hate him are going to vote for him because they see his opposition as unhinged and ridiculous.
Trump also had to fight off relentless badgering from ABC’s chief anchor George Stephanopoulos. This is Stephanopoulos’ job, I guess, and Trump often says things that are so ridiculous that he invites the badgering. But this format was supposed to be about Trump and the voters and it was frequently about Trump and the anchor. This show should’ve been unmoderated.
If there are any undecided voters out there, they probably exist in the suburbs or more broadly in America’s middle class. These are people who value their job and understand the economy in a very personal way. And a good number of them voted for Trump in 2016, migrated away from the GOP in 2018, and are trying to figure out what to do now. To bring them back, Trump should view these kinds of events — including the upcoming debates with Democratic nominee Joe Biden — through a narrow lens, aiming his answers squarely at that group.
Trump did that a few times tonight, talking about the undeniable economic success he was having before the pandemic and public safety issues. But the President often drifts into difficult-to-follow tangents that wouldn’t be appealing to that group, underscoring the challenges he has with college educated suburban voters. He tried to have a compassionate moment with the immigrant who recently became an American citizen, but he didn’t understand her mom had died of breast cancer and not coronavirus.
Overall, I am not sure this format was helpful to Trump. I understand why he did it — his campaign was asking for additional debates earlier in the process, after all — but given that the questions and moderator were overly hostile, Trump wasn’t able to find much traction.
He’ll get another chance on September 29 at the first debate against Biden in a format that should set up better for him. Trump needs a good national performance as millions of voters are receiving their ballots soon, and the pressure on him in two weeks will be enormous.