The result was another bizarre moment in an unusual year.
When Trump misleadingly accused Biden of letting his son, Hunter Biden, profit off his name, there were no cheers or jeers. When Biden accused Trump of lying all the time, there was no applause or gasps. The atrium where the debate was held was quiet — except for the non-stop interruptions between the candidates and moderator Chris Wallace, who tried unsuccessfully to keep control.
Most of the time, the only inside sounds were the clicking of the photographers’ cameras and a random cough. Occasionally, when there was a particularly tough exchange, audience members exchanged silent looks. Trump’s booming attacks carried to the back of the sparsely-populated atrium. Biden’s rejoinders were not nearly as loud, except when his voice rose as he defended his children from Trump’s repeated accusations. Occasionally, Biden tried to address viewers at home directly, but Trump always pulled him back to the room.
“The absence of an audience forces the candidates to a different kind of communication,” said presidential historian Jon Meacham. “There are no applause lines, no laugh lines.”
Still, the debate still didn’t provide the policy substance some had wanted, in large part because Trump, with his voice raised, didn’t stop chiding, questioning and pushing Biden.
“Don’t ever use the word ‘smart’ with me,” Trump retorted, cutting Biden off after he suggested the president has to get “smarter” on his coronavirus response. “Don’t ever use that word with me. There’s nothing smart about you.”
Biden interrupted some, though less than his opponent. He insulted Trump, calling him a “clown,” muttering, “Will you shut up, man?” and describing Trump as, “the worst president America has ever had. But Biden didn’t shout down Trump until he was defending his sons, the late Beau Biden, who served in Iraq, and Hunter Biden. During the debate Trump repeatedly accused Hunter, with misleading, cherry-picked and thin evidence, of making millions of dollars in Russia and China while he served as vice president.
“That was a productive segment, wasn’t it?” Biden asked sarcastically at the end of the first 15-minute segment that was designed to be about the Supreme Court. It was one of only two times the audience laughed.
Even without a participating audience, the debate attracted tens of million viewers on television and online.
The debate’s location — constructed in the atrium of a school for dental, nursing and medical students in just the past two weeks — was specifically designed to downplay the pandemic-induced situation. Instead of a grand auditorium with hundreds of empty chairs, the setup is arranged to fit the scaled-back event.
Presidential debates generally have audiences of about 1,000. On Tuesday, rows of socially distanced wooden chairs seated a few dozen people, including the candidates’ wives, members of the campaigns, hosts, health and security officials and journalists, according to the commission.
Trump invited some special guests as he did for his Republican National Convention speech and State of the Union addresses, including UFC fighter Colby Covington, his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, and at least two veterans. But they remained quiet.
“There’s a sense that the audience are real people for the candidates to be playing to — like they’re the jury,” said John Donvan, a former ABC White House correspondent and now the longtime moderator of the nonpartisan debate series Intelligence Squared U.S. “Their presence is important. Not having that really does change the dynamic.”
Presidential debates began in 1960 during the race between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. The candidates held four debates broadcast from television studios with no audiences. One even took place while the candidates were on opposite sides of the country, with identical sets making it appear as if they were in the same room. Audiences became a regular feature when presidential debates resumed in 1976.
Donvan, who moderates debates online these days, had predicted Trump and Biden would speak more to each other and Wallace.
That’s not how it was done in 2016.
In 2016, debate moderators asked audiences at the three presidential debates to remain quiet, but they still broke out in laughter, applause and even cheers as Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton lobbed one accusation after another at each other. The candidates made faces for the audience, waited for attendees to finish reacting before proceeding and judged their zingers how it played in the crowd.
Ever the showman, Trump, the reality TV star who had never run for office, performed for people, capturing the spotlight time and time again with a joke, one-liner or a false claim.
When Trump first called Clinton using the honorific title “Secretary Clinton,” he paused to ask if that was acceptable. “I want you to be very happy. It’s very important to me.” Laughter ensued.
In the second debate, Trump even walked around the stage, moving closely behind Clinton as she talked — a move that would violate social distancing guidelines.
Tuesday night, Trump and Biden stayed safely behind their lecterns angled ever so slightly toward each other. They didn’t shake hands by prearranged agreement.
After the 90-minute debate concluded, the reduced audience finally had their chance to let loose. They stood up and clapped. Two members of the audience hooted and called out: “We love you Trump!”