WASHINGTON — Donald Trump and Joe Biden were in different cities for the dueling town halls Thursday that replaced their debate. But they may as well have been in different universes.
Replacing the presidential debate with competing conversations with voters was a fitting symbol of a politically divided and socially distanced America. Instead of speaking to, or even shouting at, each other, Trump and Biden spoke past each other on different networks, allowing Americans to choose a favored candidate to describe reality as they want to see it.
The town halls, hosted by NBC in Miami for Trump and ABC in Philadelphia for Biden, were unlikely to attract nearly the audience a debate would, history suggests, and even many Republicans were baffled by Trump's decision to withdraw from the second debate when he's down in the polls and needs every opportunity possible to try to disrupt the race's status quo.
Going into the town hall, Biden led Trump by 9.2 percentage points in the NBC News national polling average. Most swing-state polls in recent months show Biden to be the favorite.
It wasn't clear that the town halls would change the trajectory.
Here are five takeaways from the two events:
1. Trump gives oxygen to extremists — again
At the first debate, Trump claimed that he didn't know much about the Proud Boys, a violent far-right extremist group, but he told them to "stand back and stand by" in a move they heard as an endorsement.
In his NBC town hall, Trump claimed that he didn't know much about QAnon, the groundless conspiracy theory that claims that elites run a vast baby-eating satanic cult, but Trump said something they are sure to hear as an endorsement.
"I know nothing about QAnon," he said. "I do know that they are very much against pedophilia, and I agree with that."
An FBI field office recently warned that "fringe political conspiracy theories" like QAnon "very likely motivate some domestic extremists" (it already has motivated some acts of violence), and social media giants have clamped down on QAnon.
Trump also bristled when Savannah Guthrie of NBC News asked him to clearly and forcefully condemn white supremacists, but the reason he keeps getting the question is that he seems so uncomfortable answering what would be a layup for any other politician — including his own vice president.
"I denounced white supremacy," he said. "What's your next question?"
2. Biden acknowledges mistakes of 1994 crime bill
Biden said parts of the 1994 crime bill that he helped write were "bad," referring to a measure linked to the rise of mass incarceration with disproportionate impacts on Black Americans.
He elaborated by saying things have "changed drastically" since 1994, and he noted that many Black leaders at the time supported it. He said that the goal of the bill was "same time for the same crime" and that the core of the mistake was in "what the states did locally."
Asked whether it was a mistake to support it, Biden said, "Yes, it was." His campaign said Biden was referring to a different bill from 1986 with that response.
Moments earlier, Biden was asked by a young Black man why his demographic should feel motivated enough to vote for him — a question that cut to the heart of one of Biden's weaknesses: a lack of enthusiasm among young voters, including nonwhite millennial and Generation Z voters, who lean left but tend to be unreliable at the ballot box.
Biden cited numerous policy proposals, such as making the criminal justice system more "fair," boosting funding for historically Black colleges and universities and helping Black Americans accumulate wealth by guaranteeing first-time homebuyers a $15,000 down payment.
3. Biden says his approach on 'court packing' 'depends'
Biden gave his most extensive answer yet about the possibility of adding seats to the Supreme Court as Republicans move to confirm Trump's nominee, federal appeals Judge Amy Coney Barrett.
"It depends on how this turns out," he said, referring to the confirmation process in the Republican-led Senate and whether it is rushed through before Election Day.
He said he's still "not a fan" of "court packing" because it could lead to a tit-for-tat escalation. He expressed more openness to changing rules about lifetime tenure for justices in a way that complies with the Constitution. But he didn't commit to any course of action, saying much of it depends on how Republicans approach the Barrett nomination.
"I'm open to considering what happens from that point on," he said.
Biden criticized Barrett as a nominee who "didn't answer very many questions at all" and said that LGBTQ Americans have "great reason to be concerned" that she could vote to take away their rights. He added that people should also be concerned about their access to health care with a Republican-led lawsuit to invalidate the Affordable Care Act headed to the Supreme Court.
4. Trump forgot to attack Biden
Trump has one job if he is to turn around his weak standing in the polls: bring down Biden, just as he brought down Hillary Clinton in the closing days of their 2016 battle.
But over the course of the hour on national television, Trump barely mentioned his rival, let alone in the kind of sustained way necessary to do damage to the front-runner in the polls. When he did mention Biden's name, it was mostly to attack the news media for not asking him the questions Trump wanted them to.
Trump's entire campaign strategy, like that of the other presidents before him, is built on making the election a choice between him and Biden, instead of a referendum on his presidency, and Trump has been more on message at his rallies and with friendlier interviewers.
But under Guthrie's tough, rapid-fire questions, Trump missed opportunities to pivot to Biden and largely gave him a pass.
5. Two candidates, two vastly different tones
It was appropriate that two polar-opposite candidates offered polar-opposite tones as they faced questions from the moderators and voters. Biden spoke in calm and conciliatory tones, calling for people to listen to scientists about a national coronavirus policy and promising to work with Republicans to achieve bipartisan goals.
"What I will be doing, if I'm elected president — not a joke," he said, "I'm going to pick up the phone and call them and say, 'Let's get together.'"
He predicted that with Trump and his "vindictiveness" gone, "there's going to be, I promise you, between four and eight Republican senators who are going to be willing to move on things where there's bipartisan consensus." It was a version of a line he has used on the campaign trail, often to criticism from progressives who argued that he was being naive about the GOP.
Trump, meanwhile, was often hostile to Guthrie's questioning. He complained constantly about the media, the IRS and others who he said treat him unfairly.
He sowed doubt about the science around the Covid-19 pandemic, suggesting that masks won't protect people despite what nearly all of his advisers say. And he said his getting sick from the virus himself hadn't changed his views about masks, even as his ally Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey who helped Trump prepare for the first debate, said Thursday that he was wrong for not wearing a mask after he was put in intensive care with the disease himself.