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News Brief: Raucous Debate, Early Voting Trends, COVID-19 Spike

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And the instant reaction to last night's presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden from a whole lot of people was disgust.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Yeah. So despite moderator Chris Wallace's warnings, debate decorum was replaced with interruptions and a whole lot of schoolyard name-calling. Here's just a sample of some of last night's chaos.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

JOE BIDEN: Folks, do you have any idea of what this clown's doing?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You don't have it in your blood. You could have never done that job...

BIDEN: Because you weren't president and screwing things up...

TRUMP: You were a senator. And by the way, you were a...

BIDEN: You're the worst president America has ever had. Come on...

TRUMP: Almost the lowest in your class. Don't ever use the word smart with me...

BIDEN: The question is - the question...

TRUMP: The radical left...

BIDEN: ...Will you shut up, man?

TRUMP: Listen, who was on your...

MARTIN: It was hard to watch at some points. So what could voters have possibly gotten out of this? We've got NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson with us this morning. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: I mean, this was just - it was just like a train wreck in so many ways. Did we learn anything new about actual policy positions of the candidates?

LIASSON: Well, I don't think so. We should just point out that what you just played was a collage. It didn't actually happen like that in real time.

MARTIN: Right. That would have been bad. This was, like, a collection of moments.

(LAUGHTER)

LIASSON: Yeah. Look, I think there were so many shouting, so many interruptions, mostly from the president. I think many voters probably longed for a commercial break, which they did not get. But we didn't learn anything new about policy. We did learn about what each candidate was trying to do. The president came into the debate trying to throw Biden off his game, to get him to lose his train of thought, get angry, to show that he was the senile old guy the president has been talking about. Biden's job was to figure out a way to deal with the personal attacks from the president, which he did by periodically turning to the camera, breaking the fourth wall, talking about the personal stakes of COVID, talking directly to the American people. Luckily for Biden, the first half hour, which is usually what gets the most viewers, was about the two subjects that Biden feels Trump is most vulnerable on which, was the ACA, Obamacare, and the handling of the COVID pandemic.

MARTIN: I want to ask about one moment in particular. This is when Chris Wallace, the moderator, asked President Trump to condemn right-wing violence and white supremacists. Let's listen to this exchange.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: Do you want to call them - what do you want to call them? Give me a name. Give me a name. Go ahead.

CHRIS WALLACE: White supremacists and...

TRUMP: Who would you like me to condemn?

BIDEN: Proud Boys.

WALLACE: White supremacists and right-wing militia.

TRUMP: The Proud Boys, stand back and stand by. But I'll tell you what, I'll tell you what, somebody has got to do something about antifa and the left.

MARTIN: Quick pivot there, Mara. What did you make of that?

LIASSON: Well, the president did not condemn white supremacists. This is not the first time he's refused to do that. Someone supports him; he doesn't condemn them, even if it's white supremacists in Charlottesville or now the Proud Boys, saying stand back and stand by. It was received, by the way, by the Proud Boys ecstatically, almost as a call to arms. They immediately made stand back and stand by into a logo and made shoulder patches on it. Biden pushed back, trying to say that Trump's own FBI director has said that antifa is not a group. It's an ideology. Most of the domestic terrorism threats recently have come from white supremacists, quote, "racially motivated violent extremists." But that was a moment that has gotten a tremendous amount of attention from the debate.

MARTIN: So is there any way to measure the results of this, I mean, whether either candidate was able to leverage this moment?

LIASSON: Well, we're going to find out as polls come in about the debates. We do know about the reaction of some focus groups, undecided voters who watched the debate. Frank Luntz, who conducted those, Republican pollster, said that it made people not want to vote at all. And when he asked people to use an adjective to describe the candidates, Trump's adjectives were chaotic, arrogant and unhinged, and Biden's adjectives were competent, presidential and better than expected.

MARTIN: NPR's Mara Liasson breaking down the results of the first presidential debate last night that happened in Cleveland. Mara, thank you. We appreciate it.

LIASSON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: All right. So President Trump spent the tail end of last night's debate repeating his false claims about the danger of fraud with voting by mail.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: If I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can't go along with that. And I'll tell you what, from a...

WALLACE: And what does that mean, not go along, does that mean you're going to tell your people to take to the streets?

TRUMP: I'll tell you what it means. It means you have a fraudulent election.

GREENE: All right. So in reality, voting fraud in general is rare. Over a million Americans have already cast their 2020 votes. So can we measure how much of that early voting has to do with the president's efforts to sow this distrust about mail-in balloting?

MARTIN: We've got NPR's Miles Parks, who is our correspondent at the network who delves into all things ballot related. Miles, thanks for being here.

MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: So the president's remarks about mail-in ballots came from a question by the moderator, Chris Wallace, about whether the president would accept the election results, right?

PARKS: Yeah. So that question really led to this sort of greatest hits of all of Trump's baseless claims around voting. You know, the president referenced a number of states and incidents. He talked about New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia just to name a few. And most of these incidents that he talked about are based on sort of a nugget of truth. There were a few discarded ballots, for instance, discovered in Pennsylvania, but they seem to be the result of an election worker being new at their job and making a mistake, not fraud. In Virginia, they did accidentally mail two ballots to a very tiny percentage of voters. But what President Trump doesn't talk about is that there are safeguards in the Virginia system to basically make sure that these voters are not able to vote twice, even if they received two ballots. So there is a big difference here between some isolated administrative issues and fraud, which we know is very rare in U.S. elections.

MARTIN: Right. So you've been talking to people. You've been reporting out how all of the president's rhetoric about voting and specifically voting by mail could be affecting people's behavior and their plans to vote. What are you finding?

PARKS: Yeah. I mean, frankly, we're just finding that all of this talk is meaning that less U.S. voters are saying they're going to vote by mail in the fall. Just a few months ago, estimates were that half of all voters or more would be casting ballots through the mail, but only a fraction of that, 35% in recent polls, now say they're going to vote this way. And officials I've talked to are really worried about that number. You know, officials have had to consolidate polling places in a lot of the country because of the COVID-19 crisis. And so if half of all voters in a record-breaking potentially turnout election are trying to vote in-person on Election Day like they say they're going to, that could potentially mean really long lines and other problems on Election Day.

MARTIN: Can you trace this reticence to vote by mail directly to the president's rhetoric or does some of it have to do with just long-standing concerns about the post office's inefficiencies?

PARKS: Yeah. It really seems like a mixture of both. You know, once Trump started his messaging campaign against vote by mail, we saw Republicans immediately responding to that in polls saying they wanted to vote in person. And then in August, we had the Postal Service controversy start affecting Democrats. At this point, the polls show decreases in a desire to vote by mail basically across all demographics. I talked to Brianna Lennon, who's the county clerk for Boone County, Mo. She said she started really noticing this trend away from the mail in her state's August primary when voters who had requested mail ballots were still showing up at polling places to vote in person.

BRIANNA LENNON: They're seeing post office stuff, and they're getting nervous. They're seeing litigation and they're getting nervous. And they want to switch.

PARKS: She says the No. 1 question she gets at public events when she talks to voters is, is it safe to vote by mail? But what I've heard from a number of election officials is they wish some of the people who were nervous about using the mail to vote channeled that nervousness into requesting and turning their ballot in on time and early ahead of any deadlines, not by abandoning the mail altogether, which could create this whole slew of other problems.

MARTIN: NPR's Miles Parks. Thanks, Miles.

PARKS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: All right. Life in New York City wasn't back to normal, but there were signs of it.

GREENE: Yeah, people eating in restaurants, even as of this week, kids going back to school. But coronavirus cases are now on the rise there, in particular there are new clusters of COVID-19 in Orthodox Jewish communities in and around New York City. So could the new cases send New York back into some kind of lockdown?

MARTIN: We've got Fred Mogul of WNYC in New York with us this morning. Fred, thank you so much for being here.

FRED MOGUL, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So the mayor, Bill de Blasio, said yesterday more than 3% of COVID-19 tests had come back positive, which is a big jump back to the numbers that New York hadn't seen since early June. What's going on?

MOGUL: You know, the state and even much of the city are holding steady at some of the lowest rates in the country, around 1%. In several neighborhoods, though, since August and early September, numbers have been rising, creeping up 4%, 5%, 6%, triple the rate of a few weeks ago. Mayor de Blasio, Gov. Cuomo say the common denominator, as you mentioned, is that these are in heavily Orthodox Jewish populations. These are ultra-orthodox, actually, Haredi groups. Many of them are Hasidic, many of them are not. People in these communities tell us they believe very strongly they have herd immunity because so many of them got infected by coronavirus last spring. They say they're being unfairly targeted. A few people, dissidents, frankly, in the community that we've spoken with say that that's not actually true, that many of these people have been ignoring regulations around wearing masks, around gathering sizes. You can see them packing into synagogues for High Holy Days, onto buses headed for private yeshivas, their religious schools. And there've been social media posts of huge weddings and other life cycle commemorations with hundreds of people.

MARTIN: So, I mean, how is the city responding? This is a delicate matter.

MOGUL: Right. Well, they've been reaching out to community leaders. They've been making tons of robocalls, handing out tens of thousands of face masks. The mayor is threatening to close all nonessential spaces, to limit gatherings to 10 people, to give fines if people don't wear masks. He says since issuing that threat last week, more people do seem to be wearing masks, which would be good news. However, if you go through the neighborhoods, there's still plenty of evidence to the contrary, I have to say. And now some community members are taking a social media, to WhatsApp groups, telling people not to get tested. They say if there are more positive cases, that could lead to new restrictions.

MARTIN: Speaking of social media, my feed was full of friends in New York who all sending their kids back to school this week. They got masks. They got face shields on. I mean, New York is just starting to kind of open up. Is there any sign that an increase in positive tests right now could lead to closing those schools?

MOGUL: It could. Those rates would have to go up and stay up for a week longer to shut schools. It would probably be individual schools rather than the whole district initially. And we're just getting indoor dining for the first time. That's one of the things that's kept rates so low. If that rate goes up above 2% and stays there, that could also go backwards.

MARTIN: Kept it low because it's been outside up until now; now inside. Fred Mogul of member station WNYC in New York, we appreciate you. Thanks for sharing your reporting.

MOGUL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.