Dueling Trump vs. Biden town halls highlight head-spinning contrast, disorienting viewing experience

Bill Keveney

Welcome to presidential whiplash. In a campaign with an abundance of novel features, we can now add a new twist: Vote with your remote.

Thursday's dueling presidential town halls, with former Vice President Joe Biden on ABC at the same time President Donald Trump appeared on NBC and its affiliated news networks, forced viewers to either make a decision between the two candidates, jump back and forth, or watch one and record the other for later viewing.

The live-viewing experience was disorienting, but also revelatory. Separate events normally would be considered inferior to a joint debate, but that's not necessarily the case when you consider the Sept. 29 brawl that was passed off as a debate. And clicking back and forth provided a powerful contrast in personality: a combative Trump wanting to fight the media and a more policy-oriented Biden, seeking to connect with civilian questioners.

Originally, Trump and Biden were scheduled to square off on the same stage Thursday in Miami in the second of three presidential debates, a town-hall format featuring questions from voters.

"This is not how things were supposed to go tonight," said "Today" anchor Savannah Guthrie, introducing NBC's event in about the most understated way possible.

Clash in styles:Trump, Biden town halls start with very different tones

COVID-19, QAnon and court packing: Here are the top moments from the Biden, Trump town halls

President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden debate in September 2020 at Case Western University in Cleveland.

However, in just a week's time, Thursday's event went from a traditional campaign debate to a virtual event after President Trump's COVID-19 diagnosis to cancellation after Trump rejected that format to a Biden ABC town hall and, finally, to a competing Trump town hall on NBC, which drew criticism from the public, its own employees and even Trump. Whew!

The competing town halls were expected to draw a far smaller combined audience than a head-to-head debate.

As for viewing choices, I chose to toggle. Forget being a study in contrasts. It was like watching two different worlds. 

It started with the visual. Trump's town hall was on an outdoor set at the Perez Art Museum in Miami, with the president and Guthrie socially distanced, their chairs situated on a Republican red circular carpet. Biden and ABC's George Stephanopoulos sat indoors before a Democratic blue backdrop at Philadelphia's National Constitution Center.

'Strange replacement': Al Roker, Katie Couric, Megyn Kelly weigh in on competing town halls

Although both town halls started with questions about the coronavirus, the tone of the conversations was diametrically opposed. After introductory pleasantries, the Trump-Guthrie colloquy was contentious from the start, the red background an appropriate metaphor for a rising temperature that had nothing to do with Miami's climate.

Guthrie grilled the president about his last negative test before contracting COVID-19, but he didn't give a definitive answer.

"I test quite a bit," Trump said, before Guthrie asked if got a test the day of the debate. "I don't even remember."

President Donald Trump speaks during an NBC News Town Hall at Perez Art Museum Miami.

She challenged him on other COVID-19 matters, bringing up the admission by adviser Chris Christie, who also is recovering from coronavirus, that he was "wrong" not to wear a mask at the White House and pressing the president on whether he supports a policy of seeking herd immunity, which has been rejected by epidemiologists.

Trump, leaning forward in a plastic-backed metal chair, bristled when Guthrie asked him to denounce white supremacy, saying he hadn't done so at the first debate with Biden. 

"You always do this. … I denounced white supremacy for years. You didn't ask Joe Biden whether he or not he denounces Antifa," Trump said. Later, He dismissively responded, "I denounce white supremacy. What's your next question?"

The Biden-Stephanopoulos back-and-forth was serene by comparison, down to the furniture, with each able to sit back, cross-legged, in a white upholstered chair.

The questions were more policy oriented, with Biden going into the weeds at times and Stephanopoulos politely steering him back. After a detailed answer to a question on how he would earn the support of young Black voters who aren't enthusiastic about his candidacy, Biden offered details but also veered into other topics and tangents before closing with his attempt to bond with the questioner: "If you’re going to hang around afterward, I’ll tell you more."

When one questioner said his father was transportation secretary under President Reagan, Biden, who was a senator then, struck a note of recognition: "Oh, yeah. I'll be darned."

Stephanopoulos challenged Biden on some answers, such as asking him how he could tame the pandemic without crushing the economy. He also pushed him on a matter Biden has evaded: whether he would pack the Supreme Court with additional members.

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden looks to media as he arrives to participate in a town hall with moderator ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

Biden complained that any definitive answer would get all the headlines and tried to make that decision contingent on whether the Senate approves the controversial pre-election Supreme Court nomination of Amy Coney Barrett: "It depends on how this turns out, how it's handled." He said he would discuss his position on court-packing after that nomination is resolved.

While Guthrie and Trump went back and forth for nearly 20 minutes before socially distanced voters in the audience began asking questions in the one-hour town hall, Stephanopoulos opened the floor to voter questions just two minutes into Biden's event.

As Biden explained to one audience questioner how he plans to avoid raising taxes on the middle class, Trump was objecting to Guthrie's queries about his position on conspiracy group QAnon and why he retweeted a conspiracy theory about the Osama bin Laden raid.

"That was a retweet. That was an opinion of somebody. I'll put it out there and people can decide for themselves," the president said.

As a viewer, jumping back and forth definitely had its liabilities. During the live airing, I missed a number of critical questions and answers from each town hall when I was watching the other one. I missed most of Trump’s evasive response to Guthrie on QAnon and nearly the entire discussion about his tax returns, as well as Biden’s admission that parts of the 1994 crime bill were a mistake. I recommend a full viewing of both events.

In the end, however, the network-jumping experiment resulted in a sore thumb and a spinning head but also a clearer indication of how different the presidential candidates are than would have been apparent in a head-on debate, or at least one like their September encounter.

If that's not enough information, there's one more chance: The two candidates are still scheduled to hold a final debate Oct. 22 – a week from Thursday – in Nashville, Tennessee. One of Guthrie's NBC News colleagues, White House correspondent Kristen Welker, is set to moderate.