MIAMI — NBC gave prime-time treatment to Joe Biden Monday night in a “town hall” that featured undecided voters in Miami.
But the voters hardly sounded undecided.
Their questions were good. But they were also gentle and sympathetic. And it appeared they were more undecided about whether to cast a ballot at all; if they do, it’s clear whom many favored to start with.
This was a Biden-leaning crowd, if not a Biden crowd.
So Biden had the equivalent of a one-hour infomercial that played to his strengths: engaging with respectful real voters (he’s been known to blow his stack with citizens who attack him) as he dished out anecdotes and one-liners accrued over decades in public life.
The location of the event and dynamics of the race all but guaranteed that going in.
First off, Miami is in a Democratic-leaning county in the state’s biggest blue region, Southeast Florida. Then there’s the phenomenon in which undecided voters break to the challenger (though some dispute this “incumbent rule”).
Finally, there's the screening process. Good campaigns make it clear to TV networks that their candidates aren’t going to walk into an ambush, so the network makes sure to screen out fringe figures and/or, in this case, people who have a clear anti-Biden agenda.
This was not a real Miami town hall. Those would have a lot more screaming. This was a television show, just like the presidential debates, the next of which is scheduled to be in Miami and is a town hall-style format.
Biden’s campaign was understandably high-fiving last night at his televised performance in the battleground state. The unstated contrast with Donald Trump was glaring: The president vainly posted a social media video of him returning to the White House to recover from Covid-19, telling people not to fear a disease that caused him to be hospitalized and pumped with experimental therapies by some of the nation’s top doctors.
The closest thing to a tough question for Biden came from a woman who was introduced as “undecided but leaning toward Biden” and was concerned about last Tuesday’s debate.
“President Trump was bullying you. And I'm worried that it knocked you off your game,” she said.
“Well, I'm used to bullies. I used to stutter when I was a kid. I learned how to fight,” Biden responded, giving an oft-repeated line on the campaign trail.
Biden went on to criticize Trump’s widely panned debate performance, in which he constantly interrupted and insulted the Democrat. NBC moderator Lester Holt applied a little pressure, noting that Biden swung back at Trump.
“You called him a clown, a fool. You told him to shut up,” he said. “It seemed to go against some of the language you have said about not being divisive. Do you regret any part — on your part?"
Biden acknowledged he got frustrated: “I should have said this is a clownish undertaking, instead of calling him a clown.”
As for standing up to world leaders, Biden said he’s done that. And even Vladimir Putin didn’t make a scene like Trump.
“I don't have somebody screaming at me in the next podium when I'm meeting with a world leader,” Biden said.
Later Tuesday, The Washington Free Beacon, a conservative news site, reported that three of the questioners at the town hall had previously expressed at least measured support for Biden — or criticism of Trump — in appearances on sister network MSNBC.
Biden also fielded questions from:
• A pediatric nurse who bashed the government’s “dysfunctional and disorganized” Covid-19 response. That’s a pillar of Biden’s campaign.
• An “undecided Republican” who wanted to know how he would lead during a pandemic. Biden turned the topic to masks again, and bashed the “macho” folks against them.
• A Republican Latina who voted for Hillary Clinton but has a law enforcement family and was concerned about the “defund the police” movement. Biden is opposed to that (though he forgot to say it) and made sure to praise police, condemn violence and called for better police training and use-of-force reforms.
• A Black woman understandably scared about the rise in violent white supremacists. This was right in Biden’s wheelhouse as well, having launched his campaign by attacking Trump’s comments about “very fine people on both sides” of the Charlottesville protests.
• A man who “voted for Hillary Clinton four years ago but has voted Republican in the past” asked about unity. That’s been such a hallmark of Biden’s campaign that a super PAC backing him is called “Unite the Country.”
• Another man was concerned that Cuban-American and Venezuelan voters are being told Biden is a socialist and wanted to know what to tell his friends and family to push back on it. Biden, dressed in a tailored suit, said, “Do I look like a socialist?” He then reminded the voter that he beat Bernie Sanders and that some Democrats complained he was too moderate.
The final question came from a young man who pointed out there was a 56-year age gap between them and wanted to know how Biden could relate. Biden did his best to explain why age and experience matter, at least on the campaign trail, and closed with an appeal that probably won the young man’s vote, assuming it hadn’t happened already.
“You're the best-educated, you're the most open, you're the least prejudiced generation in American history,” Biden said. “The future is yours, and I'm counting on you.”