FORT WAYNE – The appalling presidential debate was certainly an embarrassing spectacle for our nation. Two old men, who worked to remember their talking points and leaned heavily on insults to cover it, seemed more like fighting school children, who in frustration with their inability to make a point, resort to name-calling.

Given that one of two is going to be the next president, let’s attempt to discuss – without yelling and interrupting – some of substance of what each candidate tried to say on some key issues.

COVID-19: If you feel COVID-19 was handled poorly by the federal government at the very beginning, Biden clearly won this point. Trump appealed to the skeptics and to those who fear that continuing enforcement of tough restrictions is going to destroy their livelihood. The stubborn refusal of Trump, and many of his supporters, to focus on masks, even to the point of mocking Biden’s rather posturing use of them, may become actually the most telling factor over time among swing voters. Also, Trump’s blabbing to “Rage”  author Bob Woodward on what he knew early about the issue but did little (in spite of his claiming otherwise) to demonstrate any targeted leadership, may gain some traction but gets largely lost in Biden’s muddled messaging.

Hollering about science rather overwhelms the question of what the government could have done, but did not. Still, this issue went to Biden though Trump supporters won’t agree, and Biden supporters think he won on this by more than he did.

Law and order: Trump kept baiting Biden on never mentioning law and order, or police. Biden did defend the police and mentioned law, but pointedly could not get himself to say “order” in spite of the baiting. Expect that issue to return, because it is the more potent of the two. Biden said that he didn’t want to defund the police but wanted to spend large sums of money to send a psychologist along in police cruisers on 911 calls. People are being murdered, there is chaos, and switching enforcement dollars on the beat to mental health advisors is ridiculous.

On the other hand, abandoning sensitivity training without announcing some sort of real program to address the problems related to expanded law enforcement understanding of racism was an under-the-radar negative on Trump’s side. They got into mini-brawls over side issues that illustrated different world views, such as whether antifa is an organization or a network of affiliated autonomous groups that is a movement. While most people didn’t know much about the core issue (or care) it actually is illustrative of a major point, whether the riots following many BLM marches are coordinated or not. I believe the answer is obvious – they are – and so do most voters who have followed many variations of violent movements. Violent groups always claim to be autonomous – gangs, cartel organizations, and every other one.

On law and order: Trump was the overwhelming winner and this may be the bigger issue in some key swing states (e.g. Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota). As a side note, it will be impossible to accurately poll this issue regardless what pollsters say.

The economy: Biden scored some points on jobs, where Trump resorted to blustering and questionable numbers. Biden’s tax defense was confusing and poor, even allowing for the fact that he got confused himself a few times about his own ideas. That was not true of Biden’s position on government spending; he wants to spend more on everything. In my opinion, on substance, it was a draw. As expected, people who are doing well probably think Trump was amazing, the slam dunk winner. People who aren’t doing well think Biden just humiliated the president. The critical election question is this: As people vote, how many people in each category vote?

Accepting the election results: Trump appears to many people to be questioning the integrity of voters because his remarks are not anchored in specific dangers. For example, we appear to be abandoning the right to a private ballot for most voters. It is a different kind of potential fraud than what he is raising. As long as the debate spins around “prove it,” the president will lack facts. Past fraud has mostly been on voting machines, not mail-in ballots.

Fox News moderator Chris Wallace asked a legitimate question: Mail-in ballots can be checked with voter records but what is being done about doing this in a systematic fashion? That would eliminate the worries about stacks of missing ballots, ineligible voters, and double-voting. Trump had no answer and Biden was too busy attacking Trump in general, or rambling. Just establishing that voters are legitimate would not, however, eliminate the potential involuntary mass collections of non-private ballots (i.e. voting by intimidation).

The bottom line is this: Most voters, especially those who are the swing voters, take the election seriously, and will punish any candidate who threatens not to accept the election results in advance.

Justice Barrett: When President Trump flatly stated that he expected the Supreme Court to decide the election, even down to counting ballots, he potentially put another potential obstacle in the confirmation path of Justice Barrett. Is he rushing the nomination – which he clearly and effectively pointed out that he has a right to do because he is the elected president until mid-January – to gain an extra vote in the post-election Supreme Court battle? The Dems will likely obsess over abortion, homosexuality and attacking her faith and thus bury this issue.  

Each side thought they won. Initial rapid polling indicated that the number who felt a particular candidate triumphed mirrored the preferences going in. My initial take is this: Among voters who are swing voters in states that are actually competitive, unpacking which issue or two matters the most at the end will determine who actually wins.

Biden is ahead, if you trust the polling, and I question whether Trump did enough to close the current gap in swing states. But this race is a long, long way from over. 

Souder is a former Republican congressman.