After a wild first debate and a cancelled second debate, nobody knew quite what to expect going into the third and final debate.
And perhaps most unexpected of all, was that the final clash between US President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden played out more like a traditional debate than almost anyone expected.
Here are the key takeaways.
The mute button only got rolled out once
To start the debate, both candidates were warned that interruptions in the opening four minutes of each segment wouldn’t be tolerated.
“The debate commission will turn on their microphone only when it is their turn to answer, and the commission will turn it off exactly when two minutes have expired,” Moderator Kristen Welker said.
In the end, the button made only the briefest of appearances, and it wasn’t to silence an interruption. The President simply took half a second too long to wrap up his point in the opening segment on healthcare.
It was reflective of the overall tone of the debate, which featured more patient political sparring than the wild scenes of the first clash last month.
Welker won plenty of praise for her moderation and questioning after the debate, but it was mid-debate praise from the candidate who had repeatedly attacked her in the lead-up that was the most surprising of all.
Trump went for personal attacks over policy specifics
As he has at every debate and replacement town hall this campaign, Trump never really dug deep into exactly what he’d do with a second term as President.
In place of policy talk, Trump’s strategy at the debate was a familiar one — unrelenting personal attacks.
It started with a sledge about hiding in a basement:
It continued with a swipe about governing records:
But it showed up most frequently when the President took every chance to press Biden about a widely-discredited story involving his son Hunter and a laptop.
It mattered little that Trump had to qualify much of his attacks with “if this stuff is true”.
Reporting from the conservative Wall Street Journal released after the debate debunked many of the claims made by the President (which were already being viewed with much scepticism anyway), but if the debate stage is any guide, it’s not likely to deter him from making it a key theme of his closing argument before election day.
Biden played it steady and safe
The former vice-president is known for his “malarkey” catchphrase, but he only deployed it once in the final debate.
Something said much more frequently? “Not true.”
Biden adopted it as his defence as Trump poked and prodded, and stayed away from the insults like “clown” that he said he regretted in the wake of the first debate.
When directly asked about Trump’s allegations by the moderator, Biden said:
The Democratic nominee often offered up specifics of what he would do should he win in November.
“We’re going to be in a position where we’re going to see to it that we are going to take 4 million existing buildings and 2 million existing homes and retrofit them so they don’t leak as much energy, saving hundreds of millions of barrels of oil in the process and creating significant numbers of jobs,” he said of his climate change plan.
Crucially, the self-proclaimed gaffe machine avoided any slip-up that’ll give his opponents ammunition on social media in the next few days.
The stark differences on COVID-19 were on display
The two contrasting approaches were highlighted with the first question, which focused on one of the most consequential topics for Americans: coronavirus.
On the day of the debate, at least 75,000 Americans tested positive for COVID-19, as local media warned the country was entering its third, and perhaps biggest, wave of the virus.
When asked about what he’d do to protect the country from future damage, Trump only talked about the past.
Biden’s very first lines of the debate painted a different picture.
Trump’s answer focused on what he saw as achievements. Biden’s answer focused on intentions — investing in rapid testing, encouraging mask-wearing, reopening businesses.
The overall impression is one that defined the debate: Two men with two very different views about the state of America.
It was a repeat of the first debate. It was a repeat of the vice-presidential debate. It was a repeat of the 2020 conventions (in style and substance). It was a repeat of every interview these candidates have done in 2020. Which means that …
With 11 days to go, this debate is unlikely to change things
With time running out before election day, polls show Biden with a comfortable lead over Trump both on the national level and in six key swing states.
It was hard to see how even the most stand-out debate performance was going to change any of that. Research suggests that as few as 2 to 8 per cent of US voters are still undecided.
For both candidates, tonight was less about winning over the other side than it was about rallying up the base.
Each candidate appealed to the voters and surrogates they wanted to please, if early polling and punditry is any indication.
Biden’s steady demeanour felt designed to let Trump speak louder, provoking frustrated, annoyed or fatigued Democrats into taking action at the polling booth.
Early voting turnout is smashing numbers, driven largely by Democrats.
Trump’s specific attacks on Biden also felt designed to provoke action, but it was more about inspiring Republicans to protect what they’ve got by casting Biden as a danger to America.
Take the President’s final words at the debate for example:
In 11 days, we’ll see whether it translates to a Republican turn-out boon big enough to keep Trump in the White House, or if the early voting enthusiasm from Democrats was too big to overcome.