When it became clear in March and April that pandemic precautions would limit the activities of the US presidential candidates, the scheduled debates between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden stood out as a singular opportunity to alter the trajectory of the race. But on the eve of the first debate, the likelihood that this encounter between the two candidates will shift outcomes seems far-fetched.
Part of the reason for those diminished expectations is that they have been overshadowed by the looming battle over a Supreme Court nomination to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died on 18 September. In the past week, political attention has shifted to the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, with Trump’s help, is closing in on his goal of building a conservative majority in the courts for decades to come.
Even before the death of Ginsburg, the chance of any event shifting the outcome of the race appeared unlikely. Polling suggests that voter preferences have been fixed for months. Political polarisation has been a defining feature of American politics for decades, but Trump has intensified this dynamic over the past four years by creating a separate reality for his supporters. The 2020 party conventions and the activities undertaken by Trump and Biden in this final stretch of the campaign suggest that there are two Americas, and the Americans in one group don’t appear to be facing the same challenges as the Americans in the other group.
In Trump’s America, the coronavirus pandemic is over, and the economy is on the rebound, but Democratic-led cities are on fire. He is happy to be back in the arms of his MAGA supporters, who have been packed into tight spaces in recent weeks to see him. In Biden’s America, the pandemic remains out of control and there is no end in sight. People are struggling economically, and long-time calls for racial justice cannot be ignored. At Biden’s socially distanced events, he seems to spend a lot of time taking his mask off and putting it back on.
There is some irony in the fact that Democrats believe the political moment calls for a radical departure with the past, when they have nominated an old-school moderate to lead the charge.
The debates matter because they force these two realities to collide for an hour or two over three nights. The first debate will take place in Ohio and will be moderated by Fox News’s Chris Wallace. The debate will run for 90 minutes and the time will be split into 15-minute issue segments chosen by Wallace: The Trump and Biden records, the Supreme Court, Covid-19, race and violence in cities, and the integrity of the election.
Reporting on how the candidates are preparing suggests that Biden will outperform Trump in the first debate. The Biden campaign adopted a studious, multi-week approach, with mock debates featuring a senior Democratic politician playing the role of Trump.
A Trump campaign ally confirmed, meanwhile, that the president has shown little interest in preparation: “The president’s view is he’s been president for four years – he’s been in training every day.” (Historically, incumbent presidents “lose” the first debate to the challenger because they don’t adequately prepare.)
Further, Biden performed better than Trump in recent town hall–style forums in Pennsylvania. In separate events, Trump and Biden responded to questions from swing-state voters. Biden occasionally stumbled and went on too long but was otherwise competent and likable. Trump struggled with predictable questions about his decision to downplay the severity of the coronavirus, and he refused to directly answer questions about institutional racism. Trump struggled with the same topics in an August interview with Axios, and a July interview with this Tuesday’s debate moderator, Chris Wallace.
Wallace is likely to help Biden by being a capable moderator. If Trump claims that Biden supports defunding the police, Wallace will likely correct him, as he has in the past. Wallace is also likely to hold Trump accountable for spreading misinformation about mail-in-voting and refusing to commit to a peaceful transfer of power. This will free up Biden to focus on his own record. New revelations about Trump’s tax returns are also sure to be brought up, and just as sure to be dismissed by the president.
Arguably, Biden just needs to keep his cool to win this debate. Biden claims he knows how to handle bullies, but he could be pulled off script in response to Trump’s attacks. But winning a debate is probably irrelevant in the bigger scheme of things. Hillary Clinton “won” all three of her 2016 debates against Trump. However, the debates could be a place for Biden, who goes into the final months of the election with a significant lead in the polls, to practice governing across the two Americas, and address some of the concerns that animate Republicans.
For example, polling suggests that most Americans, whether they support Biden or not, live in Biden’s reality when it comes to the pandemic. The Biden campaign has a thoughtful plan to address the crises brought on by the pandemic, but his public comments on the crisis make it feel like recovery will be a never-ending slog. Biden could use the debates to provide reassurance that he’s dedicated to opening up the economy with the right precautions and can see a path that offers some positive outcomes short of a full recovery.
There is little that Democrats can do to stop the confirmation of Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, now that McConnell has the votes he needs. Democratic leaders have warned that if Trump’s nominee is confirmed (before or after the election) – and they win the Senate – they are open to legislating away the filibuster and increasing the size of the court. There is some irony in the fact that Democrats believe the political moment calls for a radical departure with the past, when they have nominated an old-school moderate to lead the charge.
But there is also something to be said for nominating a candidate dedicated to building goodwill and attempting to heal some of the divides between Americans.