Donald Trump is down to his last chance — and it isn’t even a good one.
Joe Biden is up in polls with less than two weeks to go. More than 46 million people have already voted, and the number of people who say they’re undecided is roughly equal to the number of people who lie.
In other words, it’s late and Trump is losing. And debates don’t usually alter the course of presidential campaigns.
What Trump will have to hope is that tonight is an exception to the rule. If the fundamentals of the race are more favorable to Trump than polls suggest, after all, even a marginal lift from the debate could prove significant.
At least that’s what Republicans are banking on. Here’s what we’re watching for in the year’s final debate:
One last chance to flip the script
Trump’s braying in the first debate, in September, wasn’t bad just for debates. It was bad for him.
His constant interruptions turned off viewers, who scored Biden as the winner once they pulled their jaws up off the floor. Trump’s polling deficit widened slightly after the debate.
The problem for Trump is that his behavior made it all about him. What he desperately needs is to turn the electorate’s focus to Biden.
It may not be possible. Trump can talk about Biden’s family and his “47 years” of government experience all he wants. But Trump is the incumbent, while a raging pandemic has killed more than 220,000 Americans and left the economy in tatters.
The topics tonight likely won’t help Trump. They include “Fighting Covid-19,” “Race in America” and “Climate Change,” all of which will come with a ready-made indictment of his record.
Paging Hunter Biden
Desperate to put his opponent on defense, Trump has signaled he’ll press Biden on the disclosure in the New York Post of emails allegedly belonging to Biden’s son Hunter Biden.
But how, exactly, does Trump think this is going to go? The president will raise the question — or if he’s lucky, moderator Kristen Welker will. Biden will call it “garbage” and a “smear.” Trump will respond that Biden is a criminal. Repeat once or twice and the debate will move on.
There’s a reason that Hunter Biden was not included on the list of topics for the final debate. Unlike the coronavirus or race in America, Biden’s son is not at the top of voters’ minds. And the story is dubious enough that it will be hard for Trump to implant it there.
Dozens of former senior intelligence officials this week signed on to a letter casting doubt on the disclosure, saying it “has all the classic earmarks of a Russian information operation,” though Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe said Monday it is not.
Do Democrats have anything to worry about?
Yes, but just a little.
One benefit for Democrats of Trump’s implosion in the first debate is that — except for the time he called Trump a “clown” — nobody paid much attention to Biden.
He’s probably not going to self-destruct onstage. But Biden hasn’t always been a consistent debater, and with his opponent’s microphone muted for two minutes at the start of each 15-minute segment tonight, he will have a lot of time to fill.
“I worry what happens when he has two uninterrupted minutes,” one Democratic strategist in Washington said. “He needs to keep it tight and on point.”
Still, that’s a pretty low bar. Michael Steel, a Republican strategist, said that if Biden “doesn’t pee himself on stage … he will have exceeded expectations.”
It’s as much about Nov. 4 as Nov. 3
If Biden wins in a landslide, as polls suggest is possible, there probably isn’t much that Trump can do.
But if polls are off and it’s close, Trump has left no doubt what’s coming — Republican challenges to the election’s legitimacy that Trump predicts will end up in the Supreme Court.
Tonight, Trump will have an opportunity to prime the public for that possibility – to further normalize his baseless claims about widespread voter fraud and a “rigged” election.
Consider how far we’ve come in four years. During the final debate of the 2016 campaign, the audience gasped when Trump declined to commit to accepting the results of the election. Now it’s news if Trump says he will accept a peaceful transition of power if he loses, as he suggested he would — though with a heavy “but” — last week (“Yes, I will, but want it to be an honest election, and so does everybody else,” he said.)
On Wednesday night, FBI Director Christopher Wray said that “you should be confident that your vote counts,” and that “early, unverified claims to the contrary should be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism.”
But many voters aren’t confident the election will be conducted in a fair and equal way. That’s a base that Trump will be speaking to tonight.
Refining the dodge
For a campaign that has made few missteps — and, yes, benefited from a heavy dose of good fortune — Biden’s tortured dodging of the Supreme Court expansion question has been painful to watch.
First, he wouldn’t address it. Then he acknowledged he is “not a fan” of the idea but left open the possibility that he could be supportive. He said voters deserved to have a clear answer and pledged to give them one before Election Day — as if his objection to Amy Coney Barrett’s appointment in the first place wasn’t based on the fact that millions of people are already voting.
And after all that, what has Biden landed on? The oldest non-answer in the book. If elected, he told CBS’ Norah O’Donnell in an interview that will air this weekend, he will convene a bipartisan commission to examine judicial reforms.
It should have been easy for Biden to come up with that. You have to wonder what took him so long, and whether Trump can make him pay even a small price for indecision.
To train wreck or not
It wasn’t the moderator’s fault — or the media’s — that Trump came unglued in the first debate. But there is a perverse incentive attached to events that are designed as much for the resulting coverage as for the immediate viewing audience. Conflict and outrage generate interest. Less, though, thoughtful dialogue.
“The media’s hypocrisy is that they want a car wreck, and then they complain about a car wreck,” said Pat McCrory, the former Republican governor of North Carolina.
Whatever happens, be wary of reading too much into the debate’s effect on the outcome. Earlier debates tend to matter more than later ones, and even disastrous performances can be overcome. Following the final debate of the 2016 election, it was not uncommon to read headlines such as this one: “Clinton Probably Finished Off Trump Last night.”
What was true at the time was that Clinton outperformed Trump in the debate. It’s just that it didn’t matter as much as it seemed to at the time.