The showdown is finally here. After a few years of campaign posturing, including once getting into a real fight about an imaginary fight, Donald Trump and Joe Biden will finally be in the same room for tonight’s first presidential debate ... and judging by past debates featuring the Donald, the gloves will definitely be off. This Daily Dose takes a look at the stakes and how this debate could reshape the race, and helps you prep by reviewing pivotal moments of debates past, including everyone from Trump to Biden to JFK.
— Daniel Malloy, Senior Editor, and Nick Fouriezos, Senior Reporter
Time: Tuesday from 9 to 10:30 p.m. ET, airing on all major networks
Location: Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio
Moderator: Chris Wallace, anchor of Fox News Sunday
Topics: the records of both Biden and Trump, the Supreme Court, COVID-19, the economy, election integrity, and race and violence in U.S. cities
This will be the biggest audience of the campaign, and could well top the 84 million people who watched the first presidential debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016. These events always offer a rare opportunity to get the candidates to engage mano a mano. But given how the pandemic has limited in-person campaigning — though Trump is still conducting some large in-person events — the debate is all the more critical.
2. Biden in the Spotlight
For better or worse, Trump is largely defined in the public eye, after years of perhaps the most intensely publicized presidency in American history and his rough-and-tumble presidential campaign in 2016. However, the image of Biden, despite more than four decades as a U.S. senator and then vice president, is not quite pinned down, particularly with less politically minded Americans. And with Trump repeatedly raising questions about Biden’s mental fitness, this is his chance to dispel the doubters.
3. Tax Bill Comes Due
One of a number of September surprises in the past two weeks, the New York Timesdropped a report Sunday that details how Trump avoided paying any federal taxes in 11 of 18 years of recent returns obtained by the Gray Lady. Biden has already signaled one line of attack, with his campaign releasing an ad comparing the average taxes paid by teachers ($7,239), firefighters ($5,283) and nurses ($10,216) to Trump’s 2017 tax bill of only $750. But Trump is likely to respond that his ability to avoid paying taxes is a sign of his financial savvy, not a knock against it, as he did in 2016. The question is whether Wallace or Biden dig in on Trump’s reported $421 million in loans — most of which come due in the next four years — which undermine his brand as a business genius.
4. How They’re Prepping
Biden has repeatedly “called a lid,” telling reporters he’s done traveling or doing public events, before 10 a.m. in recent weeks — likely to prepare for the debate. Trump has used that strategy to reinforce his criticism of Biden as “Sleepy Joe,” while insisting “I’m working my ass off” and holding rallies everywhere from Ohio and Texas to Michigan and Wisconsin. Meanwhile, Trump has been doing mock debates for months, although he claims that recent prep has been more ad hoc, with the Biden role being played by Chris Christie and Rudy Giuliani. It remains to be seen whether either of the firebrands can channel Biden’s human touch, just as it’s questionable whether Biden’s Trump stand-in, the low-key, deliberate former White House counsel Bob Bauer can bring a Trump-like heat into the debate room.
The debate comes at a pivotal time for Trump, who trails Biden in national poll averages and in key swing states. In fact, the OZY/0ptimus forecasting model, which takes into account polling, fundraising, historical trends and other factors, currently gives Biden an 82 percent chance of winning the presidency — with the odds staying remarkably steady for weeks. Tuesday's debate is in Ohio, a state we rate as a toss-up that could be checkmate for Biden if he wins it on Election Day. But a lot can shift in the final days, as voters saw in 2016.
From the start of his presidential bid through the midterms, Trump positioned himself squarely against Latino immigrants with scaremongering about “rapists” from Mexico, MS-13 and the dreaded “caravan.” In 2020, the “law and order” message applies to Black American rioters in the inner cities who are coming to destroy the homes of the “Suburban Housewives of America.” Expect him to play up these fears, particularly during the section of the debate on “race and violence in U.S. cities,” a framing liberals are already decrying as unfairly slanted.
In many ways, Trump’s tactics evoke the 1988 presidential race and the debate over Horton — a Black convict featured in an infamous ad designed to make Democrat Michael Dukakis look soft on crime for supporting a prison furlough program. The big debate moment came not from George H.W. Bush pressing the issue, but from CNN’s Bernard Shaw asking Dukakis if he’d support the death penalty against someone who raped and murdered his wife. Dukakis’ emotionless answer helped sink his candidacy.
From the campaign trail, Biden has focused on an aspirational goal of fighting for the “soul of the nation,” painting an America made of good and decent hardworking people. But at times, the tempestuous Biden — who in 2018 said he would take Trump behind the gym and “beat the hell out of him” if they were in high school — has flared up, most notably when he told an autoworker he was “full of shit” for questioning his gun record. The key strategic balance for Biden: Channeling righteous anger for Trump about, say, COVID-19 without looking like a cranky old man.
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There were no televised presidential debates for 16 years, but the trailing incumbent and outsider challenger both had incentives to jump on stage in 1976. Their clash is best remembered for one epic gaffe: “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” Ford’s declaration flew in the face of the facts on the ground at the time and gave Carter a crucial opening on foreign policy.
These two only met once (full video here), a week before the election, as Carter boycotted the first debate because of the presence of independent candidate John Anderson. That meant Carter wasn’t able to bounce back from the typical struggles of a presidential incumbent’s first debate, as Reagan shirked the image of a crazy ideologue put forth by the Carter campaign. Reagan’s “There you go again” line may be the most memorable of the debate, but his overall performance was strong … suspiciously so. That’s because the California governor had some extra help: stolen materials from the Carter campaign.
They were the sighs heard round the world. Gore couldn’t hide his contempt for his opponent, and it came out through audible sighs during their first debate. Gore’s dismissive body language became the story, and Bush emerged as more likable. Strategists say it was a turning point in the race that Bush won by the thinnest of margins.
5. 2012: Joe Biden vs. Paul Ryan
The then-VP provided a desperately needed boost to Barack Obama’s campaign after the president's limp first performance against Mitt Romney. Biden spent much of the debate on the attack, scoffing at the boyish Ryan's ideas. Check out howBiden repeatedly interrupts Ryan on his tax cut plan, and jabs with "Oh, now you're Jack Kennedy" after Ryan uses the Kennedy administration as a precedent.
6. 2016: Donald Trump vs. Hillary Clinton
Their second debate was the most memorable, occurring just days after the Access Hollywood tape was released. Trump bulldozed through the controversy by inviting Bill Clinton’s female accusers to sit in the audience and lurking behind Hillary Clinton during the town hall–style debate. But in an electoral college victory powered by big base turnout and holding together social conservatives skeptical of his private life, a critical Trump moment came in the third debate when hetalked about late-term abortions using horrific language rarely heard on the political stage — convincing pro-lifers he was firmly on their side. With abortion politics back at the forefront after Amy Coney Barrett's Supreme Court nomination, we could see a redux Tuesday night.
The president’s greatest strength in debates is his inability to become flustered by shame, remorse or embarrassment. That’s no small thing, as Biden will try to attack his character and record … and Trump will likely give as good as he gets. A victory for Trump would be to make Biden stumble, either by goading the 77-year-old into one of his rambling non sequiturs (which would play into Trump’s attacks on Biden’s mental faculties) or by pissing off the former vice president (don’t be surprised if Trump attacks Biden’s troubled son Hunter or brings up sexual assault allegations leveled by Tara Reade). If Trump can create a moral equivalency with voters between his bad behavior and that of Biden, that may be enough to bring white voters who have abandoned him since 2016 back into his camp.
The Democrat’s team has repeatedly suggested that he will look to take the higher ground, presenting himself as the sober-minded leader the nation needs to lessen tensions and restore normalcy. Republicans are waiting to make memes of any age-related gaffes, so Biden will have to speak clearly and directly. He must resist the urge to seek viral low blows or quippy attacks on the president, which may excite Twitter followers but often come across as petty on the debate stage. The former vice president has always done best wearing his heart on his sleeve, and if he can channel that empathy while making Trump look small in return — perhaps by getting out of the way and letting Trump say something insensitive, whether it’s about coronavirus victims or Black Americans protesting police violence — he will have succeeded.
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Trump’s pre-debate challenge to Biden has been for him to take a drug test, as if this were the Tour de France, to bolster Trump’s assertion that the former veep’s uneven public performances must be chemically enhanced. The Biden camp refused and said the request is fitting for a president who “pissed away the chance to protect 200K Americans.” So why not take it to the next level, with Trump dropping a cup of urine on the podium and demanding a test right then and there?
2. Check, Mate?
In an attempt to call attention to the newly leaked Trump taxes, Biden could come armed with a check for $750. "Since you seem so desperate to avoid paying your taxes, here's $750 — your next year is on me," Biden could say with a grin. Trump could then offer to redistribute the wealth to Hunter Biden, via a Ukrainian pass-through company.
Trump has been giving tacit approval to the nutso QAnon conspiracy theory, which posits that a global cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles controls the levers of power and Trump is the only one who can stop them. Now could be the time he decides to go all in: Deflect the tax return leak by accusing the media of not investigating the real problem — child trafficking by Biden and his ilk.