September 29, 2020
There’s an old axiom in Presidential campaigns: “A candidate can’t win the election during a debate, but they certainly can lose it during one.” (See Richard Nixon in 1960 or Gerald Ford in 1976.)
Tonight’s first debate between President Trump and former Vice President Biden should be no exception. Barring a major faux pas or complete meltdown by one of the two men — which, I’ll grant you is entirely possible, given these particular candidates — the trajectory of the race probably won’t change dramatically.
That’s especially true this year as opposed to four years ago, because polling shows a much smaller percentage of still undecided voters heading into the first debate than at the same point in 2016. I’ve seen undecided voter numbers as low as 3% and no higher than 9%. Four years ago, almost 20% of likely voters claimed they were still undecided heading into the first debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
That means tonight’s 90-minute debate is critical for President Trump. He needs to shake up a race that has been shockingly stable for months. Polling over that time consistently has shown that Joe Biden is the clear front runner — nationally and in a number of key swing states.
Having said that, a Donald Trump victory certainly is not out of the question, thanks to the Electoral College. Because of that quirk of U.S. Presidential politics, Donald Trump still can win re-election, while losing the popular vote by a potentially larger margin than the 3 million votes he lost it by in 2016.
But the President is running out of time, and early voting isn’t his friend. As of yesterday, over 1 million Americans already had voted. So, the pressure is on the incumbent. Unlike in boxing — when a draw goes to the defending champ — a draw in tonight’s debate won’t be good enough for the President. He needs to land blows against his front-runner challenger.
So, what should he do tonight? And how should Biden counter punch? As a former participant, coach, judge, and teacher of debate, I thought I’d share my thoughts on what each of the candidates should do this evening, as well as speculate on what they actually will do.
What President Trump Should Do
1. Be Prepared. While this sounds like a blinding flash of the obvious, the President is known for his off-the-cuff, shoot-from-the-hip communication style. But with so much riding on tonight’s performance for him, he would be better served by being thoroughly prepared and staying “on message” for the entire 90 minutes.
2. Act Presidential. Again, this shouldn’t need to be said. But the fact is that Donald Trump has behaved differently than any other President. That includes relying on Twitter for messaging, calling into television talk shows, and refusing to tone down the above-mentioned communication style. While this endears him to his most ardent supporters, they’re not his audience tonight. Instead, he needs to convince undecided (and mostly moderate) voters to break late for him, as they did in 2016. And displaying a more serious, measured tone would help him do so.
3. Reinforce the Republican Convention Messaging. The entire Republican convention was designed to portray the President as a caring, empathetic leader whose words and actions are often misunderstood by women and minorities (two groups with whom he continues to struggle in terms of support). If Trump can reinforce those themes during the debate, he might be able to change the trajectory of the campaign.
4. Blame Democrats for the Economic Shutdown and Slowdown. As we’ll discuss in a minute, former Vice President Biden is going to hit the President hard on this topic. Trump can deflect that by arguing that the recession is the fault of House Democrats, Democratic governors, and his favorite target — the media.
5. Link Biden to the Far-Left Progressive Wing of the Democratic Party. This is perhaps the President’s best weapon against Biden. Polling indicates that the personal attacks that worked so well in 2016 against Hillary Clinton aren’t working as well against Joe Biden in 2020. Therefore, the President should continue to link Biden to Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other progressive Democrats in an attempt to scare those moderate, undecided voters on topics such as increased taxes, stifling business regulations, and government-enforced “cancel culture.”
What President Trump Probably Will Do
1. Wing It and Treat the Debate Like One of his Rallies: Rumor has it that the President has chosen not to prepare much for the debate. And if those rumors are true, I expect him to default to the off-the-cuff, shoot-from-the-hip communication style that works so well at his rallies. But I’m not sure that will play well in the debate format — especially without a live audience to play off of.
2. Attack, Attack, Attack. I don’t think Donald Trump has the discipline to reinforce the “kinder, gentler” President that the speakers at the Republican convention attempted to portray. Furthermore, sources close to the President say he is planning to attack Biden and his family in the hopes the former Vice President will become so emotionally charged that he stumbles, loses his train of thought, and commits potentially damaging gaffes. (BTW…this isn’t necessarily a bad tactic, given Biden’s propensity to engage in the above-mentioned faux pas. But it IS a risky one that could easily backfire with those moderate, undecided voters.)
3. Blame China, the Democrats, and the Media for EVERYTHING. Love him or hate him, you have to admit that the President steadfastly refuses to accept any responsibility for errors — or even admit those errors occurred. I don’t think tonight will be any different. Again, his base loves this. But will it play to the moderate, undecided voter?
What Former Vice President Biden Should Do
1. Be “Uncle Joe.” As I mentioned above, polling shows that voters view Joe Biden more positively than they did Hillary Clinton. The former VP needs to play to that strength by remaining calm, being polite, cracking a few Dad jokes, and displaying empathy for Americans struggling economically and/or from personal losses due to the pandemic. This is especially critical if President Trump does indeed go into full-blown attack mode.
2. Hit Trump Hard on the Economy and His Pandemic Response. The old political expression “It’s the economy, stupid” needs to be expanded for the 2020 election to “It’s the economy and the pandemic, stupid.” If I’m on Biden’s debate team, I’m drilling him on how to bring it back to these two topics as often as possible.
3. Make the Election About Trump. One of Biden’s consistent themes so far has been the portrayal of this election as a battle for “the soul of America.” Therefore, he needs to reinforce the fact that he and the President could not be more different in terms of their individual personalities and their broader visions of America. Then he must appeal to voters to decide which vision of America they wish to see triumph. Also, Biden got a gift this week from the New York Times, when they published a damning article about the President’s history of tax payments (or lack thereof). Expect the former Vice President to bring that up tonight as part of his attacks on the President. Finally, one of the six topics for tonight’s debate is race and the protests surrounding that sensitive topic. Look for Biden to attempt to paint Trump as racist — while the President will attempt to turn the topic into a strength of his as the “law-and-order” candidate.
4. Keep It Simple, Stupid. Joe Biden is a self-admitted gaffe machine and has been his entire political career. Because the President’s campaign is trying to portray Biden as mentally unfit for office, the VP needs to be precise and concise in his answers. When he starts to ramble, the gaffes begin. And the last thing he wants to do is reinforce the image the Trump campaign is trying to paint of him
5. Don’t Fall for Trump’s Personal Baiting. If Trump’s attacks are even half as personal and vicious as insiders say they will be, it will be difficult for the fiery Irishman from Scranton to ignore them. But he absolutely must. If he does, he will come across as Presidential and the proverbial “adult in the room.”
What Former Vice President Biden Probably Will Do
1. Stay Focused and Disciplined for Most of the Debate. Unlike the President, the former Vice President reportedly has spent a lot of time preparing for tonight’s debate (perhaps even too much time, according to some nervous Democrats, who’d like to see him out campaigning more). So, I do expect him to stay disciplined for most — but not all — of the 90 minutes. And it’s during those few moments of slippage that Biden could unleash one of those “gasp moments” that changes the trajectory of the campaign and keeps political junkies talking about tonight for decades.
2. Over-Answer Some Questions and Get Lost in His Thoughts. Again, this has nothing to do with Biden’s age or mental faculties — he’s simply a gaffe machine…always has been, always will be. And I guarantee there will be at least one or two head-scratching moments that his staff will have to clarify after the debate.
3. Play to Not Lose — Not to Win. Unlike the President, who simply must shake up the current state of the election, Biden has little motivation to take risks tonight. Therefore, I expect him to stick to his carefully scripted answers and carefully prepared portrayal of “Uncle Joe.” That’s the approach his campaign has taken so far, basically sitting on their lead in the polls and trying to run out the clock until November 3rd. So why change now?
Will Biden succeed? Or will President Trump reset the campaign with a fiery and effective performance? Grab your popcorn and tune in tonight at 9:00 PM Eastern to see. Then tune in tomorrow for my post-debate analysis.
For those of you wondering why I’m qualified to write about this topic, I have a Ph.D. in Human Communication Studies from the University of Denver — with an emphasis on leadership, power, and persuasion. My dissertation research focused on political communication, specifically Ross Perot’s 1992 Presidential campaign (“A Mythic Analysis of Ross Perot’s 1992 Campaign Infomercials as a Modern American Jeremiad”). And I have worked on — or consulted for — a number of political campaigns, ranging from the mayoral to the Presidential level.