Four years ago, Donald Trump prepared to debate his general-election opponent for the first time. Down in the polls to an experienced, traditional pol, he had been reduced to spreading weird rumors and casting doubt on the legitimacy of the vote, even as questions swirled about his personal finances.
Now Trump is the incumbent president, and the conditions could not be more different as he prepares for his first debate with Democratic nominee Joe Biden on Tuesday: a nation wracked by disease, disorder and disasters; an election neither candidate is treating like a foregone conclusion. And yet the similarities to 2016 are striking, from new questions about Trump’s taxes to another open Supreme Court seat. The main similarity, of course, is Trump—a singular political figure who has intensely polarized the nation.
The debate, scheduled to begin at 9 p.m. Eastern at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, is especially momentous because voters have had few opportunities to see the candidates up close. Both Trump and Biden have curtailed their travel and in-person campaigning due to the COVID-19 pandemic, though Trump has resumed holding versions of his signature rallies in recent weeks.
Moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News plans to focus the 90-minute discussion on the pandemic, the economy, the court, the candidates’ records, election integrity, and “race and violence in our cities.” Other news—such as a New York Times report that Trump has paid a negligible amount of income taxes over the past decade—could also be on the table.
Trump has not debated since his face-offs with Hillary Clinton four years ago. At the time, his refusal to release his tax returns was much in the news. When Clinton suggested he might be hiding a failure to pay income tax, Trump responded, “That makes me smart.” He also repeatedly refused to pledge to accept the results of the 2016 election if he lost. Meanwhile, Trump and his campaign stoked rumors that Clinton’s “stamina” had been damaged by unknown health conditions.
Though pundits and polls repeatedly judged Clinton the winner, those debates are now principally remembered for Trump’s jarring diversions—at various times, he lurked behind Clinton as she spoke; brought four alleged victims of sexual misconduct by her husband as his guests; and promised to jail her if elected (a pledge he notably abandoned).
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Trump may be a rusty debater, but his relentless presence on Twitter and television over the past four years has accustomed and perhaps inured the American public to his unwavering style: the lilting recitations, fact-challenged asides and derogatory nicknames. After four unrelenting years, Trump will find it difficult to change anyone’s preconceived opinion of him.
Trump has continually portrayed Biden as “dumb,” incompetent and senile, devoid of energy and hiding from voters. Trump’s advisers privately worry he’s set expectations too low—that Biden’s ability to string sentences together will now strike people as impressive. Trump allies have falsely accused Biden of relying on teleprompters, and in recent days Trump himself has trollishly demanded the candidates take a drug test before the debate—another tactic recycled from his tussle against Clinton four years ago.
Political experts say Trump thrives on breaking decorum and creating a memorable spectacle, daring his opponent to object to his out-of-bounds tactics. “Can Biden hold it together against a no-holds-barred wrestler who’s willing to throw sand in people’s faces, gouge eyeballs, exaggerate facts and say things without evidence?” says Will Ritter, a Virginia-based GOP consultant unaffiliated with the Trump campaign. “Do you try to correct him like Hillary did, or do you try to throw your own sand? If you spend the whole time going, ‘No, no, he can’t say that, that’s not true,’ he’s still winning.”
Biden served as vice president for eight years and has been a fixture of national politics for decades, yet is still a less familiar figure to the public, to the point that some Democratic campaigners worry he remains ill-defined. Trump and his allies have signaled they plan to deploy a version of the anti-Clinton playbook, seeking to turn the established politician’s experience into a negative by casting him as part of the failed policies of the past.
In vice presidential debates in 2008 and 2012, Biden cut a fast-talking, sometimes wise-cracking figure, mingling folksy turns of phrase with senatorial disquisitions on the finer points of policy. Ritter, who helped prepare then-GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan to debate Biden in 2012, recalls, “Joe does the ‘aw, shucks, man,’ kind of thing really well, which allows him to roll off the ropes pretty easily. Hillary didn’t have that personality gear.”
Biden has aged since then, and his recent debates against Democratic counterparts were inconsistent. His answers were often meandering or clumsily worded, and he sometimes got lost in obscure reminiscence. Still, his opponents’ attacks rarely seemed to register and frequently backfired; his essential humanity, former opponents say, tended to shine through. “He has this thing where he’ll just flash this big, high-wattage smile instead of getting nasty or defensive, and it serves him well,” says Lis Smith, a Democratic strategist who masterminded Pete Buttigieg’s primary campaign and is unaffiliated with the Biden camp. “He’s a sympathetic figure—there’s just not much value in punching Uncle Joe in the face.”
Democrats are haunted by the ghosts of 2016, when many believe Clinton put too much emphasis on attacking Trump and not enough on defining her own vision or making the case that she represented a change from the status quo. That remains a danger for Biden, whose supporters, polls have shown, are motivated primarily by passionate dislike for Trump.
But Trump, Democrats argue, will have a harder time playing the outsider now that he is the incumbent. “Trump thrives at the lowest level, in the sewer, and he’s going to try everything he can to get Joe Biden down there with him,” Smith says. “But now that we’ve seen what four years of Trump is like, it’s harder to pull the wool over the eyes of voters like he did last time.”
Though the debate promises to be exciting, political observers express doubt that it will have much effect on the outcome of a campaign whose fundamentals have been remarkably stable. Biden leads nationally by an average of seven percentage points—a lead that has neither expanded nor contracted substantially since the onset of COVID-19 or the other seismic events of this dismal year. His leads in most swing states have been similarly steady.
“If a global pandemic and recession couldn’t fundamentally change the numbers in this race, it’s hard to believe 90 minutes of televised debate will,” Smith says.
Ritter, the GOP consultant, echoed that analysis. In the populations his firm contacts for down-ballot campaigns, “we’re not seeing a lot of swing voters,” he says. “People might be tuning into the debate to see if Joe Biden will melt or Donald Trump will do something so beyond the pale it takes your breath away. But I don’t think anyone is going in with an open mind, just curious to see what these two candidates for higher office have to say.”