We’re exactly one week away from the first debate of the 2020 election, and President Trump has endured a brutal September. His troubles include an article in The Atlantic alleging belittling statements by him about American servicemen, and two highly critical books by Michael Cohen and Bob Woodward, the latter quoting him as understanding the terrible consequences of COVID—19 while downplaying its impact publicly. The result is Joe Biden cementing a significant national lead in the public opinion surveys.
Conservatives have complained that Biden has not been forced to answer “tough questions.” That’s probably true but it’s due mostly to Trump’s penchant for intemperate statements that attract media attention. The press loves a good tussle and a misstep by Biden would invite his own press scrutiny.
However, the bottom has not fallen out of Trump’s numbers. More than 8 of 10 Republicans have stuck with him, something that is not likely to change. While Trump has virtually no hope of winning a popular majority, his deficit in swing states is smaller, and he retains hope of winning a second term with an electoral college majority.
The recent Supreme Court vacancy due to the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, along with the upcoming presidential debates, give the president his last chance to change the narrative for the November election. The full political effect of filling the vacancy prior to the election is not yet clear. However, the most likely impact would seem to energize partisans on both sides who follow judicial appointments. It’s unlikely to change many minds, though some may question the “fairness” of filling the seat so close to the election. At least one national survey finds a plurality of the public (45 percent) in favor of having the winning candidate fill the seat, 13 percent favoring a Senate vote after November 3, and the remaining 28 percent supporting a Senate vote prior to the election.
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This brings us back to debate strategies for both sides. Here are a few observations. First for Biden:
Project calm/normalcy. In this election, it is the challenger who is promising calm and a return to more traditional ways of governing. Surveys indicate this represents one of his biggest assets with voters. Biden’s performance should project that calm. Avoid getting into a back and forth with Trump on his more exotic pronouncements. The “jury” is the American people. Talk directly to them. Don’t hesitate to stress accomplishments over your long career and your willingness to work with everyone to solve America’s problems. Your bet is that America is tired of the rancor and hopes once again for more cooperation at the national level.
Keep the focus on your opponent. There is an enduring anti Trump coalition in the country, though the specific components agree on little else. Outside of the economy, the country trusts you more than the president to handle most of the big issues – the COVID virus, civil unrest and racial injustice, health care among other issues. Reminding the country why the president is unpopular should be part of every answer.
Stick to the game plan. You will score points as a challenger just being on stage with the incumbent president. The Trump campaign has called you out as past your prime. Home runs are not necessary. Solid singles and an occasional ground rule double will build your credibility. Answer the questions confidently, no unnecessary pauses (TV hates dead time). Develop a central point and add to it drawing on your existing themes and issue positions. It’s good to add detail, but otherwise stick to the issues and themes you have been using.
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Speak to the future. Presidential elections are still about hope for a better future for America. Use this time to summarize your vision for America and how your policies will make things better. Speak in broad strokes about goals, working across the aisle, seeking support from the American people. Focus on the big issues that the public trusts you to handle. It’s important not only to criticize the status quo but to offer some detail as to how you might do things differently.
As the underdog, President Trump has different challenges. He needs to split Biden’s coalition, hype his supporters’ turnout, and win some of the few “persuadables” still available to him.
Prepare. The president is supremely confident in his instincts, but 90 minutes per event answering fifteen or twenty questions can be a long time without sufficient preparation. Structural answers are important to show candidate focus and command of the subject matter. More important, when he wanders, the president has a penchant to reach for exotic facts or make questionable assertions, things that the fact checkers will pounce on and blur the main points he wants to make.
Bring some focus to Biden. If the focus is all about you, you will lose. Make the Biden record part of the conversation. Biden has backers – Sanders’ socialists through moderate Republicans, who disagree on many things. Seek to raise doubts about Biden’s promises and past actions. Progressives hate Biden’s law and order past, his dissing of Anita Hill and his coziness with Big Business. Republicans should be skeptical of his tax increases and regulatory policies. Seek to paint him as a typical politician who promises everything to everyone.
Create chaos. Biden wants order. You have bet your career on shaking up the status quo and “draining the swamp.” Tie Biden to the status quo ( I know you’re president, but…). Stress the powers allied against you, that you have hit them hard but that you need more time to complete the job. Americans may want normalcy but they’re still deeply skeptical of Washington, DC. Your best chance is to exploit that skepticism. This narrative is manna to your base supporters who love swipes at the status quo and the “Deep State.”
An October Surprise? This is always available to an incumbent president. In this case, however, your fight to fill the Supreme Court vacancy is THE bold move to change the narrative of the campaign. The effort will delight your base and infuriate your opponents. Your hope is to emphasize a strong four year record of appointing judicial conservatives to the federal bench and to stress a commitment to continue this work in a second term.
In a political world dominated by canned TV commercials, angry talking heads, anonymous bloggers and a few trolls, the presidential debates are one of our last opportunities to see the candidates on their own, mostly unscripted, answering difficult questions of interest to voters. Hats off to the Commission on Presidential Debates for giving voters this opportunity.
Frank Donatelli served as assistant for political affairs to President Ronald Reagan and as deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee during the 2008 presidential campaign of John McCain.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.