Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Biden-Trump Debate Performances Will Be Judged Against Expectations

Politico has an excellent article today on the upcoming debate between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden:.

Donald Trump will face Joe Biden within days for the first of three presidential debates, and some of the president’s supporters are already bracing for a humiliating loss.

White House allies, Republican donors and some of Trump’s closest advisers worry that a recent, frenzied push by his top lieutenants to portray Biden as a seasoned debater -- with the goal of raising expectations for the Democratic presidential nominee -- is too late and too disingenuous to have an impact when the two meet on the debate stage next Tuesday.

They worry Trump has set a trap for himself by incessantly attacking Biden’s age and mental acumen. It’s a tactic the president has maintained even as his campaign publicly insists the former vice president is fully capable of a satisfactory performance. Unlike the president, who has spuriously claimed Biden is “probably” on performance-enhancing drugs, Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh attributed Biden’s “quite good” performance in past debates to the Democrat’s ability “to turn it on when the cameras come” after years of experience in politics.

“Eight years as vice president, three decades in the Senate, two debates as vice president and he just came through about a dozen debates in the Democratic primaries where he vanquished two dozen opponents — that’s the Joe Biden we’re expecting,” Murtaugh said.

It’s this type of expectation-setting that some of the president’s allies believe he and his campaign should have engaged in all along, an approach they’re now frustrated to see deployed so close to the Sept. 29 debate in Cleveland. The Trump campaign spent the bulk of this summer questioning whether “Sleepy Joe” is fit for office and accusing the Biden campaign of trying to circumvent the traditional debates to avoid a potentially embarrassing situation for their candidate.

The Trump campaign not managing expectations going into the debate was incredibly dumb.  But then it is hard to blame campaign staffers when the candidate himself is the one driving the "Dementia Joe" bus, thus lowering the bar Biden has to clear to prevail.  At the same time Trump was lowering debate expectations for Biden, he was raising those expectations for himself, recasting himself as a great debater during the 2016 cycle when the evidence was overwhelming otherwise.

Trump does have one thing up his sleeve, however.  Unpredictability.   While I have no doubt Biden (unlike Trump) will prepare for the debate, I am not convinced he will be ready to hit the assortment of breaking pitches Trump is likely to be throwing.  For example, I could see Trump pulling a stunt such as challenging Biden to a cognitive functioning test during the debate.  While I have little doubt Biden's cognitive functioning is at a higher level than Trump's, I am not convinced Biden would handle the challenge during the debate well.  Biden better be ready for that one.

Nonetheless, the one thing I'm convinced of is that the debate won't move the polls much either direction.   Voters seem to have made up their minds.  The polls have barely budged for months. 

OOP's short takes:

  • In one of the few competitive Indiana state senate races, Republican incumbent John Ruckleshaus is seeking re-election.  I met John through GOP politics.  Even though I am more conservative than John, I always had a great deal of respect for his commitment to public service.  But I so wish John had chosen to resign instead of becoming embroiled in a nasty campaign that may well tarnish his reputation.  John's northside Indianapolis/southern Hamilton County state senate district has turned sharply blue since he last ran in 2016.  I just don't think there are enough Republicans left in the district, even in Hamilton County, for John to win.  
  • A similar thing is going on in Congressional District 5.  We are seeing Republican Victoria Spartz fighting to keep Republican control of the district formerly represented by Susan Brooks.  While CD 5 is a lot larger than Ruckelshaus' state senate district, it is also a district that's trending more Democrat.  If Spartz, who ran as a Trump enabler wannabe, is able to hold off a challenge from Democrat Christina Hale, it will likely be because of the rural Hamilton County portion of the district which remains ruby red. 
  • Look for the Supreme Court fight to help certain Republican Senate incumbents and hurt others.  Joni Ernst of Iowa and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina will likely have their efforts boosted by the coming confirmation battle.  But it will undoubtedly hurt Susan Collins of Maine and Cory Gardner of Colorado.  Both are in blue states and probably the last Republican Senators we will see from those states.  As far as Arizona Senator Martha McSally goes...well, her campaign has been dead for months. 

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