The final 2020 presidential debate didn’t change the minds of Democrats and Republicans. This was a debate targeted for the very few undecided voters They saw a memorable conflict between “Mister Rogers” (Biden) and “Crazy Uncle Don” (Trump).
Over the past few months it’s become banal to describe Donald Trump as crazy but an operational definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over” and that’s what Trump has done. Trump has stuck to the same dysfunctional strategy and his situation hasn’t improved. Since January Biden has been ahead of Trump in the 538 average of national polls; at first by around 5 percent, then, in the summer, by around 8 percent, and now by 10 percent. Biden is winning and Trump seemingly doesn’t know what to do about it.
Trump’s dysfunction has 5 components:
1.Trump sole focus is on his base. It’s been clear to every political observer that Trump can’t win the election unless he expands his base beyond 40 percent of the electorate. Trump isn’t doing this and over the course of the year has lost several key constituencies that supported him in 2016: suburban housewives, older voters, white college graduates, and self-identified “Independent” voters.
In last night’s debate, Trump did nothing to expand his base. In this sense, he lost. The after-debate CNN poll (https://www.cnn.com/2020/10/22/politics/cnn-poll-final-presidential-debate/index.html ) indicated that “53% of voters who watched the debate said that Biden won the matchup, while 39% said that [Trump] did.” A related CNN poll of 11 undecided voters found that 9 thought Biden had won and 2 thought the debate was a tie.
2.Trump’s communication strategy has only three components: campaign rallies, appearances on Fox News, and tweets. To repeat the obvious: with this communication strategy, Donald doesn’t reach voters outside his base.
In the debate, Trump used his “Fox News” persona, particularly in attacking Biden and his family — the unfounded allegation that Biden’s son, Beau, acted as a “bag man” for Joe. If you weren’t a regular Fox News viewer, you found Trump’s allegations incomprehensible.
3. Trump’s 2020 campaign doesn’t have a coherent theme. In 2016, he used “Make America Great Again.” He’s been forced to reuse this but it doesn’t have the same punch. (“Make America Great Again, Again” doesn’t work.)
In 2016, every Trump rally featured three chants: “Build the wall,” “Drain the swamp,” and “Lock her up.” In 2020, Trump can’t use “Build the wall” because he has failed to build his much-touted wall. Trump can’t use “Drain the swamp” because during his White House residency he has become king of the swamp. And he can’t use “lock her up” because he is no longer running against Hillary Clinton — and he can’t convince the American public that Joe Biden needs to be locked up.
In the debate, Trump tried to use the “lock her up” tactic against Biden; it didn’t work. Trump had no fall back strategy; he did not give viewers — outside his base — a reason to vote for him.
4. Trump blew his big chance. In January, when warned about the possibility of a coronavirus pandemic, Trump dismissed this, (“We have it totally under control.”) A month later, he still didn’t take the pandemic seriously: “This is like a flu…One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” For several critical months, Trump failed to show leadership; this fed the pandemic and led to the collapse of the economy.
The debate opened with a discussion of the Coronavirus pandemic. Trump said, “We’re learning to live with it.” Biden pounced: “He says that,,, we’re learning to live with it. People are learning to die with it… Learning to live with it? Come on. We’re dying with it, because he’s never said… it’s dangerous.” “220,000 Americans dead. If you hear nothing else I say tonight, hear this. Anyone who’s responsible for not taking control… anyone who is responsible for that many deaths should not remain as President of the United States of America…. [Trump] still has no plan.”
5. Trump had a monetary advantage over Biden and then frittered it away. (https://apnews.com/article/election-2020-virus-outbreak-joe-biden-donald-trump-impeachments-8ac355b6ebd62b19d8a44fedcbf5b128 ) In the spring, Trump had a $200 million cash advantage over the Biden campaign. Republicans lost that edge. The Hill reports that entering October, the Biden campaign had a $100 million advantage over the Trump campaign. (https://thehill.com/homenews/campaign/521998-biden-has-massive-cash-advantage-heading-into-election-day )
Summary: Two things jumped out of the debate. The first was that, while Trump was better behaved, the split-screen — that showed both candidates at the same time — consistently showed Trump as disdainful and antagonistic. Trump sneered but did not laugh. Biden occasionally laughed at something — a perceived lie — that Trump said. (This difference in affect was reflected in the CNN poll: “Favorable views of Biden before the debate stood at 55%, and they held steady at 56% in post-debate interviews. Likewise, Trump’s numbers held steady, with 42% saying they had a favorable view of the President in interviews conducted before Thursday’s debate and 41% saying the same afterward…. 60% of women said Biden won, 35% Trump.”
The second was that Trump unleashed an avalanche of falsehoods. (https://www.cnn.com/2020/10/22/politics/fact-check-final-presidential-election-debate/index.html )
Biden responded to these with incredulity: “c’mon.” (Come on) In presidential debate history, Biden’s “c’mon” will be noted along side Ronald Reagan’s “There you go again.” For example:”[Trump says] ‘Oh, don’t worry. [The pandemic] is all going to be over soon.’ Come on, there’s not another serious scientist in the world who thinks it’s going to be over soon.” With regards to the solvency of Social Security and Medicare: “I mean, the idea that Donald Trump is lecturing me on Social Security and Medicare? Come on.” With regards to race relations: “Here is one of the most racist presidents we’ve had in modern history. He pours fuel on every single racist fire, every single one… Come on. This guy has a dog whistle about as big as a fog horn.”
The moderator, Kristen Welker, concluded with this question to Trump and Biden: “Imagine this is your Inauguration Day. What will you say in your address to Americans who did not vote for you?” Trump responded: “Success is going to bring us together. We are on the road to success. But I’m cutting taxes and [Biden] wants to raise everybody’s taxes. And he wants to put new regulations on everything. He will kill it. If he gets in, you will have a depression, the likes of which you’ve never seen.”
Biden responded to Welker’s question: “I will say, ‘I’m the American president. I represent all of you whether you voted for me or against me. And I’m going to make sure that you’re represented. I’m going to give you hope… what is on the ballot here is the character of this country. Decency. Honor. Respect. Treating people with dignity. Making sure that everyone has an even chance.'”
Biden won the debate.