Countdown to the Debates

Countdown to the Debates


Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

As America approached the end of a strange summer and Labor Day weekend approached, both President Donald Trump and former Vice-President Joe Biden are ramping up their campaigns. The candidates are appearing now, to differing degrees, in public. They are each spinning the same events and subjects, each from their own perspective. Both men went to Kenosha, Wisconsin, and both went to Pennsylvania. The two candidates each addressed the matter of violence and law and order but very differently. One visited with the Blake family and spoke to Jacob Blake on the telephone and one never even mentioned his name. The President attacked Biden for what he will do to the nation when elected, without ever suggesting that perhaps he is to blame for much of what the nation is enduring on his watch.

The political ad campaign is intensifying with no monies being wasted in non-competitive states. Modern technology enables campaigns to spill out new material and ads literally within hours in response or to counter news and opposition attacks. Much of the conventional funds which were expended on advance teams, rallies, security, transportation, etc., have been reduced because of Covid-19 as candidates have curtailed their public appearances dramatically. GOTV efforts will be done largely on-line, remotely, and from phone banks. These changes will permit the candidates to shift large amounts of their budgets to TV, cable, and social media advertising. There will be more interviews and less public gatherings. The total amount of money—ultimately in the billions– which will be donated and spent in the next six weeks ensures that the 2020 campaigns’ totals will dwarf any amount that was ever spent in an election campaign.

Post-convention polling has been very enlightening for what it has suggested as well as what is unknown at this point.  It appears at the national level that the most highly regarded polls show little post-convention, bumps for either candidate. In the more important question of swing states and toss-up states, Biden has sustained at least the same or a stronger lead. For example, Biden increased his margin in Arizona, while falling back a few points in Pennsylvania. Other than mistakes, news events, or huge domestic issues—not for example a foreign policy event such as an Israeli-UAE peace treaty signing ceremony —the major event which will influence the polls will be the first debate.

There is one additional important note about the post-convention polls and what they might have demonstrated. Despite the extraordinarily sophisticated polling firms and their ability to adjust and correct for respondents’ errors, some observers suggest that there might be a significant under-reporting of pro-Trump vote, somewhat like what occurred years ago in LA and California with Tom Bradley or in New York City with David Dinkins. In those contests, polls showed Bradley and Dinkins with sizable leads prior to election day, but they both barely eked out victories. This was explained because polls had not sufficiently accounted for voters lying to pollsters because they did want to appear to be anti-Black. The question is whether the pollsters will and have accounted for some of Trump’s 2016 anti-Hillary voters lying as well to pollsters that they intend to reject Trump this time.

At this stage before the debates, the candidates’ strategies appear to be very different. The President will move around the country as much as he can, although the audiences will be smaller, his style will be the same. Trump will not prepare for the debates except to accumulate attack strategies to try to tempt Biden to bite. He is not interested in facts or details but will emphasize flamboyance and cockiness. The challenge will be for the moderator to keep Trump on point and focused, especially if Biden challenges the President.

Biden will spend time out of his basement but only in selected venues which are healthy and safe. They will be geographically well chosen but will not be barnburner events. Biden has been prepping for the debates for weeks. His staff will drill him non-stop to answer questions, get his facts locked down, be prepared to respond to Trump, and not get ensnared in any stylistic challenges which the President will offer. Biden will succeed best if he can maintain his equilibrium and not get flustered. Just like Trump suddenly walked around Hillary on stage in the middle of a debate, Biden needs to be prepared for some similar antics. Trump could even storm out in a huff.

The candidates have yet to meet on stage together.  When Chris Wallace takes his place at the first debate in Cleveland on September 29, it will be in his hands as the moderator to maintain control of the evening. The American people should be prepared for what could be one very ugly scene.


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