Experts handicap the Trump-Biden debate

Experts Handicap the Trump-Biden Debate
Experts Handicap the Trump-Biden Debate

Summary

A make-or-break moment arrives unusually early in the presidential race.

J and Donald Trump will enter CNN’s Atlanta studio next Thursday for the most important 90 minutes of this election season. What they say, the impressions they leave, their confrontations, mistakes and humanizing moments could determine who wins in November.

If one candidate has a particularly bad night, undecided and otherwise up-for-grabs voters could lock in for his opponent. Since the next debate comes nearly 11 weeks later, it’ll be difficult to rehabilitate a damaged campaign.

To understand what each camp faces, I talked with five Republicans and three Democrats who have helped presidential candidates with debates, from role-playing opponents and critiquing prep sessions to spinning the press after the studio lights were cut.

Everyone agreed that both candidates face tests of self-awareness and impulse control. Mr. Biden must demonstrate sustained mental acuity. He can’t freeze, stare blankly or sound befuddled. Mr. Trump can’t come off as unhinged or enraged. The words “rigged election" shouldn’t pass his lips. He has to keep his cool and can’t make it all about himself.

The target voters who could be swayed aren’t either side’s true believers. Each party’s base will stick with its man, no matter what. Swing voters, however, can be moved by the debate and the subsequent conversation. Post debate commentary, influenced by post debate spin, will matter.

Many voters will decide who won based more on body language, confidence and who seemed on his game than on any specific policy point.

The experts I interviewed agreed that Mr. Trump should make the election a referendum on Mr. Biden’s four years while Mr. Biden should make it a choice between the stability he’ll provide and Mr. Trump’s chaos.

Mr. Trump has the easier task of validating the public’s feelings of discontent. He can hammer the cost of living, the border crisis and the decline of public safety in many American cities. Voters already think Mr. Trump is better at handling these issues. The former president should spend as much time on what he’ll do in his second term as on Mr. Biden’s failings.

Experts cautioned that Mr. Trump shouldn’t overhype issues, such as by blaming Mr. Biden for Americans getting killed by illegal migrants, an argument that can easily be turned back against him. All it takes is one such victim on Mr. Trump’s watch for Mr. Biden to flip the issue on him and muddy the waters.

Mr. Biden must offer convincing evidence that he has succeeded where Mr. Trump failed. Take jobs: Fewer Americans were working when Mr. Trump left office than when he began. By contrast, some 25 million more Americans were working last month than when Mr. Biden took office. The president can also flesh out his “I’m fighting for you" narrative with examples of his support for tax hikes on big corporations and cheaper drug prices during his administration. Wasted Covid-19 spending provides another possible opening for Mr. Biden to criticize Mr. Trump’s ineptitude.

Mr. Biden must also attack future Trump policies that swing voters reject, such as Mr. Trump’s promise to pardon Jan. 6 felons. Mr. Biden can make hay by describing their violent acts. Attacking Mr. Trump on abortion will also force him to defend a position much of the country opposes or to appear equivocal and evasive, thereby unsettling some of his base.

Each candidate should pick three key messages he wants viewers to remember and use stories about real people to humanize himself and drive home these messages.

Several experts emphasized the importance of staying on the offensive. Whenever a candidate is put on his back foot, he should explain himself briefly and quickly pivot back to the offensive. Both men will goad each other, hoping to get an overreaction. That’s likely to be more productive for Mr. Biden.

Both men should remember that sometimes the counterpunch is more powerful than the first blow. Both camps are likely gaming out where the opposition will attack and figuring how to flip it.

The experts said that whoever talks more about trials—Mr. Trump’s guilty verdict and pending charges, or Hunter Biden’s gun conviction and tax-evasion case—would mostly be wasting time. Some felt that Mr. Biden’s tossing around “convicted felon" wouldn’t have much influence, but polls show that 21% of independents say the conviction made them less likely to support Mr. Trump. My guess is that Mr. Biden will go there. He’s got the most to lose if he doesn’t come out on top that night.

This election may remain close until the end, but if something can put one candidate solidly ahead, it’s next week’s debate. Get your popcorn. It’ll be a heck of a night.Mr. Rove helped organize the political-action committee American Crossroads and is author of “The Triumph of William McKinley" (Simon & Schuster, 2015).

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