On Oct. 22, President Trump and former Vice President Biden met for their final debate. While some studies suggest that debates may not have a noticeable effect on election outcomes, in a close election, even a small bump in a couple of states can make a difference. So, how did the candidates do?
After the fiasco that was the first debate and the cancellation of the second due to squabbles over the format, expectations were quite low for the final debate. However, both candidates did surprisingly well. There were no campaign-threatening gaffes on either side, and both candidates landed solid hits on their opponents while addressing most of their favored talking points. Further, the rule changes helped moderator Kristen Welker to maintain her control of the conversation, and the candidates seemed slightly more inclined to allow their opponent to put two sentences together.
However, clearing the bar of “not being absolutely terrible” is not enough to declare victory for either candidate. Indeed, the question of victory, when posed as “who performed better” is an arbitrary one, and seems to align neatly with the partisan predisposition of the viewer. A better question might be “who best achieved their objectives?” The objectives of the candidates going into the debate were clear, with Trump trying to sway undecided voters to his side and Biden trying to prevent this from happening. With this in mind, it is clear that Biden, albeit narrowly, best achieved his strategic aims, and thus came away from the debate in a stronger position than he entered it.
To understand each campaigns’ strategic objectives, we need to look at the state of the race. Polling currently suggests that Biden is likely to win, with FiveThirtyEight giving about an 86% chance of a Biden victory. This means that, in general, Biden benefits from keeping the current dynamic of the race by playing defensively, whereas Trump has more to gain from changing the race, causing him to play aggressively in hopes of clawing out another last-minute victory. Of course, polls can be somewhat unreliable, but even models that ignore polls entirely and predicted the Trump win in 2016 seem to point to a Biden victory.
Things can, and almost certainly will, change in the days before the election, and it remains to be seen if the recent allegations of corruption against the Biden family will affect the race. However, the impetus is on President Trump to change the dynamic of the race by gaining support among the dwindling number of undecided voters who could still propel him to victory. In order to achieve this, President Trump needs to do two things: radically alter the dynamics of the race, which currently favor Biden; and make the pitch for his reelection to the working-class voters in a handful of swing states that will decide his fate. Biden, meanwhile, needs to maintain his lead, which is why his debate strategy centered around making the debate as harmless to his polling numbers as possible.
Regardless of one’s political views, it is easy to see that President Trump has a record supporting his reelection. He can point to his tax cuts that reduced taxes for many middle-class families, his criminal justice reform, his detente with North Korea, and, most importantly for his reelection, a booming Pre-COVID job market, especially for the white and Hispanic working-class voters on whom Trump is counting to eke out another victory. In order to win over these voters again, Trump must be laser-focused on his pitch. Undecided voters watching the debate needed to hear Trump spending the maximum amount of time possible touting the ways his policies have improved the lives of the swing voters he desperately needs to win.
And nobody seems to realize this more clearly than Trump himself. While the first debate was amusing to watch, Trump was more concerned with provoking Biden, which didn’t help his campaign. Since then, he seems to have realized the reality of the situation and in the third debate, he belatedly attempted to make the case he should have been making all along. To his credit, he did quite well, spending a good portion of his time making the reelection pitch he needs. Unlike the first debate in which he focused too much on the details of his quarrels with the federal bureaucracy and Democratic politicians, this time he focused more on the case for his reelection.
But Trump’s improvement in this debate wasn’t enough. An undecided voter coming away from the debate would have gotten the gist of his reelection spiel, but it was drowned in a sea of allusions to scandals the average voter does not care about. While Trump’s strategic instincts were stronger than usual, and while he did see a slight uptick in the polls after the debate, he failed to upset the dynamic of the race, and thus, he failed in his ultimate goal.
Biden, on the other hand, executed his strategy perfectly. He reminded America of the severity of the pandemic, blamed Trump for his lackluster response, and generally succeeded in avoiding behavior that might make voters change their minds about him.
The final debate was uneventful enough to be forgotten by next week, which is exactly what Biden wanted.
Categories: Domestic Affairs