Presidential Debates

Trump campaign works to set narrative

Trump will likely need a strong performance in the debates to reassure wavering independents and Republicans


The Trump campaign is already looking forward to the first presidential debate at the end of the month, eyeing the one-on-one format with Democratic nominee Joe Biden as the best remaining chance to sway voters toward the president.

Trump and Biden will square off for the first time on Sept. 29 in Cleveland. The pandemic-altered campaign season, which has left the candidates with fewer opportunities to meet voters face-to-face, has put an even greater emphasis on the debates.

Even after getting a slight boost after the Republican National Convention, Trump still trails Biden in the polls by a healthy margin nationally, and by a few percentage points in most battleground states.

Trump will likely need a strong performance in the debates to reassure wavering independents and Republicans.

"He is certainly tightening and coming back, and the debates this time will be more important than ever because there aren’t rallies," said Sam Nunberg, an adviser to Trump's 2016 campaign. "I believe they will be more watched because more people are staying home."

The Trump campaign has been aggressive about setting expectations and lobbying for changes to the debates that they believe work in their favor.

Trump had previously criticized the Commission on Presidential Debates, accusing the nonprofit, bipartisan group of bias and raising questions about whether he would participate in the 2020 debates.

But Trump's campaign, seizing on comments from Speaker Nancy Pelosi and opinion columnists in the media who have argued Biden should avoid the debates, have attempted to sow doubt about whether the former vice president will show up.

Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh suggested to reporters on Wednesday that any last-minute change in venue due to the pandemic could allow Biden to "retreat to his remote video link and Skype call campaign that he’s running and do the debate from his basement, where he can rely on notes, a teleprompter or a handler behind the camera."

Biden has committed to the debates and repeatedly said in recent days that he looks forward to going head-to-head with Trump.

"I’ve begun to prepare by going over what the president has said, and the multiple lies he’s told," Biden said during a rare news conference Wednesday, musing about the benefits of having a live fact-checker on the screen during the debates.

"I’m looking forward to debating the president and I’m going to lay out as clearly as I can what I think we have to do to bring this country back," he added.

The Trump campaign has made other overtures to the Commission on Presidential Debates, requested a fourth debate and advocated for an earlier event before mail-in ballots are sent out. Rudy Giuliani, writing on behalf of the campaign, also provided two dozen recommended moderators who would satisfy the president.

Experts have equated these appeals as an attempt to "work the refs." But they have all been rejected. The commission has said it will only add another debate if both sides agree to do so, and when the three moderators were announced this week, none were among the Trump campaign's pre-approved list.

Much of the Trump campaign's messaging efforts around the debates have been focused on Biden in particular. Trump, asked earlier this month what Biden brings as a debater, replied that the former vice president is "shot."

He told reporters this week his opponent "doesn't have a clue."

The Trump campaign's digital operation has become hyper-efficient at cutting and editing clips of Biden stumbling over his words and portraying him as a bumbling candidate who has mentally declined.

The unusual strategy has lowered expectations for Biden, 77, who earned positive reviews for delivering his speech at the Democratic National Convention without issue.

"The Trump folks from the get go have been violating all the rules we know about what is successful with setting expectations, and that is to lower them for yourself and raise them for your opponent," said Mitchell McKinney, director of the Political Communication Institute at the University of Missouri.

There is pressure on Trump to perform based on the way he has talked up his physical and mental abilities compared to Biden. But McKinney noted that incumbents have a history of stumbling out of the gate in their first debates, pointing to then-President Barack Obama in 2012 and George W. Bush in 2004.

The president is not known for being a disciplined messenger or a rigorous study. Asked last month about debate prep, Trump only mentioned to "Fox & Friends" that he had watched Biden's performance in the Democratic primary debates.

"If you asked the president he’d say he’s preparing for the debates by running the country as president," Murtaugh said Wednesday, reasoning that Trump's record will be a focus of his debate messaging.

"I don’t know that any actual debate prep has occurred to this point, and I don’t know what the plans are to begin that."

While Biden still maintains a sizable lead in national polls, the race has tightened, according to some recent surveys. A Quinnipiac University survey published Wednesday showed Biden holding a 10-point lead nationally, but a Monmouth University poll had Trump's deficit falling within the margin of error.

The electorate is heavily polarized, experts noted, leaving only a small section of persuadable voters. The debates could represent a final opportunity in the closing weeks of the campaign for either candidate to reassure nervous supporters or convince undecided Americans before casting their ballot.

"Will he be ready, will he be disciplined, or will he approach the debates as another one of his press conferences with a sort of stream of consciousness," McKinney said.

"All of this attention on Joe Biden and will he be up for it, how will the president perform in these debates. Will the president’s performance be at a level where it might reassure some of these wavering individuals."

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