After Trump and Biden debate, the No. 1 issue in the race remains Trump

Coming in trailing, president needed to change voters’ focus

President Donald Trump frequently interrupted Democratic nominee Joe Biden during their first debate Tuesday at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump frequently interrupted Democratic nominee Joe Biden during their first debate Tuesday at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Posted September 30, 2020 at 2:03pm

ANALYSIS — After a 90-minute combination of a cage match and a food fight that was Tuesday night’s presidential debate, it can be hard to stay focused on what’s really happening in the 2020 election. 

From a political handicapping perspective, it’s important to remember that former Vice President Joe Biden has had the advantage over President Donald Trump in a remarkably stable race for the White House. That dynamic has been constant through numerous newsworthy, and sometimes even historic, events, in large part because the vast majority of Americans have already made up their minds about whether or not they like the president and will vote for him. 

It’s also important to remember how we should be evaluating candidates’ success or failure during a debate. We should be focused on how voters respond, through scientific polls taken after the event, rather than relying on focus groups, instant polling of a few debate watchers, or Twitter. So it will be at least a few days before we know whether this debate debacle persuaded anyone.

Before we find out, a couple things stood out. The debate felt like the president was watching a Biden speech and posting his immediate reactions and rebuttals on Twitter. Except instead of being on his phone, Trump was onstage too, behind a lectern with a microphone. Overall, watching the debate veered between entertainment and punishment, even to the most interested political observers. 

As the polling of likely voters rolls in over the next few days, we should also remember that the onus was on Trump, not Biden, to change the dynamic of the race. A dispassionate analysis of national, state, and district-level polling before the first debate revealed an advantage for Biden in the Electoral College. 

Whenever I articulate that projection, Republicans often respond that anything could still happen and that there’s still time before Election Day.

It looks like, however, in the first debate, Trump missed an opportunity to make “anything” happen. The president needed (and still needs) to change more voters’ focus from a referendum on his style and job performance to a choice between himself and something less popular. 

Trump tried to do that Tuesday night by bringing up “law and order” and harping on Hunter Biden, but the disruptive way he did it kept himself in the spotlight. His combativeness even helped Biden escape from answering a hard question about expanding the Supreme Court. In the words of conservative CNN commentator Scott Jennings after the debate, the president “went from being on offense to being offensive.”

Even if Republicans liked watching the president take it to Biden and the media, it had to be somewhat of a disappointment for them to watch Biden complete the debate in a fairly normal fashion.

For months leading up to Tuesday, a Biden debate meltdown was a key piece of the GOP strategy to bounce back. I was consistently amazed by the collective Republican confidence that Biden would literally forget where he was when forced onto the debate state. It didn’t happen.

The early debates are important because Trump and the GOP don’t have until Nov. 3 to change the dynamic of the race. Americans are already voting, which means their choice will not be affected by late-breaking events. And by the time the third debate happens on Oct. 22, tens of millions of Americans will have already cast their ballot.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst with CQ Roll Call.

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