2020 debate: Why Trump can’t win tonight against Biden, according to experts

Graig Graziosi
·8 min read
U.S. President Donald Trump and Joe Biden will host their second debate on Thursday night (REUTERS)
U.S. President Donald Trump and Joe Biden will host their second debate on Thursday night (REUTERS)

Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden will meet for the last time before the 2020 US election for the final presidential debate.

After a disastrous first debate and and a cancelled second, the candidates will have one last chance to make their case for the Oval Office to the massive audience the showdowns draw.

Debate and rhetoric experts have given The Independent their opinions on what each of the men should do and say during the debate.

Dr Tammy Vigil, associate professor of communication at Boston University who has authored books on presidential debates and rhetoric, said that if she were advising the candidates, before they even got on stage, she'd advise them to watch Saturday Night Live.

"It sounds silly, but you can see your flaws and foibles exaggerated, and you get insight into what people are talking about," Dr Vigil said, noting Jim Carrey's impression of Mr Biden using a broad, rictus smile.

She said Mr Trump should exert self control to distance himself from his chaotic performance in the first debate.

"He should be trying to expand his base by reaching out to folks he normally doesn't reach out to. He should be direct when he's asked softball questions like whether or not he'll denounce white supremacy, and he should actually let Joe Biden speak, because it will make him look more confident."

Though that's what she thinks Mr Trump should do, she does not think it's what he will do.

"What I think he'll do is continue the showmanship of last time. All indicators suggest he really thinks of the debates as a sort of Wrestlemania showdown," she said. "The point to him is to entertain and give his base a show, even though there's more value to the voters if they actually provide information. He might tone it down a bit, but I don't expect much of a change from Mr Trump."

Dr Mitchell McKinney, professor of political communication and director of the Political Communication Institute at the University of Missouri, is also expecting a repeat performance from Mr Trump.

"Knowing who Trump is, I don't know if he has it in him to show up and be more statesman like and follow the rules," he said. "I think we'll continue to see the snarky, attack oriented Donald Trump."

Dr McKinney said that historically, final presidential debates have tended to be more aggressive and attack oriented, especially when an incumbent is trailing their challenger. However, he believes that Mr Trump may be in a difficult position due to his aggression in the first debate. If he tones it down, it could be seen as weakness or resignation to Mr Biden's lead in the polls. If he ramps it up, it may turn off voters.

Both Dr McKinney and Dr Vigil pointed to polling that suggested Mr Trump's interrupting and tendency to argue with moderator Chris Wallace turned viewers against him in the first debate.

However, just because Mr Trump is in a difficult position does not mean it will be smooth sailing for Mr Biden; Dr McKinney believes Thursday's debate could put Mr Biden in a much more dangerous place than his rival.

"I see this debate encounter is a much more dangerous event for Joe Biden than it is for Trump. For Biden, this final debate is coming closer to Election Day than the debate commission would normally schedule. It's less than two weeks before," he said. "Joe Biden needs to show up and in some ways he's debating this very unpredictable opponent with a penchant for not following rules and dramatic flair and again, that's hard to prepare for, I think, in terms of what to expect."

He said Mr Biden has to deliver a solid performance and resist falling into Mr Trump's narrative that the former vice president is not up to the task of leading the nation.

Even discounting the unusual circumstances heading into the final debate, the event will be much different than final debates in past election cycles.

On Tuesday, the Commission on Presidential Debates announced it would cut the mics of both participants during the two-minute opening remarks at the start of each of the debate's six segments. Each candidate will have two minutes to make opening remarks, during which the other candidate's mic will be cut. After that, there will be an open discussion period.

Mr Trump said that while he would still participate, the rule change was "very unfair."

The debate commission said the measure was not a change to the rules, but rather a means of enforcing the already agreed upon rules of the debate. Nevertheless, the commission said neither of the parties involved were especially thrilled with the development.

"We realize, after discussions with both campaigns, that neither campaign may be totally satisfied with the measures announced today," a statement from the commission read. "One may think they go too far, and one may think they do not go far enough. We are comfortable that these actions strike the right balance and that they are in the interest of the American people, for whom these debates are held."

In addition to the enforcement measure, the traditional topic of the final presidential debate - foreign policy - will be changed as well.

NBC News' Kristen Welker, the debate's moderator, said the topics she selected for the debate would include coronavirus response, race in America, American families, national security and climate change. The Trump campaign claimed it agreed to the debate with the understanding that it would be centered on foreign policy. The Biden campaign responded by accusing the Trump campaign of lying, and said both campaigns agreed that the topics would be selected by the moderator.

Mr Trump has already attacked the legitimacy of Ms Welker by suggesting she's a "radical Democrat" despite his senior adviser, Jason Miller, saying he had a "very high opinion" of Ms Wekler and predicting she would "do an excellent job as moderator for the third debate."

Dr. Lori Cox Han, professor of political science at Chapman University, said Mr Trump may be in a difficult position if he insists on attacking Ms Welker and arguing with her during the debate in the same way he did with Mr Wallace.

"It's smart to be civil and respectful to any reporter in that situation, but especially here with a woman moderator. In the first debate, there weren't gender issues, In the VP debate there definitely were. This debate will have that gender element," she said. "You know how it plays out on social media, when you've got a presidential candidate talking over a woman moderator or in the VP debate a woman Senator; a lot of women can relate to [the experience of having a man talk over them]. If Trump engages with some of that, you can imagine some of what goes viral."

Mr Trump - who has been accused of sexual assault by 26 women and was plagued by his "grab them by the p****" comments during the 2016 election - has been trying to appeal to suburban women in recent weeks. The president claimed he "saved their neighborhoods" by fighting regulation that forced communities to provide low-income housing in the suburbs.

Despite his efforts, recent polling suggests 60 per cent of suburban women prefer Mr Biden to Mr Trump. Attacking and belittling Ms Welker may hurt him with that demographic.

All three experts agreed that Mr Trump's best strategy against Mr Biden may be to simply let him talk; Mr Biden is known for making verbal gaffes and sometimes trailing off-topic. If Mr Biden does make verbal flubs, it could play into Mr Trump's narrative that his challenger is not up to the position of representing the country.

They also anticipate Mr Trump bringing up recent allegations that Mr Biden used his position as vice president to enrich his son, Hunter, through deals with the Ukrainian government.

The story, first published by The New York Post, has been met with a skeptical eye by journalists and analysts alike for its dubious sourcing - Trump allies Steve Bannon and Rudy Guiliani - and its lack of evidence.

The New York Times reported earlier this week that New York Post reporters refused to have their bylines included on the piece. The writers who were eventually credited were a deputy editor with no prior stories to her name and a staff writer who did not become aware her name was included until after the story went to print.

Even still, the experts believe Mr Trump is almost certain to make the story a centerpiece of his debate performance.

Dr McKinney said that the Hunter Biden story should not pose much of a problem for Mr Biden - if he's done the prep work to respond effectively.

"If it's raised by Trump, rather than the moderator, I think it will be a particularly easy one for Biden to answer. Trump's intention to bring it up has already been previewed and forecast so it's not going to be a surprise," he said. "Biden can play into the emails where he comes off as being a caring and supportive father, which plays into the image he's trying to project. If he doesn't answer well or gets rattled by the question, I think it shows a lack of preparation."

The final presidential debate will begin on Thursday at 9:00pm EST.

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