Although most viewers will not be on the edge of their seats for the final presidential debate tonight, it will be nothing short of a spectacle of frenzied accusations, heated tempers, and vague and incomplete policy descriptions. Debates rarely sway support for either candidate. However, since the first encounter between President Donald Trump and Joe Biden was widely labeled anything but a debate, and the second planned meeting between the two was hastily cancelled, the final debate will give voters one last opportunity to measure each candidate as they spar on the same stage. And it will no doubt provide entertaining moments for all of us. What can we expect from the final debate? What must each candidate do to claim victory? And what impact, if any, will it have on the last two weeks of the campaign?
Like the first two debates, the final parley has been a turbulent and tenuous affair. Originally, the two campaigns agreed that foreign policy would be the center-piece topic, a long-held tradition of presidential debates. Three days ago, Kristen Welker, the final moderator, announced five topics, none of which included foreign policy, angering the Trump campaign. In addition, the Presidential Commission on Debates announced a new and last-minute rule change. The candidates’ microphones will be muted.
Preparations by both candidates have differed vastly. Joe Biden retreated at the beginning of the week to seclusion to prepare his talking points, and conveniently dodge questions of his and his son’s foreign business entanglements in Ukraine, China and Russia. President Trump has remained tried and true to his normal preparatory approach by traversing the U.S. in key battleground states and galvanizing his voters at his signature rallies.
Despite these two divergent approaches to the debate, the final interlude will come down to three core elements.
First, President Trump will launch a vicious attack on Joe Biden’s silence in response to revelations about his and his son’s alleged scheme to facilitate large business contracts in return for access and influence offered by the former vice president. This issue has become the 2020 version of the successful rallying cry against Hillary Clinton in 2016 that culminated in chants of “lock her up.” The president will use it to knock Joe Biden emotionally. He wants the American people to see Biden erupt with anger.
Second, and likely the greatest mystery to be solved during the debate, will the president resist the urge to continually interrupt Joe Biden? And will Biden be able to recall his talking points if Trump does not interject? The president will not change his tact and will continue to challenge Biden at every opportunity. But he will be more aware of Biden’s potential to stumble and gladly give Biden as many of these opportunities as possible.
Third, the impact of the “muted microphone” rule will change the flow of the debate, but it will most certainly not stop the president from abrupt and concise interjections, sound or no sound. He will look for moments where he can knock Joe Biden mentally. Many observers of the first debate believe if President Trump had followed this strategy, it would have illuminated Biden’s mental lapses which have dogged him throughout his campaign.
Victory will inevitably be declared by both candidates before the debate has ended. However, Joe Biden is coming into the final debate weakened and vulnerable. He must address the questions surrounding his family’s foreign business entanglements. Thus far, his and his team’s response has been appalling, untruthful, and incomplete. Any political strategist would have told a candidate to address the issue head on, get it out of the way, and move on. Joe Biden could have done just that in his response issued today. Instead, he bungled it and attempted to deflect from the issue by laying blame on others. He missed a valuable opportunity right at a crucial moment in the final throws of the campaign to demonstrate character and leadership.
President Trump needs to talk about the economy, the economy, and the economy. He needs to let American voters know his vision for overcoming the medical and economic pains of the pandemic, and his plan for driving robust economic growth over the next four years. The greatest endorsement of the president is the resiliency and strength of the U.S. economy, which he has built over the last four years. If he focuses on the economy during the debate, at his rallies, and wherever else he goes, he will win.
The final debate will offer plenty of moments that arouse emotions, from amusement to anger and everything in between. It will provide one last look at both candidates and what they plan to offer American voters. Regardless, in the end, the final debate will not move the needle drastically for either man. Any fireworks from the candidates’ performances, which will happen, will subside after 48 hours.
The specter of events along the campaign trail will dominate the last few days. More than 42 million people have already voted – a record in a U.S. election. Debates are not the venues for October surprises either. We have 12 days of campaigning left before Election Day. Unless James Comey comes out of retirement to interfere in the 2020 election, the Biden foreign business scandal will likely be the last. Yet, there are 12 days left. In political campaigns, one thing is certain; anything can happen and usually does.
Rick Gates is the former deputy campaign manager for Donald Trump. He was a witness in the Russia investigation conducted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and is the author of “Wicked Game: An Insider’s Story on How Trump Won, Mueller Failed, and America Lost.”