Home Stretch: Are the First 60 Minutes of Tonight's Debate the Most Important Hour of the 2020 Campaign?

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Posted: Sep 29, 2020 10:05 AM
Home Stretch: Are the First 60 Minutes of Tonight's Debate the Most Important Hour of the 2020 Campaign?

Source: AP Photo

That headline may read like an overwrought hot take, but bear with me. The 2020 election has been packed with wild news cycles and massive, "game-changer" level events -- ranging from everything related to the global pandemic to the massive resulting economic fallout to racial tensions and dramatic social unrest to a hugely consequential Supreme Court vacancy. That list merely scratches the surface, ignoring myriad all-consuming media tempests like Bob Woodward's book and Trump's tax returns, as well as more typical high-profile political events such as the major party conventions. It has been, in many respects, an extraordinary year. Yet against that backdrop of chaos and tumult, the story of this election has been remarkable consistency:


Look at the data. On January 1, at the start of the new year, Biden led by 5.7 percentage points nationally in the RCP average. After the first week of April, several weeks into the pandemic crisis, Biden led by 6.1 percentage points. By the start of the summer, Biden's lead was 6.8 percentage points. The day after the Democratic and Republican conventions concluded back-to-back weeks of primetime programming in late August, Biden's lead was 6.9 percentage points. And yesterday, more than a week into the SCOTUS firestorm, Biden's advantage was 6.9 percentage points. For the entire calendar year, Biden's national edge has floated between four and ten percentage points, usually within a band of five to seven points. Events that could have upended the contest have not; the split between the incumbent and his challenger has remained stubbornly constant, as if the swirl of outside factors do not exist. The simplest explanation for this is that Joe Biden is running as a generic Democrat, doing everything he can -- including not doing much of anything at all -- to make this race as close to a pure referendum on President Trump as possible. And, so far, it appears to be working.

That's why I've raised that question in my headline. If nothing else has disrupted the trajectory of this race, Joe Biden conceivably has an opportunity to come close to closing the deal tonight. The bar is very low. All he needs to do is perform...fine for 90 minutes (or even less, if people start to tune out after an hour or so) in the first head-to-head debate, which I strongly suspect will be the most-watched, and holds the strongest potential to move the needle. Nothing is over until voters make their choices, but I think Allahpundit is right that tonight's event looms large:

[After the debate], Team Joe’s habit of keeping him off the campaign trail will matter either not at all or a lot. If he’s lively and on the attack at Tuesday night’s debate, no one will care the next morning that he’s been keeping a low profile for much of September. They’ll have seen with their own eyes that he’s more nimble than he’s been cracked up to be. The “early lid” stories will remain fun for righty media but they won’t have any reach...If, however, he’s sluggish on Tuesday night, his low profile will seem even more suspicious than it does already. Maybe Trump’s right, people will think. Maybe Democrats really are trying to hide their guy for fear of what conclusions the public might draw about his capacity if they got to watch him at length. What if Biden’s simply unfit for presidential work at this point? ...For what it’s worth, the AP claims he’s preparing “aggressively.” I believe it. Every day of this campaign has been a referendum on Trump and it’s possible that every day to come until November 3 will be a referendum on Trump as well, with one exception — Tuesday night. That’s when the election momentarily becomes a referendum on Biden and his fitness for office. If he aces the test, voters will probably go back to their baseline electoral question, “Do I want four more years of this?” If he fails it, suddenly we have a “choice” election in which Biden’s capacity is a major issue. I doubt that Trump can win a referendum. But he can win if it’s a choice.

But weren't the polls wrong in 2016? Sort of. There were some big misses in the upper Midwest, allowing Trump to shock the world by narrowly threading the needle. But the final national polling average was within roughly one percentage point of being correct. Trump outperformed his final polling average by a bit and ended up losing the "popular vote" by two points, a small enough margin to win the electoral college. If, by November 3, Biden's lead remains where it's roughly been for months on end, it's very hard to envision a scenario in which Trump can win. And following the debates, his opportunities for "game-changing" comeback material will be severely limited -- especially in a cycle that has proven largely unaffected by an onslaught of ostensible game-changers. Could Trump tighten things up nationally to the point that swing states are close enough to replicate what happened four years ago? Yes, and I also think trying to figure out what turnout will look like is harder than usual. It's 2020; anything could happen. But this is also an important distinction between this year and 2016:


Four years ago, Trump enjoyed the benefit of more Americans being open to third party candidates and a Democratic opponent who was far more personally disliked than his current challenger. The dynamic is different this time around, and that could matter a lot. There's a long way to go, and things could change. But as the days advance, there's less of a long way to go, and fewer things are likely to change, particularly given the preternatural stability of this race to date. If Biden does okay tonight, he'll likely solidify a "solid frontrunner" status -- and the Trump campaign (and perhaps many down-ticket Republicans, though that's not as clear) will find themselves in the unenviable position of rooting for another big polling error and unpredictably favorable turnout models. Both are possible, of course. But what's probable? I'll leave you with this. Are we looking at knee-jerk 2016 PTSD among Democrats, or there something afoot?


UPDATE - Even if these surveys are off by five full points, Biden is still ahead in a key state Trump carried last time. If the 'burbs are landslides against Trump, it'll be a long night for Republicans: