Its debate night in America and I am not happy about it. I hate debates. They are a dumb way to pick a president, the moderators are generally terrible, and pre and post debate punditry is often insufferable. In fairness of full disclosure, my distaste for debates was passed down to me by Barack Obama who came to this opinion through lived experience.
My personal feelings aside, the debate is here. It matters — how much is an open question, but it definitely matters. Therefore, we need to talk about it. I want to help folks understand (in a hopefully sufferable way) what to look for tonight and in the days ahead.
Why it Matters (Axios Voice)
There are five moments that typically matter in Presidential campaigns — the VP pick, the candidates’ convention speeches, and the three debates. Two down. Three to go. So, tonight is definitely important.
This debate will be the biggest audience by far to see Joe Biden speak in his entire political career. Approximately 25 million people watched Biden’s convention speech last month — a very good number that beat Trump (tough blow), but at least three times as many people will tune in tonight. More than 84 million people watched the first Clinton-Trump debate in 2016 and that was back when people were allowed to leave their homes, visit restaurants, and see friends indoors. It’s very possible that tonight’s debate will be the most watched debate in history.
The Biden campaign and others have argued that the debate may not be as consequential as the press and pundits would like you to believe. While there is no such thing as a low stakes event with 80 millions pairs of eyeballs, there is some merit to this view. First, it would be impossible for anything to match the hype being generated by the media. The debate promos on cable make ads for Wrestlemania look like Downton Abbey. Second, the polling shows that the overwhelming majority of voters are locked into their choice. According to a Politico/Morning Consult poll released this morning, only 14 percent of voters say they are still persuadable. This makes intuitive sense. It’s not obvious that a debate will change a race that has remained incredibly stable despite a pandemic, a recession, a racial reckoning, tens of millions of bucks in attack ads, and numerous media flareups.
Fourteen percent may not be a lot, but it is a number larger than Biden’s lead in the national polls. As much as I hate it, what happens tonight matters on the margins at least and the margins is where close races are won and lost. If the past is prologue, the press coverage and Twitter chatter around the debate will be very focused on “zingers,” gaffes, and body language. Debate coverage is an example of the huge chasm between what the political media obsesses about and what the voters care about. To help cut through the BS, here are the things I will be (hate) watching for tonight.
Tonight Matters, Tomorrow Matters More
There are two ways to think about tonight’s massive audience. One one hand, 80 million people is a shitload of people. On the the other hand, 80 million people is less than half of the expected voter turnout this year. The handful of voters still deciding between Trump and Biden and the larger handful deciding between voting and not voting will disproportionately be in the half that doesn’t watch tonight. To the extent they know what happens, it will be through press coverage, online chatter, and viral clips. After Barack Obama lost the first debate to Mitt Romney in 2012, impressions of his performance got worse over time. In focus groups conducted the night of the debate, voters thought Obama underwhelmed. Within a few days, our polling showed voters thought the debate was an epic, potentially campaign ending disaster. This shift was not because people went back and watched the debate to reevaluate Obama’s showing. A narrative formed that Obama got his ass kicked (a narrative that was driven by some preemptive panic from liberal commentators).
That narrative was then consumed by the majority of the electorate that didn’t watch the debate via cable news, Twitter and Facebook. How the debate performances are framed, which moments the press focuses on, and what clips go viral will be more impactful on the campaign than what happens on the stage tonight. We all have the opportunity and responsibility to shape that narrative by pushing out Joe Biden’s best moments and pushing back on the misinformation that will go unchecked by the moderator.
The Debate will be Decided in the First 30 Minutes
A decent amount of the voters and 100 percent of the reporters watching the debate will be doing so through a two screen experience. One eye on the TV and one eye on Twitter. Opinions about the performances of the candidates will be algorithmically affected. The moments that take off online early in the debate will be the most consequential because they will be shared the most and be seen repeatedly by people throughout the debate. Early reactions positive or negative will shape opinions of every subsequent moment. In an online world, failure and success tend to compound over time.
RT-thirsty reporters and pundits will be racing to make declarative statements about who won and lost. The earlier the declaration is made, the more attention said declaration will get. In 2012, Ben Smith of Buzzfeed declared Romney the winner of the first debate long before the debate was over. Knowing the Biden debate prep team as I do (they are best in the business), I am confident they are trying to front load some of his better moments for the first third of the debate.
I Don’t Care About Trump
When I say I don’t care about Trump, I truly mean that in every possible sense. But in this instance, I am just not that interested in his debate performance. I don’t think it matters that much. I will take a break from my post-2016 ban on predictions to make one for tonight — Trump will be his usual incoherent, obnoxious, dishonest self. Impressions of Trump are fully baked in. People either hate him for who he is or they love him for it, but no one is unaware or unsure about his incessant assholery. Even some of his own voters don’t trust him to tell the truth, therefore he is an irreparably flawed messenger when talking about his record or attacking Biden’s. We are well past the saturation point when it comes to Trump. I am skeptical that anything he does tonight will have a big impact on the race. There are things he could do to help himself like offering an actual plan to contain COVID, but he has no demonstrated capacity to do them.
Biden’s Big Opportunity
Most of the people watching tonight will have never seen Biden speak before. Maybe they have seen an ad or a clip of a speech or interview on Facebook, but they have never seen him for such an extended period of time. This may seem weird for someone that was Vice President of the United States for eight years and has participated in two general election VP debates, but tonight is an entirely different level of the game. This is Biden’s biggest and best opportunity to fill in the gaps on his record and agenda and close the deal with a lot of voters that don’t like Trump but remain unsure about the former Vice President. Here’s what I hope to hear from Biden:
Specifics about his economic plan. Trump continues to hang onto to an advantage on the economy in part because voters don’t know a ton about what Biden would do to fix the economy. He can change that tonight.
Swerving for Climate: There is no reasonable explanation for the fact that climate change is not on the agenda tonight. Okay, there is one explanation — the moderator is from a network that pushes climate change denial as the planet burns. This “oversight” is an opportunity for Biden to go out of his way to bring up climate by hitting the debate commission and Trump. Climate always polls near the top of the agenda for young voters, who happen to be a group with whom Biden needs to improve his standing.
Maintain the Stature Gap: Trump wants to pull Biden into his vortex of juvenile terribleness, which is why he has spent the pre-debate period pushing embarrassingly absurd conspiracy theories about performance enhancing drugs and listening devices. Part of Biden’s success thus far is that he has played the role of President that Trump is intellectually and temperamentally incapable of playing. Biden is the one consoling a country that has lost 200,000 citizens. Biden is the one calling for unity and modeling good behavior like wearing masks and social distancing. There is clearly a thirst for normalcy in these abnormal times. Biden has an opportunity to keep his cool and position off of Trump’s racist frat boy act and show Americans the President they so desperately need and deserve.
The debate is here. There is nothing we can do about it so we might as well sit back, try to relax and watch for the moments that matter. One piece of advice: If you are a Biden supporter and you feel like channelling your panic into a tweet — don’t.
Develop an inner-monologue.