PLUS: Are the polls wrong?
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Tuesday September 29 2020
US election
Hello and welcome to this week's US election newsletter from The Times and The Sunday Times.

Tonight President Trump and Joe Biden finally meet on stage in the first, and probably most important, of their three televised debates. Below we analyse what each candidate needs out of the encounter.

Plus we ask whether Biden's large poll leads are as much of a mirage as Hillary Clinton's were last time round.

We'll have all the post-debate analysis you could want at from 6am in the UK tomorrow.

Please let us know any thoughts, feedback or questions you have about this newsletter by emailing
Henry Zeffman and Josh Glancy
Washington Bureau – The Times and The Sunday Times
What to watch for tonight
Henry Zeffman

When you think of British general election debates, of which there have now been four iterations, it is hard to come up with a really memorable moment beyond “I agree with Nick” — the repeated praise of the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg during the very first televised election debate in 2010.

In America, by contrast, there are plenty of zingers and confrontations which still linger in the memory, from Ronald Reagan’s canny quip about his age in 1984 to Donald Trump claiming he would put Hillary Clinton in jail last time round.

And the debates can really matter. In a poll for this newsletter by Redfield & Wilton, 61 per cent of voters said they would definitely watch tonight’s debate, and 26 per cent of them said they were likely to change how they voted as a result of what they see.

That’s a lot of important eyeballs on tonight’s debate. So what does each candidate need out of the 90-minute exchange? Here are some thoughts.

Donald Trump

Even if the polls are overestimating Joe Biden by a substantial degree, it is pretty clear by now that the president is losing this election. And he is running out of time to turn it around, too: early voting and postal voting has begun in many states, and far more people are expected to take up those options than in previous years. So Trump could really do with finding a way to compel voters to reassess how they see the two candidates.

For Trump that might mean putting in a confoundingly presidential performance: assured, polite, well-briefed and polished. But let’s be frank — that is unlikely. A more Trumpian path would be for the president to improve his standing by diminishing Biden’s. That means chipping away at the Democratic candidate’s strength on personality questions like integrity, reliability and honesty. It also, most likely, means going on the attack over Biden’s son Hunter and his business activities in Ukraine and China, which the Republicans have long been desperate to put at the centre of the election, so far to little avail.

In terms of policy substance, Trump needs to hammer home his talking points about the economy — a rare issue on which polling tends to give him a lead over Biden — and force Americans to consider which of the two candidates they would rather oversee the post-coronavirus recovery.

Trump will no doubt be pressed on how he handled the pandemic when it arrived in the US, but there is scant evidence that his claims he could not have done any better are accepted by enough Americans. He would be better off pivoting to economic issues, although his pride under fire may get in the way of that.

Law and order, and the summer of protests around America, will definitely crop up but the polling evidence suggests that Trump’s attempt to put that at the heart of the election rebounded. Many voters bought Biden’s assessment that Trump was in part responsible for stoking the country’s strife. He needs an answer to that charge tonight.

But all this might be a bit too considered for a politician and performer as instinctive as Trump. He has resisted his advisers’ efforts to get him to take part in extensive training sessions. What we see tonight will probably be raw and impulsive. It worked in 2016, after all.

Joe Biden

The Democratic candidate enters tonight’s debate with more to lose. If the first polls after the debate show Biden’s wide poll lead basically intact, his advisers will be delighted. Biden’s guiding principle tonight will be to do no harm.

But there are plenty of pitfalls for him to avoid. Biden’s long political career has been pockmarked by gaffes. It was during a Democratic primary debate in 1987 that he plagiarised Neil Kinnock, the leader of the Labour Party in the UK at the time, bringing the first of his three runs for the White House to an end.

But his long political career and decades-long hankering for the presidency means he is experienced in these sorts of debates: in fact, tonight will be his 30th presidential or vice-presidential debate. And while presidential two-headers are different to the sprawling intra-party candidate debates, Biden went up against Sarah Palin in 2008 and Paul Ryan in 2012 in the vice-presidential debates.

His performance in the latter of those two was especially well-reviewed. Some Democrats feared that Biden might come unstuck against Ryan’s policy savvy, but he steam-rolled his opponent with brash humour and performative incomprehension at Republican proposals.

In fact, Biden is more prone to public displays of humour than Hillary Clinton, which may well help him tonight.

Yet there are questions over whether Biden’s wit has slowed since his vice-presidency — questions which have been aggressively stirred up by the Trump campaign, who have been eager to suggest that the 77 year old is suffering some sort of cognitive impairment. Counter-intuitively, those arguments may help Biden tonight: as long as he can string sentences together, he will have cleared the absurdly low bar set for him by some Trump outriders.

But Biden has never debated anyone quite like Trump. The Democratic candidate has a temper, and is especially defensive of his family. So when Trump goes after his son Hunter, as he surely will, Biden will have to work hard to stay calm.

In terms of policy, one of Biden’s challenges will be to rebut Trump’s assertions that he is being controlled by the Democratic Party’s left-wing. It is certainly true that the Democratic platform this year is the most progressive for a generation. Rather than touting the radicalism of his green energy agenda, as Bernie Sanders and his supporters might wish Biden would, he is likely to stick to more impressionistic language about healing America’s divisions.
The majority of you believe Trump should not be allowed to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg before the election, according to last week’s poll.
Where were you when...?
Josh Glancy
For Americans, presidential debates are a bit like Super Bowls, World Cup finals or Olympic 100m finals. You can usually remember where you were when Usain Bolt broke the world record (again), or what was going on in your life when Zinedine Zidane headbutted Marco Materazzi.

Similarly, I’ll never forget the presidential debates of 2016. I had just moved to America and gathered a few friends to my dusty loft apartment in TriBeCa, New York, where we gasped and puzzled at the anti-politics of Donald Trump on stage. He rambled, he sniped, he bloviated and fabricated, he even loomed physically over Hillary Clinton at one point in the second debate.

No way America makes that guy president, we all nodded sagely. No way.

Here we go again

Four years later, we are heading into the presidential debates once more. And this time around no one wants to repeat the mistakes of 2016, when so many blithely assumed Clinton would become president.

Everyone hates being wrong, but journalists loathe it with a consuming passion. Consequently, most are hedging more carefully this time around.

Which makes the current scenario all the more difficult: much like Clinton, Biden is a cautious, pragmatic Democratic frontrunner. He is consistently ahead in the polls. He has the vast bulk of the media and pundit class in his corner, pouring scorn on Trump and delivering a series of damning scoops, such as Sunday’s bombshell about his paltry $750 tax returns.

Meanwhile Trump is as erratic as ever, his presidency now dominated by a pandemic he has tried and failed to wish away.

All the signs appear to indicate that Biden is winning at a (pretty slow) canter. But, haunted by 2016, few want to come out and say it.

So is it different this time around? Or is Biden just Hillary 2.0?

Yes it’s different

- Biden is further ahead in the polls than Clinton was. Her national poll lead at this point four years ago was around five points. Biden’s is closer to a steady seven. Given Trump’s structural advantage in the electoral college, which allows him to win the presidency without triumphing in the popular vote, this is an important distinction. Right now, if the polls are even remotely correct, Biden is out of reach.

- He’s outperforming Clinton in key battlegrounds too. Look at Ohio. Everyone assumed in 2016 that Ohio had become a red state and that its ageing, white population would now be a lock for Trump. But guess what? Older white people like Joe Biden. He’s currently three points ahead in Ohio. Similarly, Clinton was only a couple of points up in Pennsylvania at this point four years ago, but the latest polls have Biden up by nine points in the Keystone state.

- Trump is an incumbent. The voters who fancied a punt on him last time, who didn’t think he could win, who wondered what it might be like to have a maverick president, well now they have four years on which to judge him. Perhaps in January that might have been an advantage for Trump, but the virus-induced economic crash has probably changed all that. In exclusive new polling for The Times and The Sunday Times by Redfield & Wilton, some 50 per cent of those surveyed trust Biden to deal with the pandemic. Only 39 per cent favour Trump on this pivotal issue.

- There just aren’t many undecideds left out there. One recent Wall Street Journal poll recorded just 9 per cent of voters who have yet to make up their minds.Trump is running out of time to turn things around and running out of voters with whom to do it. That makes the presidential debates even more important — this is one of his last chances.

No, it's 2016 redux

- Are there shy Trump voters? Are the establishment pollsters being typically overconfident? What about Biden’s lacklustre, low-energy campaign? And the former vice-president’s age and growing fallibility? Might it matter that Trump is undermining the postal voting process? How does the pandemic wildcard really play out? Might too many people stay at home? Is an “October surprise” coming to disrupt the race? Will the law and order issues on the streets play in Trump’s favour? What about the president putting (yet) another conservative justice on the Supreme Court? Is Biden appealing enough to Hispanic voters? Will African-Americans turn out for Biden? Does it matter that the Biden campaign isn’t knocking on doors, holding rallies, blitzing the swing states with lawn signs and town hall meetings?

There's no question Biden is well ahead, but there are enough valid questions on the list above to keep Trump alive. That’s the reason the FiveThirtyEight election forecast still gives him a 22 per cent chance of winning. It’s a long shot, but then it was a long shot last time. I’ve learnt enough from my mistakes to treat this election with a dash of humility.
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