D-Day for Trump: September 29

D-Day for Trump: September 29
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“He can run but he can’t hide” quipped legendary heavyweight champ Joe Louis concerning his strategy to corner an elusive nemesis. President TrumpDonald John TrumpIvanka Trump, Jared Kusher's lawyer threatens to sue Lincoln Project over Times Square billboards Facebook, Twitter CEOs to testify before Senate Judiciary Committee on Nov. 17 Sanders hits back at Trump's attack on 'socialized medicine' MORE is among the great masters at slipping an opponent’s punch. Every sitting president has either had the ability to box his way out of a corner or lost reelection. Trump can teach legendary Western movie director John Ford about escaping the inescapable box canyon.  

Yet Trump is up against a historical trend suggesting those cowboy days are over if he leaves the first presidential debate in Cleveland on September 29 without having given Democratic presidential nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenFacebook, Twitter CEOs to testify before Senate Judiciary Committee on Nov. 17 Sanders hits back at Trump's attack on 'socialized medicine' Senate GOP to drop documentary series days before election hitting China, Democrats over coronavirus MORE a sufficient whipping to propel the president into a post-debate polling tie or better.   

The debate will be held at the city’s futuristic Sheila and Eric Samson Pavilion on the Health Education Campus at Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Clinic. This venue is not a good omen for an incumbent president saddled with decidedly negative public ratings on his COVID-19 leadership.    


Presidential debate history – not omens – is, however, Trump’s biggest problem. The first showdown between Oval Office seekers took place in 1960, featuring Democrat John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE dueling GOP counterpart Richard Nixon. This coming 13th quadrennial face-off – another bad omen – carries this reality check: No incumbent trailing in the polls taken after a first debate has ever rallied to win. That suggests Biden has a big advantage, assuming his current polling lead holds until debate night.   

If the pattern holds, then without a Cleveland performance strong enough to reset the polls, Trump faces defeat — unless he benefits from the type of October surprise that has never happened in presidential campaign history. Consider:  

Of the 12 previous presidential debate match-ups, seven have featured a sitting president: Gerald Ford (1976), Jimmy CarterJimmy CarterDavis: On eve of tonight's debate — we've seen this moment in history before Obama urges voters to back Graham challenger in South Carolina Poll: Graham leads Harrison by 6 points in SC Senate race MORE (1980), Ronald Reagan (1984), George H. W. Bush (1992), Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonThe Hill's Campaign Report: Trump, Biden face off for last time on the debate stage Trump expected to bring Hunter Biden's former business partner to debate Davis: On eve of tonight's debate — we've seen this moment in history before MORE (1996), George W. Bush (2004) and Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaTrump hits Biden as 'disrespectful' to Obama Is America ready to return to the Obama-Biden foreign policy? Trump's debate performance was too little, too late MORE (2012). The five others lacked an incumbent president.    

In strictly statistical terms, seven data sets over a 60-year period are not definitive. But given the COVID-19 induced early voting, an uninspiring debate performance by the president could see voters watching, clicking off and mailing in Biden ballots in record numbers.  

No doubt, President Trump’s supporters would point to his overcoming the post-debate polls when he defeated Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBon Jovi to campaign with Biden in Pennsylvania The Hill's Campaign Report: 2020 spending wars | Biden looks to clean up oil comments | Debate ratings are in Biden gets late boost with key union endorsement MORE. But this presumes the decisive 2020 vote will again break late. Importantly, the polling in presidential races without an incumbent shows a first-debate bias. Those too close to call before the debates remained so through Election Day. Those giving one side a comfortable pre-debate lead ended up with the same result when the real votes were counted. The Trump v. Clinton contest found the national polls correctly predicting the Democratic nominee winning the popular vote but saw the state polls failing to detect Trump’s unexpected razor-thin victories in the decisive electoral college battlegrounds.  


The bottom line is that if the polling consensus shows Trump losing by four percentage points or more after the first debate, then there is no precedent for him winning re-election. Should polls show Biden winning the first debate by a definitive margin among independents and soft Trump Republican leaning voters, Trump risks losing worse than any GOP incumbent facing a two-way contest since Herbert Hoover in 1932.   

Press reports say Trump is preparing lackadaisically, like Sonny Liston in his first match against Muhammed Ali. This seems a ploy to mislead Biden. But if the president truly does not appreciate his approaching D-Day, then the election may effectively be over by midnight on September 29.      

Paul Goldman is former chair of the Democratic Party of Virginia. Mark J. Rozell is dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and co-author of “Federalism: A Very Short Introduction” (Oxford University Press, 2019).