President Trump faces Herculean task in first debate

President TrumpDonald John TrumpJudge rules to not release Russia probe documents over Trump tweets Trump and advisers considering firing FBI director after election: WaPo Obama to campaign for Biden in Florida MORE enters the 2020 debate season in a perilous political situation about five weeks before Election Day. According to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump and advisers considering firing FBI director after election: WaPo Obama to campaign for Biden in Florida Supreme Court reinstates ban on curbside voting in Alabama MORE and Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisObama to campaign for Biden in Florida Biden appears on Brené Brown's podcast to discuss 'empathy, unity and courage' The Hill's Campaign Report: Obama to hit the campaign trail l Biden's eye-popping cash advantage l New battleground polls favor Biden MORE currently enjoy a ten-point lead over President Trump and Vice President Pence among both registered and likely voters. This same poll taken on the eve of the first 2016 presidential debate in New York found a tossup race between Trump and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonJudge rules to not release Russia probe documents over Trump tweets Trump and advisers considering firing FBI director after election: WaPo Obama to campaign for Biden in Florida MORE that was within the margin of error. Recent battleground and swing state polls also show Biden rebuilding the Big Blue Wall of Midwestern states that Trump won in 2016 to catapult him to the presidency.

Coronavirus has upended traditional campaigning this election cycle. The Republican National Convention was initially in Charlotte, moved from Charlotte, N.C., to Jacksonville, Fla., before finally concluding as a largely digital event. Trump campaign rallies that previously attracted tens of thousands of supporters have been drastically scaled back because of venue size restrictions. Given the polarized nature of the country and familiarity of the two presidential candidates, there are far fewer undecided voters this time. President Trump's team lobbied the Commission on Presidential Debates for additional debates sooner in the campaign cycle because of increased early voting. These efforts were ultimately unsuccessful.

A record 84 million people watched the first debate at Hofstra University in 2016, and it's plausible the number could be higher this time given the stakes of the election. President Trump needs to use this unique opportunity to fundamentally alter the trajectory of the race, but he faces an uphill battle because of the expectations game and disadvantages incumbents historically face on the debate stage.


Campaigns often engage in pre-debate expectation battles because these can be more important than what actually happens during the 90-minute exchange. In 2016, voters expected Clinton to best Trump on the debate stage by a ten-point margin. Unfortunately for President Trump, the opposite is true this time. According to a recent USA Today/Suffolk poll, Americans think President Trump will prevail in the debates by a six-point margin, and this increases to ten points among independent voters. President Trump has spent the last year denigrating Biden’s mental acuity and intelligence. He's also talked about how easily Biden could be dispatched from the debate stage if they eventually met. This inaccurate caricature is a major reason why Biden's Democratic National Convention acceptance speech was so positively received. It was a solid 24-minute effort that genuinely surprised a lot of people given what they had previously heard from President Trump about his opponent's health and intellect.

As we've gotten closer to this year's first debate, Trump and his campaign have started to lower their expectations, while praising the 47 years of public service and speaking experience of Biden. They haven't gone as far as George W. Bush's campaign team, who  famously compared opponent John KerryJohn Forbes KerrySeinfeld's Jason Alexander compares Trump dance video to iconic Elaine dance This time, for Democrats, Catholics matter President's job approval is surest sign Trump will lose reelection MORE to the legendary orator Cicero. It is true that Biden had two excellent vice-presidential debate performances and held his own against Bernie SandersBernie SandersBiden endorses Texas Democratic House candidate Julie Oliver Ocasio-Cortez rolls out Twitch channel to urge voting Calls grow for Democrats to ramp up spending in Texas MORE in March. The question is whether this new expectations strategy is too little, too late and will inevitably be undermined by mixed messages and errant tweets from Trump. The distinct possibility exists that Biden will be deemed the winner so long as he doesn't fall off the stage or commit some similar high-profile blunder.

Another challenge for President Trump heading into the debate is the incumbent jinx that has plagued presidents when they return to the stage. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyMitt Romney did not vote for Trump in 2020 election Biden: Johnson should be 'ashamed' for suggesting family profited from their name The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by the Walton Family Foundation — Pope Francis expresses support for same-sex unions MORE thrashed President Obama in their first debate in 2012. Ironically it was Joe Biden who came to the rescue and helped get the campaign back on track. George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, and Jimmy CarterJimmy CarterObama urges voters to back Graham challenger in South Carolina Poll: Graham leads Harrison by 6 points in SC Senate race Biden leads Trump by double digits: poll MORE also had trouble in their first debates as an incumbent president.

There is no reason to think that President Trump will be immune from this phenomenon. He hasn't debated for nearly four years, while Biden had eleven primary debates since June of 2019 and most recently debated in March. Presidential responsibilities, traveling, and campaigning makes formal preparations difficult to schedule and execute. Presidents live in isolated bubbles where advisers can't deliver unvarnished debate advice because of a natural power imbalance. Finally, Americans initially embrace the challenger and root for someone going toe to toe on the same stage with the sitting president for 90 minutes. Just like in 2016, it may take Trump a debate to get his bearings and be reminded what this challenge entails.

Despite all the gloom and doom, President Trump still possesses some advantages. Chris WallaceChristopher (Chris) WallaceBiden's debate strategy is to let Trump be Trump Biden: Muting mics at debate 'a good idea,' we need 'more limitations' Ex-GOP senator on debate commission blasts Trump's bias accusations, warns of 'incalculable damage' MORE moderated the 2016 Las Vegas debate and interviewed Trump for Fox News Sunday in July. Biden has declined all interview requests from Wallace and hence will not be as familiar with his interviewing style and techniques. Saturday's formal nomination of Amy Coney Barrett was designed to give President Trump momentum heading into the debate since the Supreme Court will be one of the six topics discussed. Biden was wildly inconsistent in his eleven primary debates. He nearly crashed and burned in Miami before rebounding in Detroit. He then delivered admirable performances in Charleston and Washington, D.C.


The fact that Trump's campaign fought for additional debates as the incumbent shows how integral they are to his overall re-election strategy — though counting on your opponent to make a disqualifying gaffe on a debate stage is more hope than a plan.

Biden could experience a Rick Perry debate moment that significantly changes the tenor of the race and media narrative, but the odds of that happening remain low. Tens of millions of Americans will still tune-in to see what will happen. You can be certain that anytime someone debates The Donald, it's sure to draw a large crowd and lots of interest.

Aaron Kall is the director of debate at the University of Michigan and editor/co-author of "The State of the Union Is ... Memorable Addresses of the Last Fifty Years," and “Debating The Donald.” Follow him on Twitter @AaronsUKBBBlog.