The Biden-Trump Debate Playbook

The first presidential debate, on the schedule for Sept. 29, 2020, may be the most watched of them all. Whether the interaction of former Vice President Joe Biden and President Donald Trump shifts opinions or changes votes will not be known until afterward. We asked Evan Gerstmann, professor of political science and international relations and a closer observer of U.S. politics, to give us a tactical guide to how the two camps may be approaching the debate.—The Editor

The pressure will be on Joe Biden during the first presidential debate on Sept. 29. Biden has the tougher job for a variety of reasons. President Donald Trump can attack at will while staying on-brand. Biden is running as a uniter and can’t spend too much his time counter-attacking. And Trump will certainly have plenty of ammunition against Biden. The press has taken it pretty easy on Biden on several issues: credible allegations of sexual harassment and assault, a number of racially tone-deaf comments and conflicts of interest regarding his son Hunter Biden, among other things. Biden will have to parry those attacks quickly and effectively and get back to his main message.

Trump will win if he keeps Biden on the defensive, which will come naturally to the president. Biden has been in public life much longer than Trump and has a long record to attack. He was a “tough on crime” Democrat, while Trump can take credit for some degree of sentencing reform. Trump can hit him on his support for gun control and his opposition to charter schools. He can remind voters that Biden’s running mate. Sen. Kamala Harris, has accused him of being soft on racism. He’ll attack Biden for flip-flopping on federal funding for abortion and for supporting citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

A major challenge for Biden is that he will be trying to appeal to a much more diverse coalition of voters than Trump needs to appeal to.

Regardless of what questions the moderator asks, the debate topics are controlled by the debaters. The candidate who controls which topics are at the center of the debate will win. Biden wants the debate to center on COVID, preserving Obamacare and the need for investment in infrastructure, especially green infrastructure. Trump will want to tie Biden to protesters who deface statues of George Washington and other American heroes, to trans rights activists and to violent protestors.

Any presidential election with an incumbent seeking reelection is a referendum on the incumbent. Trump will point to the good pre-COVID economy, progress on Middle East peace, tax cuts and the prospect of a third Supreme Court confirmation in Amy Coney Barrett. Biden will highlight Trump’s failures on COVID, skyrocketing deficits (even pre-COVID), his cruelty to asylum seekers and their children, and a nation that is more divided than ever.

That being said, a majority of the voters already do not approve of Trump, so Biden’s most important job is to give those voters an affirmative reason to vote for him. He has to put concerns about his age and mental fitness to rest by giving sharp, clear answers. He has to be persuasive in arguing that he is better prepared to revitalize the economy than Trump. Biden is proposing a lot of new spending, regulation and taxes. He will have to make the case that those policies will benefit middle class voters and not burden them. The economy is the No. 1 issue across most demographic categories and is one of the few areas where the public trusts Republicans more than Democrats. Therefore, Biden must put forward a persuasive account of his economic agenda to win the debate.

Another major challenge for Biden is that he will be trying to appeal to a much more diverse coalition of voters than Trump needs to appeal to. As former vice president to Barack Obama, and with Obama actively campaigning for him, he can probably count on strong African American turnout. He has to worry much more about appealing to Latinx voters, who are more evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. Like most other voters, Latinx voters care most about the economy, health care and COVID. But they differ in some ways. According to the Pew Research Center, voters as a whole care more about violent crime than about racial and ethnic justice. Those numbers are flipped for Latinx voters. So, Biden must show that he cares deeply about racial justice issues while not demonizing the police or describing America as a fundamentally racist country. Trump has it easier — he can go after Black Lives Matter, Antifa and “soft on crime” Democratic mayors in Seattle, Portland and Chicago, while claiming that things will get worse under a Biden administration. Very few voters who strongly support Black Lives Matter will vote for Trump anyway, so he can just fire away.

In sum, all the pressure is on Biden. He has an excellent record as a debater so if he does poorly, it will be seen as a sign of age. The conventional wisdom is that debates often don’t matter, but this one will probably be an exception.

Evan Gerstmann is professor of political science and international relations in the Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts. A specialist in constitutional law, he is the author of two books, including “The Constitutional Class: Gays, Lesbians and the Failure of Class-Based Equal Protection.” 

This story is part of LMU Magazine’s special Election 2020 coverage.