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Wake Up To Politics - September 29, 2020

Wake Up To Politics: September 29, 2020
Wake Up To Politics - September 29, 2020

It’s Tuesday, September 29, 2020. Election Day is 35 days away. The first presidential debate is tonight. Have questions, comments, or tips? Email me.

Viewer’s Guide

President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden will meet for their first showdown on the debate stage tonight. The debate will air live from Cleveland from 9 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Eastern Time, with no commercial breaks. The moderator, Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, has selected six topics to be discussed in 15-minute segments: “The Trump and Biden records,” “The Supreme Court,” “Covid-19,” “The Economy,” “Race and Violence in our Cities,” and “The Integrity of the Election.”

For months now — despite a pandemic, a recession, mass protests, and a historic Supreme Court vacancy — the presidential race has remained remarkably steady: according to FiveThirtyEight, Biden now leads the national polls by an average of 7%, within three percentage points of where the race has stood since April. Biden has also consistently led in polling averages of the key battleground states (albeit by narrower margins): Arizona (+3.5%), Florida (+1.7%), Michigan (+6.9%), North Carolina (+1.1%), Pennsylvania (+5.5%), and Wisconsin (+6.5%).

Tonight’s debate, then, offers President Trump his first major opportunity to gain a foothold in the race. Although candidates generally attempt to lower expectations for their own performances, Trump has done the opposite: constantly needling Biden for his mental acuity and insisting that the Democratic candidate will fall flat in the debates.

As recently as Sunday, Trump tweeted that he was “strongly demanding a Drug Test of Sleepy Joe Biden prior to, or after, the Debate on Tuesday night,” baselessly claiming that Biden had taken drugs during the primary debates. (“Vice President Biden intends to deliver his debate answers in words. If the president thinks his best case is made in urine he can have at it,” the Biden campaign responded.)

Despite Trump’s comments — which could have the boomerang effect of making even a mediocre performance from the Democratic candidate appear better as long as he makes no major blunders — it is the president who walks onto the debate stage with the higher stakes, as he only has so much time to turn the race around and improve upon his lagging position in the polls.  

Trump is likely to face tough questions from Wallace, and rejoinders from Biden, on his handling of coronavirus; the pandemic has now infected 7.1 million Americans and killed 205,000. And the debate comes just days after a New York Times bombshell revealing that the president paid only $750 in federal income taxes in both 2016 and 2017.  

According to Business Insider, Biden is expected to seize on the $750 number again and again in tonight’s debate, piecing it with his recent narrative that the 2020 campaign is a race “between Park Avenue and Scranton.”

Incumbent presidents have historically struggled in the first debate of their re-election campaigns, after four years of going largely unchallenged: most recently, Barack Obama stumbled in his initial matchup with Mitt Romney in 2012, although he would later regain his footing and win re-election. But Biden also has a history of floundering on the debate stage; throughout the primaries, he was widely panned for a series of gaffes and verbal miscues.

According to Politico, Democratic operatives are bracing for Trump to go after the foreign business dealings of Biden’s adult son, Hunter — a sensitive topic for the former vice president, and one that might trip him up.

Tonight, a massive audience is expected to tune in to watch for missteps from either candidate. In 2016, a record 84 million people watched the first debate between Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, according to Nielsen ratings. This time around, according to a Monmouth University poll, 74% of registered voters plan to watch tonight’s debate.

But that doesn’t mean the debates will necessarily have a huge impact on the race: 70% of registered voters said in a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll that “the debates won’t matter much to them,” including 44% who said the debates “will not matter at all to their choice,” a record high dating back to 2000. Historically, debates have been found to do little to alter presidential campaign; according to Pew Research Center, voters generally report to pollsters that they find the debates useful in making up their mind, but rarely determinative.

The debates are poised to have an even smaller impact this year: according to the U.S. Elections Project, more than 1.1 million Americans have already cast their ballots, due to the influx of mail-in voting. By comparison, around this point in 2016, less than 10,000 ballots had been cast.  

Nevertheless, both Trump and Biden have been preparing for weeks — in some fashion — for tonight’s highly-anticipated showdown. According to the Associated Press, Biden has been holding frequent mock debate sessions, with former White House counsel Bob Bauer assuming the role of Trump. The president, meanwhile, has reportedly held no formal mock debates, although former Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani have been helping him prepare.

Although the standard backdrop will be familiar to past debate viewers, much will be different about tonight's event: according to Politico, the two candidates have decided to forgo the traditional pre-debate handshake in light of the coronavirus, and there will be a much smaller audience (about 75 to 80 people) than in past years.

President Trump will stand on the podium to the right; Biden to the left. By virtue of a coin toss, the first question of the night will go to Trump.

Tonight’s debate can be viewed on all the major broadcast and cable news networks and will be streamed online. Look for a recap of the showdown in tomorrow’s edition of Wake Up To Politics; listen to the most recent WUTP podcast episode for a deep dive into presidential debates, past and future.


All times Eastern.

President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden will participate in the first 2020 presidential debate at 9 p.m. at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.

Vice President Mike Pence will lead a White House Coronavirus Task Force meeting at 2 p.m. before traveling to Livitz, Pennsylvania, where he will deliver remarks at a campaign event at 6:50 p.m.

Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris will attend a virtual fundraiser.

The Senate will convene at 3 p.m. and resume consideration of H.R. 8337, the House-passed continuing resolution to extend government funding through December 11. The chamber will vote at 5:30 p.m. to advance the measure.

  • Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett will begin meeting with senators on Capitol Hill. She’ll sit down with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-SD), Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Sens. Mike Crapo (R-ID), Ted Cruz (R-TX), Cory Gardner (R-CO), Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Mike Lee (R-UT) and Rick Scott (R-FL).
  • Vice President Pence will also join Barrett’s meeting with McConnell.

The House will convene at 12 p.m. and vote on 26 pieces of legislation.

The Supreme Court is on its summer recess.

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