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22 Oct 2020 19:49
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  •   Home > News > International

    Donald Trump is about to force Joe Biden into the debate spotlight. Can the former vice-president keep his lead?

    Joe Biden purposefully stayed out of the spotlight, and has held onto an election-winning lead. But with presidential debates looming the spotlight is about to find him, whether he likes it or not.

    Democrats had a chance to choose a person who was very obviously not Donald Trump as their 2020 presidential election candidate.

    In the end they chose Joe Biden. A man who said he could persuade enough of the voters who put Trump in the White House in 2016 to remove him in 2020. Who didn't promise a socialist revolution or to be an outsider who would shake up Washington. He just promised to be "normal".

    As the primary campaign faded into the past, and the coronavirus pandemic upended everyone's notion of what "normal" life looked like in America, the Biden campaign kept their candidate away from the spotlight.

    Contrasted against his opponent, who at one point set a new personal record of 200 tweets in a single day and whose near-daily briefings on television sometimes came with suggestions of injecting bleach, Biden's campaign settled their definition of "normal".

    "Normal" was not worrying about Joe Biden's tweets. "Normal" was promising Joe Biden would listen to scientists.

    "Normal" was promising Americans once they voted for him, they wouldn't have to think much about Joe Biden at all.

    But is that promise enough to beat a president who relishes in being anything but normal?

    Joe Biden has made himself a 'small target'

    Biden's decision in March to retreat from the campaign trail and hunker down in his home in Delaware had its critics.

    Trump, with the bully pulpit of the presidency at his disposal, attacked Biden for hiding in his "basement", outfitted with a makeshift studio for Zoom calls.

    Biden kept his lead in the polls.

    Republicans took up the baton and said the "basement" strategy showed the former vice-president wasn't fit for the highest office in the land.

    Biden kept his lead in the polls.

    Even Biden's own party started to get nervous, with talks about the relative strength of the Trump campaign digital operation suddenly turning urgent when traditional campaigning disappeared because of the pandemic.

    Biden … you guessed it … kept his lead in the polls. It's still too early to say definitively, but even the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the weekend doesn't appear to have shifted Biden's stubborn, steady lead.

    "I think Biden was doing exactly the right thing," said Simon Jackman, professor of political science and chief executive of the United States Centre at the University of Sydney.

    "In Australia, we have a small target strategy. When an incumbent is sufficiently on the nose, doing Zoom and Skype from your basement is just fine."

    April through September was lost as America's daily coronavirus cases spiked to more than 70,000 a day and the pandemic pushed politics to the back of Americans' minds and news bulletins.

    That was time a candidate like Barack Obama would normally spend introducing themselves to the wider American public. Not so for Joe Biden, according to Republican strategist Eric Wilson.

    "With online tools and technology, it's easier than ever for the campaign to get their own message out without going through the journalists and reporters. They don't need the help of media reporting to introduce their candidate to American voters because he's a known quantity," Wilson said.

    "And so the only thing that's left for them was the risk that he might stumble or not be able to answer the question as directly as possible, given his proclivity towards verbal slip-ups."

    Despite the polls showing that Biden's strategy is working, he couldn't stay in that basement until election day. Because the race to the White House has just shifted in a big way.

    Is this the Biden vs Trump election? Or the Not Trump vs Trump election?

    There are less than 50 days left until Americans head to the polls. The Labor Day long weekend is over, an unofficial marker in the election year calendar that signals to every voter that now is the time to start paying attention.

    And Ginsburg's death has given voters of all stripes a stark reminder of what is at stake at this election and added another piece to an already stacked chessboard that the candidates need to consider as they carefully plot every move until November 3.

    In recent Pew Research Center polling, voters were asked to give the main reason they supported or lean towards Trump or Biden in the 2020 election.

    Of Trump supporters, "Leadership/performance" was the most common answer with 23 per cent.

    Of Biden supporters, "He is not Trump" was chosen by more than 56 per cent of respondents.

    In the same survey in 2016, the top reason for voting for both candidates was "He is not Clinton/She is not Trump".

    "The proportion of undecided voters appears to be at historic lows, consistent with the idea that people know Donald Trump. They've figured out they're going to vote for him or against him," Jackman said.

    "It's Trump or not Trump."

    Crucially, the debates are looming. And they give Trump a chance to change that framing.

    Instead of Trump vs not Trump, the one-on-one debates could morph the conversation into Trump vs Biden.

    "They'll be the most significant debates for a long time because the incumbent has his back to the wall and nothing is sticking," Jackman said.

    "Trump is running out of time and quite simply has very little to lose at this point. It's hard for me to think of a more consequential set of debates given the state of the race at this moment."

    This isn't the first time Donald Trump has had nothing to lose

    And he's about to get somewhat of a home-ground advantage on the debate stage.

    Wilson says that with two candidates so known to the American public, their job in the debates is not to deliver policy information to the American electorate. It's to win the expectations game.

    "On one hand, you're looking for President Trump to continue to appear presidential and strong and he's got a plan for taking the country forward through the COVID-19 pandemic, through the economic downturn and additional challenges facing us," he said.

    "For Joe Biden, the challenge is how can he string sentences together? There's a real concern about his ability to articulate policy and his mental acuity.

    "President Trump really thrives in that environment and is going to do a great job in the debates," Wilson says.

    Jackman says that with his opponent out of the literal and metaphorical campaign basement, Trump will be looking to direct all the attention on the former vice-president.

    "He has to put the focus back onto Biden and the debates are tailor-made for that kind of attempted reframing of the narrative because they are precisely person-to-person contests.

    "They could be the right vehicle for the particular sort of political task Trump faces at this moment," he said.

    With nothing to lose, Jackman expects a Trump that is unleashed.

    "Trump will provoke him [Biden], try and get him emotional. Trump's going to want to talk all over the top of him as well, that's Trump's debate style," he said.

    "He's going to try and upset the apple cart."

    Trump has already started the final sprint

    The President has already started running by returning to rallies in key midwestern states.

    Dubbed "Peaceful Protests" by his supporters as a way of deflecting criticism about the visible lack of social distancing and frequent flouting of state laws limiting the number of people who can gather for an event, the script from the President rarely differs.

    In full flight, Trump assails Biden for a perceived weakness on law and order, then rattles off a laundry list of favourite foes that he claims are hiding inside the Biden Trojan Horse should the Democrats win the election.

    "The real important part of the rallies for the Trump campaign is providing an opportunity for his most enthusiastic supporters to connect with the president, to connect with the campaign and to connect with other supporters in the must-win battleground states," Wilson said.

    "These are the folks who are going to make phone calls, take their friends to the polls, make sure that they're sharing the campaign's messages on social media."

    Jackman says in 2016 Donald Trump "picked the lock" of the Electoral College — grabbing the right combination of states to secure the White House while losing the popular vote.

    "He doesn't need a wholesale change in the national conversation. He needs to reach into those specific sets of people that voted for him in 2016," he said.

    Will being Not Donald Trump be enough?

    For Joe Biden, a delicate balancing act awaits.

    His campaign has cash. Lots of it.

    On the back of the selection of Kamala Harris as his running mate, Biden pulled in $US364 million ($497 million) in August alone just as the Trump campaign was reportedly tightening its belt in the face of a cash crunch.

    But if Biden spent his money like Trump — turning out a huge rally of supporters in the middle of a pandemic — it'd cut at one of the campaign's core messages, which is that Trump failed the American people when the coronavirus arrived.

    Buying expensive television ads isn't a perfect substitute to reach the voter that just met with a friend who went to a Trump rally and was thrilled about it.

    "I think the Clinton campaign learned the hard way that you can't let your supporters get too complacent, you're too comfortable. This final push is all about putting it all on the field and winning every vote," Wilson said.

    Facing a President who is desperately trying to draw him into the contest, Biden is trying to find a way to put it all on the field while keeping himself somewhat on the sidelines.

    Trying to keep this election as a Trump vs Not Trump question.

    In seven weeks, we'll see if that's what US voters want to answer.

    © 2020 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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