What to Expect in Tonight’s Debate

First presidential debates involving the incumbent have a “pattern.” The incumbent tries to play it safe, thus forgetting in large part what got him elected in the first place. The challenger gains stature by being on the same stage, and takes more risks – thus appearing more active and connected with the moment. The challenger wins the debate and the pundit class talk about how “it’s a different race now” in hushed tones.

We’ve seen that in 1980, 1984, 2004, and 2012. However, we have not seen that in 1976, 1992, and 1996 (hence the scare quotes on “pattern”) – and those years tell us that Biden, not Trump, has more to lose tonight.

The first thing to remember about the “pattern” debates was that the incumbent in those years was perceived to be the favorite to win. So they did what all favorites do: try to run out the clock. Any football fan will tell you that requires a really good running game – and actually playing football rather than participating in a presidential debate. The second thing to remember about those debates was that each time, the incumbent was facing off against a challenger who was neither as well known nor considered anything like an equal to the incumbent. The “pattern” debates were the challengers’ chance to shine.

Neither of these things apply to the 2020 election. Like 1976 and 1992, it is the challenger who is in the lead. Like 1996, the challenger is well known, has a long record in office, and has come to symbolize the opposition to the incumbent.

So let’s see how those opening debates went.

1976: We now remember Gerald Ford insisting, “Poland is not under Soviet domination” – leading to the first “what he meant was…” moment in a presidential debate. However, that came in their second debate, not the first. As Gallup polling from the time reveals, it was Carter whose position suffered after the first debate.

1992: Bush the Elder trailed badly, and nothing he did managed to change that until he settled upon the phrase: “When Bill Clinton says, ‘Change,’ watch your wallet.” Again, though, that wasn’t during the first debate, which largely came and went without any changes.

1996: Clinton was well in the lead, but his opponent was Bob Dole – who had become one the leading faces of the Republican Party since before Clinton was inaugurated (Dole famously announced the day after the 1992 election that he would speak for the “57% of the American people (who) voted for somebody else”). Americans were used to seeing Dole and Clinton cross swords. As such, Clinton was able to maintain his large lead throughout the debate cycle.

So what does this mean for 2020? I have a couple of thoughts.

The first debate usually helps the underdog, not the challenger. The incumbent has only trailed going into the debates twice before – and they managed to cut their deficit both times (albeit, in Bush’s case, after the last debate rather than after the first). That confirms the conventional wisdom about the dangers of trying to run out the clock during the debates. It just happens to apply to challengers in the lead, too.

Fresher faces (normally) get a boost. This one is less robust – as it clearly did not happen in 1976 or in 1992 – but it has been the case in the other four elections where it was relevant. The key for 2020 is that this is not relevant here. Not only was Joe Biden the Vice President for eight years prior, he was also the reason Trump was impeached in the first place. No other presidential nominee has been so clearly designated as the “leader of the opposition.”

In other words, the characteristics of debate seasons that usually help presidential challengers will not apply this year. Certainly, the Democrats are happier that their candidate is ahead – as they should be – but that also means it is Biden who has more to lose tonight.

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