Here's what Joe Biden has to do in the first debate with President Trump

Key Points
  • The stakes are high for the former vice president. Biden has held a consistent lead nationally throughout the general election campaign, but it has tightened in recent weeks.
  • The debate topics will be Trump's and Biden's records, the Supreme Court, Covid-19, the economy, race and racial justice protests, and election integrity.
Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Joe Biden speaks to attendees at an outdoor "Black Economic Summit" while campaigning for president in Charlotte, North Carolina, September 23, 2020.
Kevin Lamarque | Reuters

WASHINGTON — As President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden prepare to face off in the first presidential debate Tuesday, Biden has spent nearly a week diligently preparing for what is likely to be one of the most watched presidential debates in modern history.

Biden's campaign has released few details about the former vice president's debate prep, but they have said it's being led by longtime Democratic debate guru Ron Klain, who was a key part of both Hillary Clinton's and Barack Obama's presidential debate teams.

The stakes are high for the former vice president. Biden has held a consistent lead nationally throughout the general election campaign, but it has tightened in recent weeks, averaging just under 7 points among likely voters, according to Real Clear Politics

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Voters who have made up their minds already aren't really who Biden and Trump need to win over on Tuesday night. It's the small sliver of voters who might still change their minds. According to a recent Quinnipiac poll, they're about 5% of likely voters. 

Trump is an unpredictable adversary, combative and prone to making false and misleading statements and veering off topic. The debate moderator, Fox News' Chris Wallace, has shown in the past that he can push back on Trump during interviews. 

But Wallace will not be fact-checking Trump during the debate. "We don't expect Chris or our other moderators to be fact checkers," Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., co-chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates, told CNN on Sunday. 

The debate topics will be Trump's and Biden's records, the Supreme Court, Covid-19, the economy, race and racial justice protests, and election integrity.

Here's what Biden needs to do on Tuesday night to come out on top. 

Meet the bar Trump set 

Political players on both sides of the aisle have been amazed this year at how much time and energy Trump and his campaign have poured into portraying Biden as a doddering old man, physically and mentally incapable of fulfilling the duties of the presidency. 

Despite polls showing that the line of attack hasn't moved the needle much, it remains Trump's favorite cudgel against Biden. 

"I have to convince people that Joe Biden, he's not, he's not good for the position. He's not fit. He can't handle this position," Trump said last week in response to a question about his overall campaign strategy. 

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To be sure, Biden is prone to verbal gaffes and he occasionally stumbles over words, the legacy of a childhood stutter he worked for years to overcome. But Trump is also known for verbal stumbles of his own. 

By portraying Biden, 77, as an over-the-hill geriatric has-been, Trump, 74, has inadvertently helped Biden by setting a low expectation for Biden's performance Tuesday. By this logic, all Biden needs to do in order to have a good night is not get confused and misspeak. 

Below is a Trump campaign ad emblematic of the kinds of attacks it has leveled against Biden over his mental acuity.

A few weeks ago, after six months of accusing Biden of cognitive decline, the Trump campaign abruptly switched gears to arguing that Biden is a master debater with decades of experience. 

"He's really good. Joe Biden is a politician, and this is what politicians do — they give speeches. Joe Biden gave speeches for 36 years in the Senate, and he gave speeches and cut ribbons for eight years as vice president. He's really good at doing it," Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien said on a recent call with reporters, adding that Biden "decisively won his [vice presidential] debates in 2012 and in 2008."

Stepien then tried to lower expectations for Trump, saying the president "has been in politics for five years, not five decades," and he is "a doer, not a talker." 

Show passion but not anger 

One of the keys to Biden's consistent lead in the polls is that voters say they believe Biden has the "right temperament" to be president, and that he cares about people like them. These are also cornerstones of Biden's political brand, and key to his argument that he can help unite a bitterly divided nation.

Yet Biden has also shown another side of himself, with flashes of anger directed at reporters, opponents and even voters who Biden perceives as attacking his personal decency and especially his family. 

At times, that anger has been effective, as when Biden responded forcefully to reports that Russia was paying bounties for American soldiers in Afghanistan. At other times, it comes off as bitter, like when Biden said to a voter in New Hampshire last year, "You're a damn liar," after the man accused him of "selling access to the presidency." 

Democratic presidential hopeful former US Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. speaks during the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, Florida, June 27, 2019.
Saul Loeb | AFP | Getty Images

On Tuesday night in Ohio, Trump is expected to attack both Biden's personal integrity and his family, especially his son Hunter Biden. 

Trump and Republicans have spent thousands of hours and millions of dollars trying to establish a link between Hunter Biden's time on the board of a Ukrainian company and the Obama administration's policy towards Ukraine. 

In 2019, Trump was impeached for pressuring the government of Ukraine to help his reelection campaign tarnish Biden. More recently, the attacks came in the form of a Republican Senate committee report that was conveniently released last week, which accused Hunter Biden of having "cashed in" on his father's fame but ultimately failed to find any malfeasance on Joe Biden's part. 

Expect all of these efforts to coalesce on Tuesday in a barrage of attacks on the former vice president's son, just the kind of thing that has caused Biden to lose his temper in the past. 

If Biden loses his temper on Tuesday, he risks undermining his argument that he's a level-headed, compassionate alternative to the president. 

Don't get sucked into a brawl

Trump prides himself on his aggressive, confrontational style, and he relishes conflict — be it with his political opponents, with the press, with U.S. allies or with adversaries. 

This sets up a potential trap for Biden on Tuesday night, said Mitchell McKinney, director of the Political Communication Institute at the University of Missouri. 

"If Trump can keep the focus of the night on attacks and bickering, that's time that Biden won't be spending prosecuting Trump's record," McKinney said. 

McKinney said that when he and his colleagues at the institute analyzed Trump's debates with Clinton in 2016, they found them to be the most conflictual debates in the history of presidential debating." 

Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speak during their presidential town hall debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Oct. 9, 2016.
Jim Young | Reuters

"At the time, we only had two categories for classifying attacks in political debate," he said. "Was this an issue attack or a personal character attack? 

"But we had to add a new category: 'name calling, taunting and denigrating' attacks. This came overwhelmingly from Trump's side." 

Biden needs to thread a needle, McKinney said, between showing energy and vigor, and letting Trump drag him into a mudslinging fight.

"Forceful aggression can become a brawl," he said. "But if Biden sticks to his more reserved, senatorial style of debating, he could reinforce Trump's argument of 'low energy' Joe."  

Stay on topic 

Creating distractions has long been one of Trump's most effective rhetorical weapons. 

When he's confronted with tough questions in the White House briefing room, Trump typically changes the subject or he attacks the questioner.

In 2016, Trump did the same thing in presidential debates, often ignoring the questions he was asked and responding instead with a diatribe on an entirely different subject.

This is something the Biden camp is expecting on Tuesday. And nowhere more so than on the topic of the coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed more than 200,000 American lives. 

Trump has admitted on tape to downplaying the severity of the virus. He sought for months to foist responsibility for coordinating a pandemic response onto under-equipped states. And he has repeatedly claimed the virus would just "disappear." 

These issues have proven fertile ground for Biden campaign ads like the one below. 

Biden needs to find a way to draw Trump back to the issues that Biden plans to hammer him on: The pandemic and the economic devastation it has caused. 

"We know that Donald Trump's strategy is going to be to not talk about any of those things, because he wants to change the topic from what is really at stake here. So we're really focused on that," Biden's campaign manager, Jen O'Malley Dillon, said recently. 

Still, Biden himself is prone to going off-topic during his conversations with reporters and voters, often telling stories from his days in the Senate, raising obscure policy proposals, and emotionally connecting with people's experiences. 

Don't try to fact-check Trump in real time

According to The Washington Post's running tally, Trump has made more than 20,000 false or misleading statements since he was inaugurated. 

U.S. President Donald Trump talks to reporters as he departs for travel to Florida from the South Lawn at the White House in Washington, U.S., July 10, 2020.
Tom Brenner | Reuters

This makes him a much more difficult debating opponent than most, wrote Philippe Reines, a longtime aide to Hillary Clinton, in a recent op-ed. In 2016, Reines played the role of Trump during Clinton's mock debates with Trump. According to Reines, trying to fact-check Trump in real time would be a mistake for Biden.

"The best way to deal with Trump, though, won't be to try to fact-check him in real time or to let lies and absurdities go in the hope that moderators — or viewers — catch them," wrote Reines. 

"There's a third option: Preempt the president. Clearly and strongly preview for the 100 million people watching what will happen in the debate as soon as it begins." 

McKinney at the University of Missouri agreed that fact-checking Trump in real time isn't the best use of Biden's time on stage. 

"If Biden is fact-checking each claim then he's spending time looking backwards, when he could be prosecuting Trump's record."

Trying to fact-check Trump also runs the risk of steering Biden into policy topics that don't resonate with voters.

"Biden will need to be careful he doesn't get bogged down on policy," said McKinney. 

"In fact, our research over the years has shown that the debater who offers the most details and facts tends to be viewed as the loser of a debate, not the winner," he said. 

Focusing on policy details also risks obscuring Biden's most appealing personal quality. "The degree to which Biden can keep this empathy front and center is a real challenge," said McKinney. 

"But it's those personal qualities, his energy, his empathy and his temperament that are going to be crucial for Biden to hold his ground and not let Trump dictate how the night goes." 

The first debate will take place Tuesday at 9 p.m. EST at Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Clinic, in Cleveland.