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

Key Points
  • President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden are set to square off in a face-to-face debate for the first time.
  • Despite his incumbent advantage, Trump may not be heading in with the upper hand over Biden.
  • The debate will be held in Cleveland, Ohio, where it is set to begin at 9 p.m. ET and last for 90 minutes.
U.S. President Donald Trump stands in front of a U.S. flag as he participates in a roundtable on donating plasma during a visit to the American Red Cross National Headquarters in Washington, U.S., July 30, 2020.
Carlos Barria | Reuters

President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden are set to square off in a face-to-face debate for the first time Tuesday night, and despite his incumbent advantage, Trump may not be heading in with the upper hand.

Polls give Biden a steady and durable lead in national polls, including in a series of all-important swing states. The former vice president, who triumphed over a wide field of challengers in the Democratic primary, has also had much more recent debate experience than Trump.

What could be worse for Trump: Compared with 2016, fewer voters remain undecided. Large swaths of voters have already cast their ballots, and Democrats are amassing a huge early lead.

As president, Trump will have to defend his record on a series of crises that have gripped his administration for months — especially the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 204,000 Americans.

The debate also comes on the heels of damning new disclosures about his finances, which were revealed by The New York Times on Sunday. The president paid just $750 in federal income taxes in 2016 and another $750 the following year, and none at all in 10 of the previous 15 years, the newspaper reported, citing years of his tax information.

The debate will be held at Case Western University and Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, where it is set to begin at 9 p.m. ET. The face-off is expected to last 90 minutes, without commercial breaks. CNBC.com will livestream the debate, and it will also be carried on channels including NBC, MSNBC, C-SPAN, CNN, Fox News, CBS and ABC. Two more debates between Trump and Biden are on the schedule before Election Day.

Here's what Trump has to do in his first showing:

A draw won't cut it

Just over five weeks remain until Election Day, and according to the polls, Biden is leading the race for the White House.

"The president has more pressure on him," said Aaron Kall, director of the University of Michigan's debate program.

"Something has to happen that is going to radically change the trajectory of the race and the narrative of it. You can't just fight Joe Biden to a draw," Kall said.

Kall warned that Trump can't simply rely on the expectation that Biden will make a grave error.

"It sounds like a big part of the strategy is, we're going to have these three debates and Joe Biden's going to be exposed and his age and forgetfulness are going to come out, and all of a sudden he's going to be disqualifying to some portion of the public."

This is the wrong move, Kall said.

"You can't operate under the assumption that your opponent is going to make errors and you can then just capitalize on them. You have to assume that they'll be OK and that you have to do something to really try to move the needle," he said.

Former Republican Sen. Judd Gregg, who helped prepare George W. Bush for his debates in 2000 and 2004 by role-playing as Al Gore and John Kerry, told CNBC that Trump needs to temper his pugnacious style. 

"He has to come across as showing that he understands that he's there to govern effectively for all Americans," Gregg said of the president.

"This election is only about a very small part of the electorate. Almost the entire electorate has their mind made up," Gregg said.

Manage expectations

The Trump campaign appears to agree that Biden's reputation for making gaffes may not guarantee a victory.

Until a few weeks ago, the campaign's attacks on Biden focused on raising doubts about his cognition and suggesting he's a "Trojan horse" for a far-left policy agenda. But ahead of the debate, Trump's team has taken a completely different tack.

"Joe Biden is a master debater who knows what he's doing," Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh told CNBC in a statement last week.

Biden, said Murtaugh, "has been a Washington politician for 47 years, debated very well twice while running for vice president, and just came through 11 debates in the Democrat primaries where he defeated two dozen challengers."

The Trump campaign has declined to comment on the details of the president's debate preparations. Trump said Sunday that his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie are helping him prepare. 

"President Trump prepares for debates every day by being president and building an excellent record to run on for reelection," Murtaugh had told CNBC.

Gregg said it's natural for campaign operatives to "want to raise expectations for your opponent and lower expectations for yourself."

"But I don't think anybody will buy that," Gregg added.

Take advantage of the topics

The debate moderator, Fox News' Chris Wallace, has selected six topics for the debate. They are:

  • The Trump and Biden records
  • The Supreme Court
  • Covid-19
  • The economy
  • Race and violence in our cities
  • The integrity of the election

The economy is likely Trump's strongest card in the deck, despite recent polling that shows Trump's lead on that issue diminishing amid the pandemic. 

The Supreme Court is also an area of potential advantage for Trump. The president on Saturday formally nominated Amy Coney Barrett to fill the vacancy on the high court following the recent death of senior liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Barrett, a conservative judge who shares the philosophy of the late Justice Antonin Scalia, could be confirmed by the Senate before the presidential election.

"Historically, it's something that favors Republicans," Kall said. "Having a candidate actually now with a name that people know, it's always easier to defend ... when there's an actual nominee, he can extol that person and their background."

Doing so could help increase turnout and enthusiasm among Trump's base and could serve as a springboard for him to discuss the large number of judges confirmed during his administration.

Know Biden's weaknesses

While the Trump campaign may not be able to reverse its monthslong effort to undermine Biden, the Democrat's campaign is not without its weaknesses.

Trump has lowered expectations for Biden, which played to the Democrat's favor in his well-reviewed speech at the Democratic National Convention. But it remains the case that Biden has been less willing than Trump to go before the press to be cross-examined and answer tough questions.

"He hasn't subjected himself to an interview with Chris Wallace like Trump has," Kall said.

Gregg said that Biden's "weakest card is that he has a very hard time answering questions concisely."

"He's going to have to deal with the president, who is inherently unpredictable, so he's got to be quick on his feet," Gregg said of Biden.

Another issue for Biden could be his temper, of which he's shown flashes throughout his campaign.

"He does seem like he's got kind of a short fuse sometimes," Kall said.

Trump might try to stoke Biden's anger by bringing up Hunter Biden, the former vice president's son, whose connections to a Ukrainian gas company came under scrutiny during the impeachment proceedings against Trump. A GOP-led Senate committee released a report last week calling Hunter Biden's connections "problematic," while Democrats and the Biden campaign have accused Republicans of conducting a smear campaign.

"That's one place where he's definitely vulnerable," Kall said of Biden.

With more than four decades in politics, Biden also has a much longer record to defend than Trump. Biden may face questions on his prior stances on the Iraq War and the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden, for instance.

The president, 74, may also bring up the age of Biden, 77.

Know your (lack of) audience

In normal times, a presidential debate would be held before an audience of hundreds. But with the coronavirus still wreaking havoc in the U.S., just a few dozen people are expected to watch the debate in person.

This could pose real problems for Trump, who has never shied from a crowd. Biden, on the other hand, has experience here: His debate in March with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., which came during an initial crest of fear about the Covid-19 crisis, was held without a live audience.

"I think the most difficult thing for the president is going to be, when you have a crowd, you have a sense in real time of what's working," Kall said. "When you don't have that feedback, you kind of doubt yourself more, so you don't know whether to continue what you're doing or try something else."

"He's going to have to trust his own instincts, and that could be correct, but he could be misreading things," Kall said. "Unfortunately, you don't know the answer to that until the debate ends, and by then it's too late."

A swell of support from a live audience can bring an electric charge to a well-delivered point in a debate or a campaign speech — a fact Trump, whose massive rallies are a signature feature of his political career, knows well.

Moderators in presidential debates try to prevent audiences from applauding their preferred candidates — but they can struggle to contain the crowd.

Fewer claps and hollers can "allow for a lot more substance and content in the debate," Kall said.

Promise to accept the results of the election

Trump made waves last week when he refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he lost to Biden in the election.

It's not the first time Trump has voiced skepticism about the potential election results. When debating Hillary Clinton in October 2016, Trump similarly declined to accept the election outcome unconditionally. "I'll keep you in suspense," Trump said at the time.

The president should reverse himself, Kall said.

"That would be something he would want to walk back in the debate."

"Obviously the intent is to depress turnout," Kall said, but for independent and undecided voters, "that's not the kind of message they want to hear." 

Kall noted that in 2016, Trump had tried to disarm Clinton before their debates on the issue of birtherism — the false conspiracy theory, peddled by Trump, that President Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. 

Trump was still asked about the theory in those debates, however. "That's what caused Clinton to win the debate overall," Kall said.