In this special debate day edition, live from Ohio: What to expect from Trump and Biden, the latest polls on swing states and the Supreme Court, and new ads that will take the candidates into the final five weeks.

Today’s newsletter is brought to you, like every newsletter, by secret government smart drugs and an earpiece that tells me what James Hohmann is writing. This is The Trailer.

CLEVELAND — A funny thing happened in the four years since Donald Trump last debated for the presidency. Over three nights, in three cities, Trump was widely seen as outmatched by Hillary Clinton. In polls, voters said the Democrat had bested Trump; in the first days after each debate, Clinton’s advantage in the horse race grew, if marginally. In the tumultuous final weeks of that campaign, as Clinton’s campaign email was published by WikiLeaks and James B. Comey’s FBI opened a last-minute probe into another cache of emails, the debates represented Clinton’s strongest moments.

But Trump won, and Clinton lost. A new conventional wisdom was built to explain what happened in these debates: Clinton was outmatched. Trump had bulldozed past questions, rattled her with surprises and loomed over her during the town hall debate. In 2019 – when Democrats in Iowa and New Hampshire began vetting the cartoonishly large field of candidates – senators, governors and Biden were often asked how they would face Trump onstage, their premise being that the president would be commanding, bullying and hard to beat. 

Is he? In the final days before tonight’s event, sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates, Trump and allies have continued to mock Joe Biden as incoherent and have advanced baseless conspiracy theories that he cannot answer questions without cue cards or chemical enhancement. 

“They have him read from a teleprompter, and then as soon as it’s over, they take him away without taking any questions, unless they’re scripted,” former White House physician Ronny L. Jackson, now a Republican nominee for Congress from Texas, said in a Monday night Fox News interview. Just 32 hours earlier, Biden had taken questions from reporters in Delaware. But the image of Biden as unable to function, and Trump as an apex predator, is set.

How does that theory match up with the candidates’ actual performances? Not well, but it’s complicated. As Trump’s camp points out, the president has not participated in a debate since October 2016, while Biden’s last experience with the format was in March. The three debates with Clinton were the only one-on-one political debates Trump ever faced; he’d benefited from a crowded Republican primary where, for months, most of his rivals expected him to implode and for the most part pulled their punches. 

Biden participated in 11 debates around this year’s Democratic presidential primary, 14 around the 2008 Democratic primary and one in each year he ran for vice president. Most of these looked nothing like the show that the CPD tends to put on.

“Everybody knows these aren’t debates,” Biden groused a year ago, criticizing forums in which 10 or 11 candidates climbed over each other for time.

Since being nominated for vice president in 2008, Biden has appeared in just three debates that resemble tonight’s — a single opponent, with time shared equally. The first was his faceoff with Sarah Palin 12 years ago. The second was his debate with then-Rep. Paul D. Ryan in 2012, which like most modern vice-presidential debates had the candidates seated behind a table. The third was his only solo debate with Bernie Sanders in March.

Reviewing each of Biden’s debates, one of Trump’s attacks is undeniable: The 77-year-old Democrat has lost some speed. The tics made famous by Trump campaign video super-cuts, like Biden’s tendency to interrupt himself or cut himself off, have multiplied in the past few years. But they were always there, with the candidate sometimes shutting his eyes as he talked through a tricky word, or deciding one point wasn’t working and shifting to another. (And claims that he’s being propped up have no basis in reality.)

Trump’s media interviews find a candidate who hasn’t changed much since 2016, but a look back at his debates finds problems that he never solved.

Both candidates can get lost in the weeds — in very different ways. Biden has the longest political record of anyone who’s ever sought the presidency. He likes to talk about it. He never starts with details, preferring to talk about any issue in terms of how it would impact the working class or poor. But he gets detailed and defensive when his record is questioned, and you can see in real time how he decides between fighting the point, like he might in a closed-door meeting, and moving on from it.

“Mortgage-holders didn’t pay the price,” Biden said at the 2008 debate, after moderator Gwen Ifill asked about his support for an unpopular bankruptcy reform bill. “Only 10 percent of the people who are — have been affected by this whole switch from Chapter 7 to Chapter 13 — it gets complicated.” Seconds later, he had turned the question back to the Obama-Biden economic recovery plan. 

That’s still Biden’s tactic when he sees himself getting drawn into a detail-heavy topic, talking it through until he injects a “here’s the deal” or “the fact of the matter is” or, less effectively, “anyway.” Trump does not have that problem. In the 2016 debates, as he’d do at news conferences throughout his presidency, Trump can start describing scandals or accusations without unpacking them for a national audience that might not have followed the details.

This is best illustrated by one moment in the second Trump-Clinton debate. Over 90 seconds, as a town-hall audience watched, Trump condemned Clinton’s association with journalist Sidney Blumenthal (“another real winner”), Blumenthal’s nearly forgotten 2008 email that forwarded a picture of Obama in a turban (“a certain garb”), Michelle Obama’s criticism of Clinton during the 2008 Democratic primary (“some of the most vicious commercials”), Clinton’s victory in the 2016 Democratic primary (“you won, but not fair and square”), the content of emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee (“just see what they said about Bernie Sanders”). 

Trump does not get stuck on policy details. In 2016, that was an advantage: Clinton was cautious not to propose spending that would not be paid for, or bills that couldn’t pass. Clinton did not spend time rebutting every Trump accusation, which Democrats at the time saw as the smart approach; only after Clinton lost did they worry that Trump could get his talking points across without pushback. Biden is more likely to get into the weeds, and the question is whether he gets out quickly or gets lost.

Trump likes to rattle, Biden prefers to mock. Because Trump won the presidency, his decision to bring women who’d accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct to his second debate with Hillary Clinton is remembered as a masterstroke. Ever since, debate-watchers have asked if he’ll bring more “surprise guests” to push Biden off topic, speculation Trump’s campaign has indulged. The theory: Pressed about the foreign business of his son Hunter, Biden will lose his temper and fall off topic.

Biden was twice asked about Hunter during this cycle’s primary debates; once at the New Hampshire debate days before that state’s primary and once at an October debate in Ohio, a few hours’ drive from tonight’s venue. In the first case, Biden’s son was raised as a problem that Trump might exploit; in the second, it was raised as a legitimate scandal, with CNN’s Anderson Cooper asking Biden if it was “okay for a president’s family to be involved in foreign businesses.”

“Look, my son did nothing wrong,” Biden said, later adding, “Rudy Giuliani, the president and his thugs have already proven that they in fact are flat lying.” 

Cooper did not press the topic further, and there were more candidates to deal with. But Biden’s response set the tone: If his son is invoked, he repeats that he had nothing to do with Hunter’s decisions and accuses the president of throwing up a distraction. In 2012, a great deal of the Biden-Ryan debate turned on the terrorist attack in Benghazi and Obama’s response to it, and Biden bulldozed his way past it, using a favorite rhetorical technique — counting down a list of his main points — to portray Ryan as a hypocrite trying to squeeze political advantage from a tragedy.

“Number one, the — this lecture on embassy security — the congressman here cut embassy security in his budget by $300 million below what we asked for, number one,” Biden said. “So much for the embassy security piece.”

Biden, unlike Trump, is averse to bringing up scandals or trying to push his opponent off-message. He tends to let them swing first, then appeal to the audience with a “Come on, man!” or “What are we doing?” or “It’s outrageous!” It’s a cue to the audience: Wouldn’t you rather us be talking about something else? Something real?

Trump’s bet, which paid off in 2016, was that the audience was perfectly happy to hear about scandal. “There’s never been anybody in the history of politics in this nation that’s been so abusive to women,” Trump said of Bill Clinton in his second debate, which came after Trump was heard on “Access Hollywood” tapes describing grabbing women. While the president can get obsessed by obscure scandals, he can effectively bring back quotes that the moderators (and the rest of the media) moved past quickly.

“John Podesta said some horrible things about you, and, boy, was he right,” Trump told Clinton in their third debate. “And you know, Bernie Sanders, he said you have bad judgment. You do.” There’s a long string of comments against Biden he could use, just since the start of the primary, from Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan accidentally telling a reporter that the former vice president was declining, to attacks from the left on Biden’s crime record and support for the Iraq War. 

Both candidates are proud of their records, and that’s new for Trump. One of the president’s advantages four years ago, in the debate format and with undecided voters, was that his agenda was whatever he said it was. His safest responses to Clinton all fit around the same theme: She’d been in Washington for decades, and any promise she made to fix things could be brushed aside as spin.

“All talk, no action,” Trump said after Clinton laid out her tax plan in the first debate. “Our country is suffering because people like Secretary Clinton have made such bad decisions in terms of our jobs and in terms of what’s going on.”

As president, Trump’s boosterism has been an asset: He touts not just what his administration has pulled off, but claims that no one else could have done it. On foreign policy, which has rarely been debated in this campaign, he has a potential litany against Biden: He said he’d recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, he said he’d relocate America’s embassy there, he said he’d destroy ISIS. It may be the great lost argument of this campaign: Trump did what previous presidents only talked about. (The destruction of ISIS was underway under the Obama-Biden administration, but it’s exactly the kind of topic Biden could get lost in.)

Trump’s advantage is that Biden can get hyper-defensive when the Obama-Biden record, or his own record, gets challenged. This was effective in the 2012 debate with Ryan; it can grate when Biden’s talking about himself. At the final multicandidate debate in 2020, in South Carolina, Biden interrupted Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s description of a gun bill by saying “I wrote that law,” and at a previous debate he reacted to Sen. Elizabeth Warren describing the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau by bellowing “I got you those votes!” Biden is also vulnerable when crime or Black economic empowerment are raised, often touting his support from Black voters, less often laying out his campaign’s Black agenda.

But there will be two candidates onstage with records tonight, and Trump has never been challenged in that setting. His health-care plan — basically, to replace the Affordable Care Act with something “absolutely much less expensive and something that works”— has not changed in four years. Trump also came to the brink of repealing Obamacare and is challenging it in court. (A planned debate section about the Supreme Court is Biden’s obvious cue to get into this.) In the 2016 debates, Trump suggested that he could reduce the national debt with job growth (until the pandemic, unemployment fell but debt continued to grow), that he would appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Hillary Clinton (incredibly, he never did), and that he would release his tax returns before the election (you know that one). 

“I don’t mind releasingI’m under a routine audit, Trump said. And it’ll be released. Andas soon as the audit’s finished, it will be released.”

Trump has a better case to make on the raw economic data, emphasizing how it improved before covid-19, and on trade, where he has a simple, devastating point: He renegotiated parts of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which the Obama-Biden administration only tried as part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and never completed. The buzz about a Trump surprise, or a Biden meltdown, might be overwhelmed if the candidates decide to grapple with their records, where both have strengths if they can explain them, and their plans for 2021, where Biden has more details than the president. 

It would be the biggest potential surprise for a debate between two men who can run off track: a debate about what they’re actually going to do.

“Chris Wallace says he wants to be ‘invisible’ as debate moderator. Will Trump let him?” by Jeremy Barr

Will a “Fox News style” shape the debate tonight?

“Once on defense, Dems grow confident in Trump country,” by Sarah Ferris and Ally Mutnik

The growing ambitions of the DCCC.

“Trump brings divisiveness and invective back to the rally stage,” by Ashley Parker

In 2016, the president sometimes moderated his tone on the trail. Not so this year.

“Pandemic overwhelms Trump’s message in critical North Carolina,” by Steve Peoples

In-person canvassing has gotten harder, but only one campaign is doing it.

“Courts view GOP fraud claims skeptically as Democrats score key legal victories over mail voting,” by Elise Viebeck

Why so many voting lawsuits are losing in court.

“Barr’s Justice Department serves up talking points for Trump,” by Kyle Cheney

How a politically motivated Justice Department might influence the election.

“The Undecideds: Sure, Biden and Trump are very different. But maybe neither is right for the job,” by Marc Fisher, Christine Spolar, and Amy B Wang

Inside the minds of the voters who aren’t sure what to do.

“Georgia voters head to the polls for special election to fill John Lewis’s seat — temporarily,” by Rachael Bade

None of the candidates running to hold this seat for a short time are on the November ballot.

Donald Trump, “Abraham Accords.” In the last month, the Trump administration announced normalized relations between Israel and two Arab nations: the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Neither nation had been at war with Israel, and neither event dominated more than one news cycle. Hence this spot, which says that Trump brought “bitter enemies” together for “the first Middle East peace agreement in decades,” a pitch to both evangelical voters and Jewish voters.

Joe Biden, “Keep Our Country Running.” The Democrats were slow to do everything Latino strategists wanted to avoid losses with those voters in swing states. The messaging Biden eventually settled on is twofold — attacks on Trump as a caudillo-esque strongman and emphasis of how Biden wants higher wages for Latinos, especially essential workers. “We don’t just need to thank them,” the ad says. “We need to pay them and treat them with dignity.” 

John Hickenlooper, “Debate.” The former Colorado governor’s 2010 and 2014 campaigns were remembered for odd, usually funny ads, including one in which he took a shower, while fully clothed, to say something about his dislike for negative ads. Sen. Cory Gardner has mimicked that style in his own ads this year; Hickenlooper responds with an entirely new kind of oddball ad, in which he moves back and forth on a debate stage between two cardboard Gardners, to dramatize that the Republican’s current campaign portrays him as a moderate. “Maybe we ought to let Cory Gardner debate Cory Gardner,” Hickenlooper says. (The ad especially irritates Republicans as Hickenlooper has not accepted every debate or forum invitation, which Gardner has mocked by standing next to empty lecterns.)

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Presidential election in Pennsylvania (Washington Post/ABC News, 567 likely voters)

Joe Biden: 54%
Donald Trump: 45%

The Post’s swing-state polls found the president with some of his worst numbers all year in the Keystone State — increasingly discussed as the Obama-to-Trump state that’s hardest for Biden to win. Here, Trump is struggling to recover his winning coalition, with 8 percent of his 2016 voters breaking for Biden to just 1 percent of Clinton voters who have switched to the president. At issue: While 53 percent of Pennsylvanians approve of Trump’s economic performance, just 43 percent approve of his job in office writ large, and just 42 percent approve of his handling of covid-19. One bet Biden made months ago was that voter anger at the pandemic response would persist, not fade, as the election got closer.

What are Amy Coney Barrett’s political beliefs? (Monmouth, 601 registered voters)

Conservative: 49%
Moderate: 5%
Liberal: 1%
Don’t know: 2%
Haven’t heard enough: 44%

It’s been 29 years since a vacancy on the Supreme Court gave conservatives the chance to replace a liberal with a conservative, and arguably nearly 90 years since conservatives held a clear majority on the bench. That poses a new challenge for Republicans as they work to confirm Barrett, because the Supreme Court’s recent mix of decisions — liberals winning on big social issues and conservatives winning on voting rights, gun rights and regulation — has given most voters the impression that the court is politically neutral. By a 13-point margin in this poll, voters thought 2016 nominee Merrick Garland was more “moderate” than liberal; by a 44-point margin here, voters think Barrett is more conservative than moderate.

Presidential election in Nebraska’s 2nd District (NYT/Siena, 420 likely voters)

Joe Biden: 48%
Donald Trump: 41%
Jo Jorgenson: 4%

Just two states split up their electoral college votes by congressional district: Maine and Nebraska. The latter state’s 2nd District, which covers Omaha and its suburbs, voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and has been competitive in every election since, with Trump winning it with just 48 percent of the vote four years ago. Trump’s collapse in suburbs has made him especially weak here, and Biden ties with men, leads by 11 points with women and leads among independents by a 2-1 margin. At the same time, local Democratic congressional nominee Kara Eastman, who Biden has endorsed, runs five points behind him; Rep. Don Bacon runs four points ahead of Trump. Republican advertising has emphasized that Eastman backs Medicare-for-all but Biden doesn’t, and Eastman runs far behind Biden with college-educated White voters.

CLEVELAND — At campaign appearances, the president has frequently joked about Joe Biden as a sort of zombie candidate, goading him to take a drug test to prove that a good debate performance won’t be the result of Lance Armstrong-style cheating. The final hours before tonight’s debate saw the campaign kick that into overdrive. 

First, the Trump-friendly New York Post claimed, from a “source familiar,” that Biden’s team had “agreed to an inspection for electronic ear pieces” ahead of the debate, then balked. Trump’s campaign pounced, with spokesman Tim Murtaugh tweeting that he could confirm the Post’s story, then putting out a statement. (The debate will appear on live television, making it logistically difficult to conceal earpieces.) But long before that, the allegation had circulated on conservative media, with one Fox News guest speculating that moments when Biden had scratched his ear were indications that he was getting answers to media questions.

“His staff seems concerned that he may not do well tonight,” Biden deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield said of Trump on a call with reporters, denying the “earpiece” charge. “If we’re playing that game, then you know, the Trump team asked Chris Wallace not to mention the number of deaths from covid once during the debate. You can consider that confirmed from the Biden campaign. See how easy that was to try to throw up a distraction?”

Another charge, not actually levied by the Trump campaign, picked up some traction on conservative media: that Trump had been provided debate questions in advance. In reality, both candidates learned days ago that the debate would focus on six themes over 90 minutes — a fact so well known that one of them caused controversy.

The head of the nonpartisan debate commission on Tuesday said he hadn’t heard of demands on either earpieces or mentioning the toll of covid-19.

Donald Trump and Joe Biden will head back out to campaign as soon as tonight’s debate is over, with the Democrat traveling from eastern Ohio through Pennsylvania and the president rallying in Minnesota on Wednesday. 

The electoral value aside, both states help drive a favored campaign message. For Biden, it’s that he’s not taking working-class White voters for granted; for Trump, one message to watch in Minnesota is election integrity. Project Veritas Action, a conservative undercover investigation organization that has for years accused Democrats of voter fraud, published a report claiming (without evidence) that Rep. Ilhan Omar’s campaign had paid volunteers for votes in August’s Democratic primary. The report was factually flawed — for example, citing a state statute on “ballot harvesting” that had been overturned in court — but got a tweet of support from the president.

“This is totally illegal,” Trump tweeted. “Hope that the U.S. Attorney in Minnesota has this, and other of her many misdeeds, under serious review??? If not, why not???” The president will head to Duluth on Wednesday for his first rally after the debate and has been touting investigations or (mostly baseless) allegations of voter fraud in recent speeches.

Mike Pence will campaign in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on Thursday, which shares a media market with Omaha, helping the Trump campaign compete for Nebraska’s 2nd District. And Kamala D. Harris confirmed to reporters yesterday that she will attend hearings on the Supreme Court vacancy, rebuffing some (loosely organized) activists who had asked senators to boycott it.

… eight days until the vice-presidential debate 
… 16 days until the second presidential debate
… 23 days until the third presidential debate
… 35 days until the general election 
… 76 days until the Electoral College votes

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