It’s Debate Time! What Are the Candidates Trying to Accomplish?

Donald Trump holds up an open-palmed hand in a wave.
President Donald Trump boards Marine One on the White House lawn Tuesday, ahead of tonight’s debate in Cleveland. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The first presidential debate is Tuesday night in Cleveland, at 9 p.m. Eastern! We already know what the biggest takeaway from the evening will be: “Thank God, this means the election itself can’t be far off.” But there will also be other things to learn from it, as well. Below, the six biggest questions going in about the candidates’ strategies, ranked in completely subjective order of importance. Why six, and not five or 10? Because that’s how many I thought of this morning! Onward:

6. Will Trump self-destruct over the issue of his taxes? Moderator Chris Wallace is definitely going to ask Trump about the New York Times having obtained years of his tax returns, and about how they reported that he apparently cheats on his income taxes and has taken out a number of enormous loans that he has no obvious way to pay off. Wallace will enjoy doing this because despite being an ideological conservative and Fox News host, he thinks Donald Trump is full of crap. As we will discuss more below, the idea that Donald Trump is a successful real-estate developer and master of economics is one that is very dearly held even by some voters who otherwise don’t like him, so this is in theory a line of questioning Trump should be able to deflect. But he really hates the New York Times and Chris Wallace, so it’s possible that he goes nuts and starts demonstrating all the things about himself that those voters don’t like—crudeness, impulsiveness, dishonesty. As I wrote Monday, Biden might also enjoy the opportunity to point out that the way Trump appears to handle his finances—ignoring problems until they become crises, then trying to weasel out of trouble by fudging the numbers—resembles the way he has handled the coronavirus, an issue on which the public does not trust the president.

5. Can Trump restrain himself from celebrating the imminent overturning of Roe v. Wade and the Affordable Care Act? Donald Trump loves to own the libs. It’s his primary passion! It’s why he’s so excited about appointing a sixth conservative judge to the Supreme Court to rule against Roe and the ACA despite the fact that he clearly doesn’t have any personal convictions about abortion and will suffer electorally if he’s blamed for the demise of insurance-market protections for individuals who have chronic medical conditions. Republican senators who are up for reelection are out in the field right now arguing that they don’t want to overturn Roe or eliminate preexisting condition coverage despite years of evidence to the contrary. Will Trump do the same? (Prediction: He will try, but it won’t make sense.)

4. Can Trump find an equilibrium point of racism that is racist enough to win back some older whites but not so racist that it turns off younger whites? Biden has been expanding his lead in the Midwest swing states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—and getting close enough in Iowa and Ohio that Trump should be nervous—by doing very well with nonwhite voters, well with white college graduates, and what you might call “good enough to win” with whites who didn’t graduate from college. The most obvious way Trump could reverse this trend is to raise race-adjacent concerns about increasing crime rates in major cities without doing so in a way that is openly insulting to Black Americans and/or seems likely to incite further violence. (Prediction: Whatever he may say about race and/or crime will not even attempt this feat of calibration.)

3. Can Biden seduce Florida Man? If Biden wins Florida, it’s almost certain he’ll win the Electoral College. But his lead there has gotten narrower amid weak polling numbers with Latinos. A recent New York Times op-ed, citing research by its authors, argued that a populist “regular people vs. the wealthy elite” message—rather than anything that specifically addresses Latino identity—would be Biden’s best strategy for winning over those voters. Such a message could also be a signal to progressive Democrats that Biden remembers they exist. There isn’t much evidence that Biden needs to motivate that latter set of voters to turn out for him—the incumbent administration’s racist assault on democratic values has motivated them pretty well—but, you know, it would be a polite thing to do.

2. Can Trump attack Biden in a way that is legible to anyone outside the Fox News Cinematic Universe? Joe Biden is not exceedingly well-liked overall—about 45 percent of the public has an unfavorable view of him. But in Our Polarized Times, that’s a number that he can live—and win a presidential election—with. Thus far in the race, Trump’s efforts to drag Biden down to a Hillary Clinton level of equally polarized public distaste have been unsuccessful. Whether that is because of sexism, Clinton’s record as a public figure, the media smartening up after getting played by Trump in 2016, voters realizing that Trump’s flaws have more serious consequences than those of “normal” politicians, or all of the above … that will be something for everyone to study in detail if Biden wins.

But what’s clear right now is that Trump’s negative campaigning—oriented around esoteric accusations that Biden has to take performance-enhancing drugs to appear in public, that he’s a puppet of an influence campaign somehow simultaneously waged by the radical anarchist left AND the bureaucratic Deep State, and that his son Hunter is corrupt—hasn’t taken off with anyone besides the Fox News viewers who’ve already been conditioned to believe in these things. Polls say there are areas in which Trump could attack Biden that might be fruitful: While it might not be commonly held that the Democratic candidate is blasting big rails of Adderall in order to cover up his dementia, there are concerns over whether he has lost a step mentally, and a slight majority of the public persists in the belief, despite the past 30 years of evidence to the contrary, that Republican presidents like Trump are better for the economy than Democrats. A Trump who is sharp, focused, and more conversant than Biden about details related to employment and growth might win back some of the “I find him distasteful, but then again, the stock market” voters that he needs.

Biden, on the other hand, is the candidate more likely to espouse what is currently the majority position on what needs to be done to improve the economy, namely controlling the coronavirus. He also can and probably will point to what unemployment rates and retirement portfolios were like under the administration he recently served in, compared to what they are like now. Some upside for him, too, maybe.

1. Can Biden give America a glimpse of a blessed future in which a person doesn’t have to pay attention to what Donald Trump says? This is the flip side of No. 2. Trump wants to make Biden look bad. But Biden doesn’t need to convince a majority of voters that Trump is bad; he needs to give the people who already hold that position some reason to believe that he can reduce the epidemic national levels of chaos, “divisiveness,” and actual epidemics that they are exhausted from dealing with. Given what we saw at the Democratic National Convention, Biden’s approach to this is to look like he’s above it all—like he’s already president, basically, and his attention is on ending the pandemic, restarting the economy, and addressing racial issues in a way that resolves them rather than making them worse. During Democratic primary debates, though, he had a tendency to get frowny, flustered, and sometimes incoherent when criticized. Can he avoid being annoyed by one of the world’s most annoying people, instead projecting the serenity that a wide margin of Americans say they would like to be enjoying come January? The future depends on it.