[A quick note about timing: I’m writing this on September 29, US-time. But technically it’s September 30, 2020 where I live in New Zealand.]

The big news today is going to be Joe Biden’s first debate with Donald Trump. For about a year, the Bernie Sanders faithful pointed to this day as the end of the road for candidate Biden. The conventional wisdom was that Joe Biden is senile, out of his depth, and would look lost on a debate stage against Donald Trump, a masterful debater. I’m not so sure about that.

First, the “Joe Biden is suffering dementia” line of attack hasn’t really held held up to scrutiny. Biden was involved in many debates against the other Democrats, and while he’s not a fantastic debater, he wasn’t completely lost in the weeds either. Since the debates, he’s done podcasts, interviews, town halls, speeches, in-person events, and so forth. The results keep piling up: yes, he flubs his words sometimes. He grew up with a stutter. But people seem to be warming up to the idea that Joe Biden can meet the very low bar people have set for him.

Second, the idea that Donald Trump is a good debater is a bit far fetched. He’s fantastic at counter-punching. He’s fantastic at getting under people’s skin. He’s fantastic at filibustering. He’s fantastic at pivoting away and not asking the question. And it’s absolutely true that those skills could serve him well in the court of public opinion after tonight. But let’s not call that debating, because it’s not. The fact is, all three stories are conceivable after tonight:

Trump wins

We know exactly how Trump attacks and counter-attacks. He know exactly what he’ll do tonight. So the way Trump wins is if Biden gets knocked on his heels, says something extremely dumb, and has to live with the quote for the rest of the political cycle. Strike that — the rest of his life.

This could absolutely happen. Even a small gaffe from Biden is going to be seized on as evidence that he’s insane, and the likelihood for a small gaffe tonight is quite large. If it becomes enough of a cultural moment, like Dan Qualye’s “potatoe” or Dukakis’ tank photo, it could hurt Biden. Would it hurt him enough to fully erase a 6 to 8% national lead? Doubtful.

Biden and Trump battle to a tie

We know Trump voters will say Trump won, and that Biden voters will say that Biden won. The big question is what moderates and indies think. It’s likely that both men have gaffes alongside making good points, and in the end the debate doesn’t really sway anyone very much one way or the other. This is where I’d guess we’ll end up. Ammo for both sides, but no change in a remarkably stable race.

Biden wins

Trump thrives on chaos. He has a gambler’s instinct for high risk/high reward strategy. So if Biden can manage not to steal headlines with an extraordinarily embarrassing gaffe, it’s not hard to imagine Trump coming off poorly. Trump will probably go after Biden’s family and his mental health. If Biden can weather that, he can look like the reasonable one on stage. The presidential one. This is the beautiful thing about playing the expectations game. After all these attacks on Biden’s failing mind, he can pull off a win by showing up and stringing a few sentences together.

Assorted news

  • I spend a lot of time counting electoral votes to figure out how many paths Biden and Trump have to win. And I have to say, I had completely counted out Ohio until last week. But then polling started to shift. And today, a GOP leader in Ohio cast doubts on if Trump can win there, and the Cook Political Report switched Ohio and Iowa to toss-ups. I still think Trump will carry Ohio, but this is a very interesting development.
  • The debate over Brad Parscale continues. Now it sounds like there’s evidence he was stealing millions of dollars from Trump’s campaign, as well as abusing his wife. We’ll see how this develops.
  • The NYT posted a second long article about Trump’s taxes, this time going deep on the money he made on The Apprentice.
  • The Democrats seem to be racking up wins in the courts when it comes to voter fraud. The Republicans are arguing that reduced barriers to voting will be bad for democracy, but judges seem to be skeptical.
  • Oh, and Covid. Things were heading downward for a while, but then they rebounded and now we’re at an uneasy plateau. They could conceivably go down … but it’s pretty clear that school and state re-openings are going to cause the numbers to go back up. It’s going to be a tough winter, I fear.

I analyze the Trump presidency, then share the essays 90 days later, like a time capsule.