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Biden vs Trump presidential debate preview

When Donald Trump’s team announced that it had accepted the Biden campaign’s terms for at least two forthcoming debates, it did so with bravado. Those terms included limiting debate access to a handful of mainstream networks, restricting moderators to those networks’ on-air personalities, and eliminating a live audience — all conditions expected to benefit Joe Biden. But Trump had been goading Biden into a debate for weeks, and the former president did not want to invite the accusation that his confidence was conditional. After all, what is there to be worried about? “Crooked Joe Biden is the worst debater I have ever faced,” Trump said upon his acceptance of Biden’s terms. “He can’t put two sentences together.”

Trump’s self-assuredness may have been justified — Thursday night’s performance will tell the tale — but it was hardly strategic. In the intervening weeks, the Trump team seems to have convinced the former president that it was unwise to raise viewers’ expectations of him while lowering the bar for Biden. More recently, the former president has embarked on a more traditional debate-preparation strategy, in which he casts himself as the underdog staring down insurmountable forces colluding to contrive a rigged process.

At a campaign rally in Philadelphia on Saturday night, Trump promulgated the notion that Biden’s handlers are pulling out all the stops to reinvigorate our wraithlike president. “He’s sleeping now because they want to get him good and strong,” Trump joked. Ahead of the debate, “He gets a shot in the ass,” the presumptive Republican presidential nominee added. “He’ll come out all jacked up.” Trump even joked that the “missing cocaine” found last year in the White House may have found its way into the president’s bloodstream, causing Biden’s allies to feign great offense at the mere suggestion that the president would use pharmaceuticals to boost his stamina.

After raising the bar on Biden, Trump lowered it for the host network, CNN. He solicited boos from his audience while disparaging debate moderators Jake “fake” Tapper and Dana Bash. In the days that followed, the Trump campaign advanced this ball further. During an interview with CNN anchor Kasie Hunt, Trump campaign spokeswoman Karoline Leavitt accused the network of creating a “hostile environment” for the former president — an accusation to which Hunt took exception, prompting her to shut down the discourse. The Trump campaign’s rapid-response operation highlighted the affair and accused Hunt of implicit bias — as evinced by a banner image on her social-media account featuring the anchor interviewing Biden (which, as conspiracies go, is anticlimactic).

It was never wise for Trump to lean into his core voters’ belief that Biden’s infirmities alone will do the hard work of rendering the incumbent president unacceptable to a critical mass of general-election voters. Trump’s quite recent refusal to “underestimate” Biden is a smart pivot. The same could be said of the Trump campaign’s efforts to preemptively lay the blame for an underwhelming performance by the former president at the feet of CNN. Still, these are the terms to which the Trump campaign agreed, and Trump’s allies were critical of the former president’s team for accepting them at the outset. If it feels obliged to propagate the notion that the fix was in from the start, the campaign will blunt that narrative through its own choices. The Biden team handed the former president a paper bag labeled “Dead Dove: Do Not Eat!” which the former president eagerly accepted. What did he expect?

Meanwhile, at Camp David, the Biden campaign is reportedly hunkering down with its principal and a handful of core advisers — campaign lawyer Bob Bauer, who is playing Trump in mock debates, former chief of staff Ron Klain, former deputy chief of staff Jen O’Malley Dillon, and adviser Anita Dunn among them. While campaign spokesperson Adrienne Elrod let it slip that viewers can expect Biden to be “energized” on Thursday night, there has been no public reporting on the experimental serums that might rejuvenate the delicate president. Elrod’s enthusiasm notwithstanding, however, the Biden campaign is also retailing its own face-saving narratives ahead of Thursday’s clash.

Speaking on background to the New York Times, Biden campaign staffers prepared viewers to expect “a more disciplined performance” from Trump. They also sought to lower expectations for the president, claiming that no one event could “immediately upend the race.” Rather, Thursday night should be seen more as the “starting bell” in the 2024 race, prodding “the public to pay closer attention” to the presidential contest.

The Biden campaign has insisted for months that public polling around the presidential race is unreliable because most voters will not tune in until the late summer, which aligns with conventional wisdom. It has gone so far as to insist that a sizable minority of voters have still not processed the choice before them in November because they didn’t believe the GOP would actually renominate Trump (although it seems from those suspect polls that voters were more skeptical of the notion that Joe Biden could make it to Election Day).

The claim that general-election voters are not plugged into the race is increasingly bereft of evidence. Data Gallup published in May found that interest in and “thought given” to the election is on par with most past cycles, trailing only the 2008 race. The Biden campaign’s sleight of hand here is laid bare by a campaign memo in which it promotes the debate as an opportunity to engage with “a larger slice of the American electorate,” by which it means unenthusiastic prospective Biden voters.

The campaign is mobilizing its operatives to host hundreds of “debate night watch parties” targeting crucial elements of the coalition such as LGBT-activist groups and college students. “Some of those watch parties will be hosted by social media content creators,” NBC News reported, “to whom the campaign says it will grant access to the post-debate spin room, a place usually reserved for credentialed media.”

The president’s political operatives are haunted by their boss’s preternatural inability to “trend” on social media. The White House supposedly raised an “army of influencers” over the Biden years, and a lot of good it has done them. Biden’s team chafes at the popularity Trump enjoys among “the very online,” the Times reported this month, creating organic moments that dominate news cycles and crowd the president out of the national conversation. “Mr. Biden and his allies are working furiously to build a comparable online army, trying to persuade, or in some cases pay, people to sing Mr. Biden’s praises to their large followings,” the report continued. The upshot of the report is that “it’s not easy” to “go viral,” but that is not Joe Biden’s problem. When it comes to viral moments, the president is a hit machine. It’s just that those moments aren’t the sort that any competent political campaign would welcome.

Joe Biden’s allies should be concerned by the campaign’s prohibitive focus on core Democratic constituencies. The debate will mark a turning point in the campaign insofar as it marks the start of the make-or-break period in which the candidates begin to appeal to voters outside their respective coalitions. Undecided voters will not be tuning in for the fan-service shtick that enlivens both candidates’ respective partisans. They’ll be looking for reassurance that the candidates can overcome their distinct flaws and strike a competent posture. The candidate who effectively conveys that stolid bearing, even at the expense of political fireworks and soundbite-worthy clips, is the candidate who will benefit most from the first debate of the 2024 cycle.

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