There is a danger in lowering expectations for your opponent, and the Trump campaign is set up to potentially pay a price for doing so at the first debate. With almost-daily attacks on Joe Biden’s mental acuity, President Trump is putting Biden in a box that is not hard to break out of. Anyone hoping to tune in on Sept. 29 and watch Biden bumble behind the podium and murmur things about double-barrel shotguns or forget what office he’s running for will probably sorely disappointed. For every gaffe or misspoken answer, Biden delivers a handful of acceptable answers and does so with a feeling of empathy which the campaign is counting on to attract suburban and undecided voters.
It’s that empathy, which was on display last week in a CNN Town Hall, which the Biden campaign is counting on to contrast with President Trump’s style:
All Joe Biden had to do to claim ground against Donald Trump in tonight’s CNN town hall was show up and show he cared. And that’s exactly what the former Vice-President did from the very start of the unique drive-in event near his hometown of Scranton, PA with Anderson Cooper.
“My heart goes out to you,” the current Democratic POTUS candidate responded to local voter Shani Adams, who revealed that she had lost her sister to the coronavirus. That was very different from the former Celebrity Apprentice host’s appearance on ABC News’ town hall on September 15, where the president, in response to the personal stories of some of the questioners, often resorted to talking points he’s repeated in press conferences, rallies and tweets.
If the bar for Biden to cross is set the “empathy” level, then he’s going to pass it every time. For all the criticism of Biden’s nearly fifty-year career as a politician, very few would criticize his style of campaigning or ability to connect and empathize with voters in person.
The town hall-style events are made for Biden, as is traditional campaigning with diner stops talking to voters. None of this is to say that President Trump is insincere with his answers or doesn’t empathize with downtrodden voters, he most certainly does, which is why he won in 2016, but his approach is very different.
The Biden Town Hall on CNN showed us what a Biden-Trump might look like with a well-prepared Biden:
He [Biden] also seemed to go out of his way to show that he had a command of facts and policy points, while trying to relate to the questioners’ stories of hardship. As if to counter the Trump campaign’s caricature of him as old and doddering, at one point Biden identified the different biological makeup of two different COVID-19 vaccines, and later in an answering a question on overregulation of farmers.
Biden is very good at getting the talking points out, though sometimes in a roundabout way when he trails off on a longer tangent. Even in these instances, though, empathy is present, which is what his campaign is counting on.
If we jump back to August, following the Democratic National Convention, Biden’s acceptance speech was dripping with empathy:
Biden spent his short amount of time explaining his empathy with his fellow man. Explaining his understanding of loss by expanding on the emotions he felt over losing his first wife, his daughter, and his son. Those kinds of emotional connections run deep and do create a sense of understanding and empathy in return from voters. The point of the empathy-heavy delivery was to attempt a contrast with President Trump which, as the entirety of the Democratic Convention explained, doesn’t care or doesn’t understand how to be a nice, warm person.
The Biden campaign is fine with the occasional Biden flubs, so long as voters believe he cares about them and their struggles. There has always been debate in political circles as to whether getting results or connecting with voters is the more important attribute. The candidate you’d prefer to have a beer with usually wins. In 2016, that candidate was Donald Trump. In 2020, the answer is less clear.
If Biden’s caricature is the friendly Grandpa who says silly things sometimes, but has a big heart and cares when it counts, then what does that make Donald Trump? Most writers peg him as the loutish uncle who tells off-color jokes, but you’d want him on your side if you were stuck in a foxhole.
At the current point in history, America seems to be looking for both. Voters want empathy, and they want strength. They want calm understanding, and they want a forceful defender. Just look at Biden’s “Made in America” messaging and it’s clear his campaign knows that President Trump’s defense of the American heartland, and manufacturing, in particular, is a winning message. Can the Biden campaign wrap some of that in a gentler package?
In the end, Biden’s set up for the debate is one of lowered expectations, even among many media personalities who think Biden doesn’t have what it takes to stand toe to toe with Trump for 90 uninterrupted minutes. Though some Republicans have warned that downplaying Biden’s experience on the debate stage could spectacularly backfire, the messaging remains.
The question is whether President Trump can do enough to lower his own expectations coupled with knocking Biden off his game. There are plenty of examples of Biden getting flustered in a debate. For example, the time Biden’s vice presidential nominee implied he was racist for not supporting bussing to end school segregation in the 1970s. Biden was not prepared for that attack and it was an example of how to get under his skin.
In recent days, the President has changed his tune somewhat, saying he expects Joe Biden will “do great” at the first debate, per Fox News:
President Trump said on Monday that he assumes Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s “going to do great” during the first presidential debate scheduled for next week, then went on to slam the former vice president.
Host Steve Doocy asked Trump on Monday, “As you look to combating Joe Biden, what are you thinking?”
“I think he’s a professional,” Trump said in response. “I don’t know if he’s all there, but I think he’s a professional.
“I have to assume that he’s a professional and that he can debate,” he continued.
Whatever happens in Cleveland, both candidates and their surrogates will be spinning it in their own direction.
The debate topics have been released for next week with the first Trump-Biden debate set for Tuesday, Sept. 29.