Trump Needs ‘Fireworks Show’ in Tuesday’s Debate, Expert Says

President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden meet in this year's first presidential debate

President Trump and Democratic challenger former Vice President Joe Biden square off Tuesday in this election’s first presidential debate.

Pope “Mac” McCorkle, a professor of the practice at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy, expects the debate will do little to move either candidate’s supporters, but it could move the small segment who are still undecided.

"One thing is for sure about Tuesday's presidential debate: The candidates will not be reluctant to set off some fireworks against each other," said McCorkle, also director of Polis: Center for Politics at Duke. “Its promise of being a spectacle means tomorrow night's debate will probably get the kind of high ratings that the president craves.

“At the same time, all the political sound and fury coming in this and the other two debates may not persuade many voters to change their views of the candidates.”

McCorkle cited a new NBC/Wall Street Journal as well as Quinnipiac University polling that showed a historically small percentage amounting to less than 20% of voters see this year's presidential debates as extremely important. In both polls, more than 95% of voters even claim that they have already made up their minds about their vote.

“And an unprecedented number of voters are already voting this year,” he added. “Over 860,000 voters nationwide have already mailed in their ballots,” said McCorkle, who worked as an issues consultant to Democratic political candidates, state governments and various organizations for two decades.

“In a close race, a bad debate performance could tip the balance among the small percentage of truly undecided voters. Given his low approval ratings and polarizing style, President Trump might not be able to recover from a widely-perceived ‘loss’ Tuesday night.”

McCorkle expects Trump will probably be determined to be the center of attention, throwing out “all kinds of personal as well as ideological charges on a non-stop basis.”

Former Vice-President Joe Biden’s main problem may be how he can leave voters with a positive impression about his own very different leadership style under such circumstances, McCorkle said. 

McCorkle said a substantial part of the first debate will probably involve both candidates repeating the main policy themes of their media advertising and campaign speeches on major policy issues. The candidates will likely rehash their positions on, for example, the COVID-19 pandemic, the economy, health care and police treatment of racial minorities.

“These segments will underline that debates in large part serve the purpose of allowing candidates to reinforce their standing with the base voters most likely inclined to vote for them already,” he said. “The personal fireworks will probably operate more to persuade the small percentage of undecided and less ideologically minded voters who view the debate or hear its most dramatic soundbites from subsequent media coverage.”

Trump has already signalled two major lines of personal attack, he said.

“One is his demand that Biden should submit to a drug test and prove that he is not taking performance-enhancing medication to mask his mental incompetence at the debate. Biden will almost surely respond in effect that Trump needs to submit to a lie detector test about his failed presidency and personal character,” McCorkle said.

The other attack that Trump has already indicated is that the Biden family – especially Biden’s son Hunter – embodies a national security danger due to nefarious money dealings with shady characters overseas, he added.

“Biden may choose to argue that the families of candidates should be off limits and refuse to respond in kind about Trump’s family. But Biden will be able to use The New York Times’ new story about Trump’s tax returns to counter the attack,” according to McCorkle. “Biden can argue that Trump himself is the clear national security risk due to the enormous debts he owes to numerous creditors around the world.”

Even though most commentators and voters profess disdain for the realm of personal attacks, how the candidates handle themselves in prosecuting and countering such charges – or perhaps entirely new ones – could well constitute the decisive political moments in the debate, said McCorkle.  

One wrinkle that may work in Biden's favor is that the debate on Tuesday will reportedly have a small live audience of 75-80 people. That does not bode well for creating the kind of raucous setting on which President Trump's style thrives, McCorkle said.

“A relatively quiet -- and maybe even more ‘academic’ -- atmosphere to the debate may be another example of how the COVID-19 pandemic continues to frustrate the president's reelection plans. If the fireworks show falls flat,” McCorkle added, “Trump will probably suffer and Biden will benefit.”