Generally, presidential debates do not matter a great deal in terms of affecting the outcome of a given race, but if ever one was going to matter, there is ample reason to believe that Tuesday night’s will be that debate. This is because when Donald Trump and Joe Biden square off at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, they will do so under unique circumstances.
In the 2020 presidential race, it is not hard to conceive that two distinct blocs of voters have been engaged in divergent relationships with two Trumps and two Bidens. On Tuesday, four versions of two men will for 90 minutes collapse into one reality. This has the potential to jar loose some of anywhere between 2% to 10% of likely voters who major polls indicate may still be undecided in an election that could be one of the closest in U.S. history.
Perhaps as many as 30% or 40% of Americans know a guy we’ll call Trump Alpha – hunted by vicious, partisan predators while aggressively defending the greater good – who inhabits Fox News prime-time and a hive of right-wing websites where he fights Biden Omega – a frail, dottering stalking horse for civil apocalypse and a socialist revolution.
Another similarly sized group of voters is acquainted with Biden Alpha, the empathetic care-taker, the nation’s last guardian of our most precious values, institutions and norms, all of which are imperiled by Trump Omega, a Bond villain who is in a secret agreement with enemies domestic and foreign to destroy the country.
The aspect of campaign’s negatively defining their opponents is actually pretty normal, but the effect of social bubbling, amplified by the mechanisms Americans use to gather information – algorithms that connect a conveyor belt of content, meticulously crafted to appeal to the human impulse to be pleased with things that confirm what we already think, to eyeballs hungry for validation – this, as they say, turns the knob to 11.
Also substantial is the effect of the coronavirus and our pandemic response in reducing the amount of traditional community dialogue about politics that in a normal election year would have taken place in real world settings where bubbling still tends to break down.
Ironically, all of this bad news for the social fabric also leads to recognizing that this debate creates a moment to wreck the dark magic practiced by political machines – leveraging bubbling to fight for comparative advantage by creating the right version of reality necessary to lock down votes. It is a moment, like Plato’s famous allegory of the cave, in which a fuller view of a more complete set of facts can change everything. If the practice of creating bubbled communities is like herding voters into a cave and then locking the gate behind them, the debate has the potential to open the gate, if only for a moment but when a moment is all that is needed.
Neither aspect of these men that has been created by their opponents and the larger media ecosystem supporting them is entirely accurate. If it weren’t for the event of a debate – a moment when both men will need to stand across from each other, in the same physical space, responding to a shared moderator’s questions, and reconciling themselves against caricatures that have been created – then each campaign could simply keep looking for ways to drag undecided voters into their closed ecosystem in order to secure their votes.
Yes, this debate is important, if only for this one feature, and because of the amount of early and absentee voting that has already happened and will be happening between now and the next debate, this one will be more important than the next, and the third and final encounter the least important of all.
Who benefits most? Ironically, while timeline of voting raises the stakes for Trump and Biden’s first face-off in a way that runs against precedent, the history of poor performance in first debates by incumbents seems to really add weight to Trump’s lift. The sitting president is also dragging significant ballast because Biden has a slightly asymmetrical advantage if the winner of tonight’s debate will be the candidate who shakes the negative definition of them with the undecideds. Biden is marginally less defined in the minds of voters, by all available date, while Trump is possibly the most thoroughly defined human with the public in world history, even with his supporters. Although voters on the right and left disagree vehemently on whether Trump’s characteristics and personality traits are positive or negative, they don’t disagree on the aspects per se – Trump’s brand is baked.
Performance in the debate, therefore, could mean everything for both candidates, as a successful shattering of negative type can be the nudge that sets enough undecided voters gently in motion. And, this year, a nudge may be all that is needed.