President Donald Trump enters the final presidential debate on Thursday in need of a major shakeup that will change the trajectory of the race as he trails Joe Biden in both national polls and key swing states that will determine whether he has a path to victory in the Electoral College.
With 12 days to go before Election Day, Trump has been campaigning across the country with grievance-laden rallies, lashing out at his advisers and medical experts, blaming China for the spread of the coronavirus and refusing to take any blame for his poor handling of the pandemic, which has created a huge drag on his poll numbers.
Prominent Republicans have begun to openly distance themselves from the President as they worry about what Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse called a potential “blue tsunami” where Democrats could maintain the US House while also taking control of the US Senate and the White House.
Biden currently has a larger lead in national polls than Hillary Clinton did at this point in 2016. In CNN’s Poll of Polls, Biden is leading Trump by 10 points nationally and he is also showing considerable strength in the key battleground states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin where Trump won by narrow margins in 2016.
Desperate to change the current trajectory of the contest, Trump’s advisers have been begging him to take a less combative approach on Thursday than in the first debate when he created a virtually unwatchable event by repeatedly interrupting Biden and threading his remarks with personal attacks on the former vice president and his son, Hunter.
To avoid a repeat of that chaotic event, the Commission on Presidential Debates took the unprecedented step of changing the rules: the candidate’s microphones will be cut off while their opponent responds to the first question in each of six segments. The topics for the discussion, which will be led by moderator Kristen Welker, are “Fighting Covid-19,” “American Families,” “Race in America,” “Climate Change,” “National Security” and “Leadership.” The 90-minute debate begins at 9 p.m. ET.
The two candidates were set to be separated by large plexiglass barriers at the Curb Event Center in Nashville. The barriers were originally recommended by medical advisers from The Cleveland Clinic, but it’s now unlikely the dividers will be used because circumstances have changed, according to commission senior adviser Peter Eyre. No further explanation was given and the dividers had been removed from the debate stage.
The second debate planned between the two men was canceled after Trump tested positive for coronavirus and refused to participate in a virtual debate.
Both men face difficult imperatives as they face an audience of tens of millions of people for the last time. Biden is trying to improve his margins with Hispanic voters, in part to shore up his numbers in the key states of Florida and Arizona at a time when he is performing worse with those voters than Clinton did.
Trump is struggling with female voters, who have increasingly gravitated to Biden. And he must also tighten his hold on one of his key constituencies, non-college educated White voters. Trump won those voters by 30 points in 2016, but he currently holds only a 19-point margin within that demographic, according to an analysis by CNN’s Harry Enten. Biden, who was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, has proven to be a more formidable adversary than Clinton when it comes to those voters — one of the reasons why he is faring better in Midwestern states than the 2016 Democratic nominee.
To bolster his standing, Trump’s advisers hope he will be laser-focused on the economy, an area where he has traditionally held a clear advantage over Biden. But Trump has shown little message discipline even in the closing days of this race.
He continues to underperform with seniors, another key constituency he must reach on Thursday, after failing to alter his behavior even after his own Covid-19 diagnosis. Trump is still underplaying the risks of the virus and holding huge rallies with few masks and no social distancing even as the US enters another deadly wave of the virus. As cases are surging across the United States with winter months approaching, a CNN analysis showed that 42 states have seen hospitalizations from Covid-19 increase by more than 5% over the past two weeks, a key indicator of how quickly the disease is spreading.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now projects there will be 235,000 to 247,000 coronavirus deaths in this country by November 14.