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The soft bigotry of Trump's low expectations may give Biden a debate edge

Analysis: Usually, the incumbent comes into the first debate with a lead and no interest in shaking up the race. Trump and Biden enter Tuesday's faceoff with those roles reversed.
Image: Joe Biden stands at a podium surrounded by text books; President Donald Trump stands next to him surrounded by MAGA signs.
Doug Chayka / for NBC News

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump and his Democratic rival Joe Biden have reversed traditional roles as they meet Tuesday night in Cleveland for the first general election debate of 2020.

Usually, it's an incumbent who is up in the polls at this point and promising stability. But Trump, who bills himself as a change agent, needs to shake up the race, and Biden, who vows to bring a steady hand to the White House, would prefer that the dynamics don't change.

"There’s really no debate performance by either candidate that will fundamentally shift the race," one Biden campaign aide said, in an effort to lower the stakes.

But polls can move noticeably in the immediate aftermath of a debate, as they did when Republican Mitt Romney pulled from about three points back to take a small lead over President Barack Obama following their first matchup in October 2012. And in a closely-contested race likely to be defined by a relatively small number of voters in a limited set of swing states, marginal shifts may land larger than they appear.

"In essence, Biden and Trump are battling over a small, 2-yard stretch of a 100-yard football field," Melissa K. Miller, a political science professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, said.

"The challenge for each candidate in Cleveland will be to reach and sway the 2-4 percent of voters who have yet to make up their minds — and not just any persuadable voters, but persuadable voters in the key Midwest battleground states who will decide this election," she said in an email.

The key issues for those voters, according to Miller and strategists in both parties, revolve around security — both economic and physical. For Trump, that means touting the pre-coronavirus performance of the economy under his watch as an indication of how it would perform in a second term, and bashing Biden's past and platform.

"President Trump prepares for debates every day by being president and building an excellent record to run on for re-election," Tim Murtaugh, communications director for the Trump campaign, said. "Joe Biden will have to explain his 47 years of failure and job-killing as a Washington politician and also defend the radical agenda he is now carrying for the extreme left, including raising taxes by $4 trillion."

Biden's argument is that Trump can't be trusted with another four years in office because he failed in his duty to protect the public from the coronavirus — a pandemic that has claimed more than 200,000 American lives, cost millions of jobs and forced the government to provide trillions of dollars in aid.

That, Biden's campaign says, is why the debate shouldn't alter the course of the race.,

"American life will still be defined by his failure on Covid and to have a plan," the Biden aide said. "When people turn off their TVs, they’re still going to be living in this reality, and Donald Trump is responsible."

Biden's "Build Back Better" agenda includes an economic plank focused on investing heavily in American manufacturing, research and development.

In a poll released by the Kaiser Family Foundation earlier this month, about one-third of swing voters listed the economy as their top priority, followed by 20 percent who said the pandemic. In the most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, voters favored Trump 48 percent to 38 percent on the question of which candidate was best suited to manage the economy. Biden held a lead over Trump on most other questions, including a 51 percent to 29 percent advantage on handling the pandemic.

Biden also may enjoy a level of parity with the sitting president that is uncommon for a challenger. As a six-term senator and a two-term vice president, he has avoided questions about whether he is qualified to be president. Instead, Trump has sought to portray Biden as mentally unfit for the office, calling on his Democratic rival to take a drug test to show that he is not on medications that enhance his mental agility.

Biden deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield responded colorfully to the suggestion over the weekend, asserting that her candidate would compete with words even if Trump preferred to express himself in bodily fluid.

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Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on campaign rhetoric, said Trump's effort to focus on Biden's acuity could backfire.

"Trump has managed to set a media agenda question in place," Jamieson said. "When those kinds of questions are systematically raised, the first debate inevitably does settle them."

That creates an advantage for Biden, who has a low bar to clear, she said.

"Trump is the first candidate I’ve ever seen who lowers expectations about his opponent before a debate," she said.