I have to admit, I’m mildly concerned about the upcoming first presidential debate coming up on Tuesday evening.
According to a report from NBC News earlier this month, President Trump “has not held a single mock debate session, and has no plans to stage a formal practice round.” Trump’s lack of preparation demonstrated itself during the ABC News town hall a few short days after that report where Trump, despite what his rabid fans say, did not give a stellar performance.
Trump’s overconfidence about the debate is likely due to his belief that “Slow Joe” is destined to perform poorly. Between Biden’s regular gaffes on the stump and reliance on a teleprompter during even softball interviews, it’s understandable that President Trump is extremely confident. But traditionally, candidates prefer to lower expectations before the debate, praising his or her competitor as a skilled debater. Trump, however, has essentially guaranteed a metaphorical public flogging of Joe Biden. And doing so comes at such a huge risk.
But I just can’t help recalling the first presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in 2012. I was nervous when that debate started as well, completely unsure how the mild-mannered former governor of Massachusetts would measure up to an incumbent president, despite Obama’s poor, indefensible record. But I spent most of the debate smiling as I saw Mitt Romney wipe the floor with Obama.
And I wasn’t alone in this assessment.
“The sheer panic Democrats felt in 2012 after Mitt Romney demolished Barack Obama at their first presidential debate in Denver can’t be overstated,” reported CNN’s Maeve Reston four years ago.
That’s right, even CNN couldn’t deny the fact that Barack Obama got “demolished” in that first debate. I remember watching it and being completely convinced that Mitt Romney was on the path to victory. But, with a little help from debate prep and Candy Crowley, Barack Obama held his own in the next two debates. Of course he ultimately (and unfortunately) won reelection.
But this is no ordinary election year. President Trump has set the expectations for Joe Biden really, really low. If Trump doesn’t crush Biden in the first debate, you can only imagine what the media narrative will be for several days. Of course, as the Romney-Obama debates showed, the outcome of the first debate doesn’t exactly predict the election. Like past incumbents suffering from over-confidence, Trump could flub the first debate and still come back for a knockout in the final two with the help of debate prep and a smidge of humility.
Trump has said that his rallies, interviews, and press conferences have given him all the practice he needs. If that’s so, then he’s already shown his hand. Let’s not forget that despite Biden’s propensity for gaffes and Obama-esque dependency on a teleprompter, his debate performances during the primaries weren’t so awful that he disqualified himself to Democrat voters whose primary motivation in supporting Biden was his perceived electability.
In 2016, I was consistently underwhelmed by Donald Trump’s debate performances. By my assessment, Hillary Clinton dominated the first two debates and the last debate was perhaps a draw. There’s definitely a case to be made that the debates really don’t impact the race much at all. But there is, allegedly, a small percentage of voters who can still be swayed in this election, which will be close, and I would argue that Trump doesn’t want to risk flubbing the first debate because he wasn’t prepared. In 2016 he was an underdog non-politician up against an unlikable Hillary Clinton. This time, he’ll enter the debate stage as the incumbent president, with a record to defend, and he will have to make the case to those undecided voters who could decide the election.
If Barack Obama could botch his first debate with Romney so badly and still win the election, then President Trump could similarly underwhelm on Tuesday and be victorious in November. But is it worth it? Do we really want Trump to have to explain why he didn’t do better because Joe Biden overperformed and he underperformed? If Trump fails to annihilate Biden in that debate after spending weeks (nay, months) talking about how excited he is about debating “Sleepy Joe,” then he only has himself to blame.
Matt Margolis is the author of the new book Airborne: How The Liberal Media Weaponized The Coronavirus Against Donald Trump, and the bestselling book The Worst President in History: The Legacy of Barack Obama. You can follow Matt on Twitter @MattMargolis