The Commission on Presidential Debates’ decision on Thursday to shift the upcoming second-round matchup between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden to a virtual venue, followed swiftly by the president’s furious refusal to appear at any debate that wasn’t held in person, was the news cycle equivalent of a derecho.
It was ultimately canceled entirely, but not before a chaotic swirl of press releases from every side—Trump first vowed never to appear on a digital debate, then demanded that the commission shift the debate schedule so that the third and final debate would be held only three days before the election, a move the Biden campaign rejected and instead opted for a solo town hall.
Now, those close to the ex-veep’s campaign are still debating about whether to debate at all.
“If Trump is going to take his football and go home, I say good riddance to bad rubbish,” said one longtime Biden confidant and former Senate staffer, who originally felt that the former vice president shouldn’t have attended any debates, “but it turns out that there is an amount of lying and ugliness that blows back even on Trump.”
“Joe should spike the football, consider the debates won, and just do a town hall to show that he, unlike Trump, knows how to relate to the concerns of everyday Americans,” the confidant said.
But others—including the Biden campaign itself—see a potential repeat of Trump’s disastrous performance in the first presidential debate as too tempting a possibility to ignore.
“The key is for him to be seen and heard. The best offense is a good offense,” said John Morgan, a longtime Biden supporter and one of his top fundraisers in Florida. “Sitting on leads usually backfires. The more people see Joe and compare and contrast the better—the Russian spin that he has lost his pep and step is knocked down with every appearance.”
“It’s 1.5 hours of time to essentially do what the press has been wanting from him—to answer questions,” said another Biden fundraiser of the town hall format, who, like the former Senate staffer, once felt that the debates would be a sideshow not worth the effort. “I like that he shows up and maintains his commitments. This is a perfect scenario for what I know he’s most capable of doing right now and allows him some retail politicking, which he’s best at.”
The Biden campaign has publicly committed to participating in every debate sanctioned by the Commission on Presidential Debates, and—barring another presidential conniption over concerns that he could still spread the novel coronavirus—sees participation in the final debate on Oct. 22 as set in stone.
“Vice President Biden looks forward to making his case to the American people about how to overcome this pandemic, restore American leadership and our alliances in the world, and bring the American people together,” said Andrew Bates, the Biden campaign’s director of rapid response, who called it “shameful” and “no surprise” that Trump ducked a debate in which voters would ask the questions. “Everyone knows that Donald Trump likes to bully reporters, but obviously he doesn’t have the guts to answer for his record to voters at the same time as Vice President Biden.”
The current plan—as far as confirmed plans can exist in October 2020—is for Biden to hold an event on Wednesday tracking the town hall format of the second debate, as originally planned. Although the replacement town hall, hosted by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos and scheduled for the same night as the second debate was originally set to take place, likely won’t bring in the kind of mass audience that presidential debates traditionally boast, debate experts told The Daily Beast that the town hall format is a win on its own.
“It’s a genre that works well for an empathic politician like Biden,” said Alan Schroeder, professor emeritus at Northeastern University and the author of several books on the history of modern presidential debates.
“An interactive format would also remind viewers that, by comparison, Trump has had very little direct contact with average voters, even before he became a public health hazard,” Schroeder said, noting the added benefit of breaking free of some of the Commission on Presidential Debate’s more stringent format restrictions.
“One thing the Biden campaign could do that we haven’t seen much of so far is to include Kamala Harris in whatever they end up putting together,” Schroeder suggested. “She did quite well in the VP debate, and we haven’t seen enough of them working as a team. That might add some novelty to the appearance, and also help to reassure anyone concerned about Biden’s advanced age.”
But the effectiveness of Biden’s replacement town hall could be thwarted by one more programming snafu engineered by the president. On Friday, Variety reported that NBC News is one of many outlets vying to host a town hall headlined by Trump, including Fox News, potentially scheduled for the same evening—although Trump is now potentially holding a rally in an unknown location instead. With the White House medical team giving Trump a (disputed) clean bill of health to resume in-person campaigning following his treatment for COVID-19, the spectacle of seeing Trump in the same room as undecided voters—never his top format—could be enough of a draw to swamp Biden.
A Biden ally told The Daily Beast that regardless of the president’s programming decisions, the past two weeks have effectively “disintegrated” Trump’s case for re-election.
“He was too chicken to face voters’ questions last week and hid behind Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity,” the ally said. “He recognizes that his own record of letting the worst public health crisis in generations bring our country to its lowest point in decades is a nonstarter with the American people.”