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D-Day for Trump: September 29

“He can run but he can’t hide” quipped legendary heavyweight champ Joe Louis concerning his strategy to corner an elusive nemesis. President Trump is among the great masters at slipping an opponent’s punch. Every sitting president has either had the ability to box his way out of a corner or lost reelection. Trump can teach legendary Western movie director John Ford about escaping the inescapable box canyon.  

Yet Trump is up against a historical trend suggesting those cowboy days are over if he leaves the first presidential debate in Cleveland on September 29 without having given Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden a sufficient whipping to propel the president into a post-debate polling tie or better.   

The debate will be held at the city’s futuristic Sheila and Eric Samson Pavilion on the Health Education Campus at Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Clinic. This venue is not a good omen for an incumbent president saddled with decidedly negative public ratings on his COVID-19 leadership.    

Presidential debate history – not omens – is, however, Trump’s biggest problem. The first showdown between Oval Office seekers took place in 1960, featuring Democrat John Kennedy dueling GOP counterpart Richard Nixon. This coming 13th quadrennial face-off – another bad omen – carries this reality check: No incumbent trailing in the polls taken after a first debate has ever rallied to win. That suggests Biden has a big advantage, assuming his current polling lead holds until debate night.   

If the pattern holds, then without a Cleveland performance strong enough to reset the polls, Trump faces defeat — unless he benefits from the type of October surprise that has never happened in presidential campaign history. Consider:  

Of the 12 previous presidential debate match-ups, seven have featured a sitting president: Gerald Ford (1976), Jimmy Carter (1980), Ronald Reagan (1984), George H. W. Bush (1992), Bill Clinton (1996), George W. Bush (2004) and Barack Obama (2012). The five others lacked an incumbent president.    

In strictly statistical terms, seven data sets over a 60-year period are not definitive. But given the COVID-19 induced early voting, an uninspiring debate performance by the president could see voters watching, clicking off and mailing in Biden ballots in record numbers.  

No doubt, President Trump’s supporters would point to his overcoming the post-debate polls when he defeated Hillary Clinton. But this presumes the decisive 2020 vote will again break late. Importantly, the polling in presidential races without an incumbent shows a first-debate bias. Those too close to call before the debates remained so through Election Day. Those giving one side a comfortable pre-debate lead ended up with the same result when the real votes were counted. The Trump v. Clinton contest found the national polls correctly predicting the Democratic nominee winning the popular vote but saw the state polls failing to detect Trump’s unexpected razor-thin victories in the decisive electoral college battlegrounds.  

The bottom line is that if the polling consensus shows Trump losing by four percentage points or more after the first debate, then there is no precedent for him winning re-election. Should polls show Biden winning the first debate by a definitive margin among independents and soft Trump Republican leaning voters, Trump risks losing worse than any GOP incumbent facing a two-way contest since Herbert Hoover in 1932.   

Press reports say Trump is preparing lackadaisically, like Sonny Liston in his first match against Muhammed Ali. This seems a ploy to mislead Biden. But if the president truly does not appreciate his approaching D-Day, then the election may effectively be over by midnight on September 29.      

Paul Goldman is former chair of the Democratic Party of Virginia. Mark J. Rozell is dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and co-author of “Federalism: A Very Short Introduction” (Oxford University Press, 2019).  

Tags 2020 Debates 2020 presidential campaign 2020 presidential election Barack Obama Bill Clinton Donald Trump Donald Trump presidential campaign Hillary Clinton Jimmy Carter Joe Biden Joe Biden 2020 presidential campaign John Kennedy

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File - A Chevrolet Bolt is displayed at the Philadelphia Auto Show, Jan. 27, 2023, in Philadelphia. Electric vehicles are far less reliable than gasoline-powered cars, trucks and SUVs, mainly because most automakers are still learning how to build a completely new power system, according to this year's auto reliability survey by Consumer Reports.(AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)
File - A Chevrolet Bolt is displayed at the Philadelphia Auto Show, Jan. 27, 2023, in Philadelphia. Electric vehicles are far less reliable than gasoline-powered cars, trucks and SUVs, mainly because most automakers are still learning how to build a completely new power system, according to this year's auto reliability survey by Consumer Reports.(AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

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In this photo released by the Governor of Sevastopol, Mikhail Razvozhayev telegram channel, a rescuer gestures as he helps people during an evacuation after storm and flooding in Sevastopol, Crimea, Monday, Nov. 27, 2023. A storm in the Black Sea took down power grids and left almost half a million people without power after it flooded roads, ripped up trees and damaged buildings in Crimea, Russian state news agency Tass said. (Governor of Sevastopol Mikhail Razvozhayev's telegram channel via AP)

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