Debates Can Shake Up an Election. But Does Record Early Voting Mean This One Is Too Late?

In a normal election year, Thursday night’s debate would offer perhaps Donald Trump’s last-best hope of upending the dynamics of an election that — if the polls are correct — is trending against him.

In national polling, Trump trails Joe Biden by nearly 8 points. Polling averages also show Biden with small but significant leads in the three crucial states — Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin — that keyed Trump’s 2016 victory over Hillary Clinton. The Democrat has also put traditional swing states like Florida, Ohio, Iowa, and North Carolina into the tossup category, and Biden even appears to have broadened the 2020 electoral battlefield to include longtime red states like Arizona, Georgia, and Texas. Heightening the stakes for Trump, he is trailing badly in the money race to Biden, reporting just $63 million in cash on hand for the final stretch, compared to the Democrat’s $177 million.

Debates are often natural pivot points in presidential elections, a chance to shake things up. Trump’s noisy first performance did that, but not in the way he had hoped — giving Biden a boost. And Trump boycotted the second debate when his own Covid-19 diagnosis made it necessary to shift to a virtual format. Can this final debate give the president an opening to land a knock-out punch, and reshape the contest?

This in not a normal year. In 2020 — shaped by the coronavirus, social distancing, and vote-by-mail — this election is already partially decided. With roughly two weeks left before what we call Election Day, more than 47 million Americans have already cast their ballots, more than one-third of the total votes of the 2016 election. And in several potentially crucial swing states vote totals are nearing, or have far surpassed half of the total number of votes cast four years ago.

The turnout in Texas, for example, has been tremendous, likely reflecting enthusiasm of partisans from both parties. Nearly 6 million Texans have voted, representing a whopping 65 percent of the state’s 2016 vote total. A similar story is emerging in Georgia (54 percent) and North Carolina (51 percent). Moving through the battleground, Florida, Iowa, and Arizona are all above 40 percent of 2016 turnout, while Michigan and Wisconsin are in the high 30s. Of the must-win states, Pennsylvania comes in lowest at just over 20 percent of 2016 totals.

All indications are that the 2020 election will deliver a very high turnout, so the actual percentage of 2020 voters who have cast their ballots is likely somewhat lower than these 2016 comparisons suggest. But even if 150 million Americans were to vote this year (a big jump from 2016’s 138 million) that means the 2020 election is about 30 percent decided — under the national dynamics that have been favorable for Biden. According to an NBC News analysis from October 20th, “Democrats have a 14-point edge in returned ballots for which party affiliation is known.”

What does this mean for Trump? He doesn’t just need to reverse the headwinds he’s facing. He needs to change the tides. To recover he will need to engineer a reversal in public opinion so dramatic that he doesn’t just beat Biden among the remaining pool of voters who have not cast their ballots, but routs him. For a polarizing president mired in a pandemic that has killed close to 230,000 Americans that may be too much to ask from even the most successful debate performance.

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