The First Presidential Face-Off

3 weeks ago 5

On Politics

Giovanni Russonello

Sept. 29, 2020, 7:01 a.m. ET

At the debate tonight, Trump will be looking to press reset. But don’t expect Biden to let viewers forget about those tax returns. It’s Tuesday, and this is your politics tip sheet. Sign up here to get On Politics in your inbox every weekday.

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President Trump will face off against Joe Biden tonight in the first presidential debate of the general election season, where he will seek to regain his footing after months of trailing in the polls and the revelations in Times reporting that he had consistently evaded paying income taxes for nearly 20 years. (Last night we published Part 2 of that investigation.)

Both campaigns have been preparing aggressively for the debate — which will be viewed by millions of Americans, providing Trump with a much-needed opportunity to press reset. Throughout the campaign, the president has been unable to peel away a considerable share of moderate and swing voters from Biden.

But the revelations about Trump’s long-withheld tax returns are threatening to crowd out all other narratives, even as Chris Wallace, the debate’s moderator, plans on casting a wide net tonight by focusing on six separate policy areas. (More on those topics is below.)

Republican leaders have largely been silent on Trump’s taxes since the report surfaced on Sunday. Representatives for Mitch McConnell and John Thune, the top Republicans in the Senate, declined to comment on Monday.

Charles Grassley, a longtime senator involved in writing tax law, criticized the Internal Revenue Service, which has been conducting an audit of Trump’s taxes for years, after the president received a $72.9 million refund based on losses he had claimed.

“The thought that comes to my mind is how come it’s taking the I.R.S. so long to get the audits done,” Grassley told reporters.

Two New York Times/Siena College polls out yesterday offered some encouraging news for Biden.

He was up on Trump by nine percentage points among likely voters in Pennsylvania, a state that Trump narrowly carried four years ago and whose 20 electoral votes are widely seen as crucial to a possible victory for him in November.

Biden hasn’t trailed in a major poll of Pennsylvania since June, but some other recent surveys have shown him with a negative overall favorability rating there, a sign of possible weakness even as he maintained a narrow lead. But in the Times/Siena poll, he enjoyed a broadly positive rating — 55 percent favorable, 41 percent unfavorable — from voters in the state where he was born and spent much of his childhood.

The other Times/Siena poll released yesterday was of Nebraska’s Second Congressional District, which includes Omaha and most of its suburbs. In that poll, Biden was leading by seven points among likely voters — helped by his strength among white voters with a college degree, who have broadly swung away from Trump since 2016.

The district is particularly well educated, with a higher proportion of college graduates than any state other than Colorado and Massachusetts.

Nebraska awards two electoral votes to the statewide winner (which will almost undoubtedly be Trump), and it doles out one additional vote each to the winner of its three congressional districts. The Second District is the only one considered in play for Democrats; Barack Obama won it in 2008 before it flipped back to the Republicans in 2012 and 2016. But Trump won it by only two percentage points four years ago.

Because of the Electoral College math, it’s possible — though unlikely — that Trump and Biden could tie at 269 votes each everywhere else, meaning the Second District would cast the deciding electoral vote.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, were at work late into yesterday evening on a last-ditch attempt to reach common ground on another round of coronavirus stimulus legislation, Politico reported.

With the House preparing to leave for recess, legislators on both sides of the aisle are feeling heavy pressure from their constituents to pass another bill.

Even as Pelosi and Mnuchin spoke, House Democrats were moving ahead with a $2.2 trillion bill of their own — a tailored version of the $3 trillion package they passed in May, which has languished since. If negotiations with Republicans fall apart, Democrats could pass that smaller bill by midweek, at which point lawmakers would probably throw up their hands and head home, all but guaranteeing that no bill is passed until after the election in November.

According to a recent Times/Siena poll, upward of seven in 10 likely voters nationwide said they supported the passage of a $2.2 trillion stimulus package.

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Credit...Doug Mills/The New York Times

Workers put the final touches on the stage where President Trump and Joe Biden will face off in Cleveland.


While most Americans are deeply certain of their feelings about the president, a crucial fraction of the millions who tune in to tonight’s debate will not yet have made up their minds. Ten percent of likely voters in the nationwide Times/Siena poll didn’t express a vote preference, or said they favored a third-party candidate.

Chris Wallace will center the debate around six topics: the Supreme Court, the coronavirus outbreak, the integrity of the election, the economy, “race and violence in our cities” and the two candidates’ political records.

Here’s a look at what polling tells us about where the public stands on those issues — and how Trump and Biden could score points with undecided voters on each of those fronts.

Just before Trump nominated Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court on Saturday, polls showed that most voters would rather wait and let the winner of the November election choose the next justice. But now that Barrett has been chosen, the public’s attention turns to the high stakes involved in the confirmation fight.

If Barrett were to help overturn Roe v. Wade, as Trump said on Sunday she “certainly” could, that would go against the will of most Americans, who support keeping abortion legal. In the Times/Siena poll, voters said by more than two to one that they would be less likely to back Trump if he appointed a justice who would overturn Roe.

Since May, the pandemic has been a political weak point for Trump — in part because most Americans have consistently disagreed with his focus on a speedy reopening. By a 15-point margin, respondents to the Times/Siena poll said they disapproved of how he had handled the virus.

At the debates, look for Biden to return to the virus as often as he can, hammering the president on what he sees as his greatest vulnerability.

If there is one area in which Trump retains at least a slight advantage, it is the economy. By a 12-point margin, respondents to the Times/Siena poll gave him positive marks on that front.

But where the economy intersects with the virus, things grow dicier for the president. Fifty-five percent of likely voters said he was at least partly responsible for the economic downturn, according to the Times/Siena poll.

All year, Trump has employed an ever-growing array of narratives to cast doubt on the electoral process — while downplaying the threat posed by foreign countries, particularly Russia, that are seeking to interfere in the election.

Fifty-one percent of Americans said in the recent NPR/PBS/Marist poll that they thought Trump was encouraging election interference, versus just 38 percent who said he was working to make elections safer.

Still, Trump’s sowing of doubt may have had the desired effect, in at least one sense: Americans have broadly lost faith in the electoral process. In the CNN poll, just 22 percent of voters described themselves as very confident that all votes would be counted fairly, a 13-point drop from 2016.

For the president, this could be the moment in the debate when close scrutiny is turned toward his decades of tax evasion. Those tax revelations surfaced too recently for polls to address them, but we do know that Trump has never received high marks for honesty (three in five likely voters called him generally dishonest in a Quinnipiac University poll this month), and that 56 percent of Americans told the Pew Research Center in June they thought he had a responsibility to publicly release his returns.

When it comes to criticizing Biden, the president has seemed most intent on painting his opponent as a tool of the far left, an argument that has largely proved unsuccessful in siphoning off support from swing voters.

Trump has pounced on the Black Lives Matter demonstrations across the country in his attempts to convince voters that a vote for Biden would be dangerous. But while public support for Black Lives Matter and the protests did plateau this summer after rising in the spring, the president’s attacks mostly seem to have whiffed.

In a Monmouth University poll this month, 61 percent of Americans said Trump’s handling of the protests had made the situation worse, while just 24 percent said he had made things better. Forty-five percent of Americans said Biden would have handled the situation better, according to the poll, while just 28 percent said he would have done worse.

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