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Artillery Row

Trump is losing. Last night’s ugly debate won’t change that

The president’s theatrics won’t persuade the voters he needs

There will be Trump supporters who loved the President’s performance in last night’s debate. Fox News anchor Sean Hannity, one of Trump’s most vocal fans, said shortly after the rowdy, bad-blooded and at times completely out of control affair came to a close, that “the extremely frail, confused Joe Biden just got steamrolled by President Trump.” He went on to call the President “a gladiator, a warrior fighter.”

Trump was relentless and remorseless, swinging from start to finish in a manner that a very online, very partisan slice of the American electorate will have enjoyed. Much of the subject material was narrow in its appeal: crank theories about errant ballots; grievances about Obamagate and the 2016 election, dredging up Biden’s son Hunter’s cocaine addiction just after Biden had brought up his late son Beau’s military service, asking a far-right mob known as the Proud Boys to “stand down and stand by” when asked to condemn white supremacists, encouraging his supporters to freelance as unofficial poll watchers.

If this stuff appeals to you, you already know who you’re voting for. But for the sliver of the electorate that hasn’t made its mind up, partisan gripes and a bullying tone are hardly persuasive. For Team Trump, they are not the way to maximise the chances of re-election.

Biden, meanwhile, cleared the low bar that the Trump campaign had set for him. For months, the former Vice President has been painted by his opponent and his surrogates as senile. Tonight, he certainly seemed old and, at times, syntactically clumsy. But this fell a long way short of the doddering caricature painted by Republicans. Of the two candidates on stage, Biden was the more effective communicator. He addressed the audience at home and largely stuck to the issues that will matter to undecided voters. 

Biden’s mistakes were overshadowed by the ugly debate-stage chaos created by Trump

At times Biden drew a clear line between himself and his party’s left wing. “I beat Bernie,” he said at one stage.  “My party is me. I am the Democratic Party.” But there were other moments that will undoubtedly be used against him in the weeks to come. He failed to name a police union that supports him. He was reluctant to call out liberal mayors who have lost control of order in their cities in recent months. He described Antifa as “an idea, not an organisation”. He left plenty of ambiguity over whether he supports a Green New Deal. And he took the irresponsible step of piggybacking on the back of the growing distrust of a vaccine that would be approved under the Trump administration.

Biden committed plenty of sins of omission too, failing to prosecute an especially compelling case against an incumbent who has presided over a pandemic that has killed more 200,000 people and a recession that put millions out of work.

However, these mistakes were overshadowed by the ugly debate-stage chaos created by Trump.

The bottom line is that Trump is losing this race. According to FiveThirtyEight’s weighted average of polls, he trails Joe Biden by 7.1 percentage points in national polls. Last night’s performance did not help him close the gap.

In 2016, Trump, the second most unpopular presidential candidate in US history, defeated Hillary Clinton, the most unpopular presidential candidate in US history. Then, he rode the country’s loathing of his opponent to a narrow victory. That is not an option this time.

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