What Joe Biden and Donald Trump must do for success in first debate

The first debate for president will be one of the most important moments in the 2020 election. A majority of Americans intend to use early voting this year. With early voting underway in several swing states, including Pennsylvania and Michigan, moderate and undecided voters could evaluate the performances of both candidates to make their final determinations. Knowing that the issues of the first debate will be centered on the economy, the coronavirus crisis, the Supreme Court, race and violence in our cities, and election integrity with so much at stake, what does each candidate need to do?

In a broader sense, success for Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden says voters should choose who nominates Supreme Court justice Trump, Biden will not shake hands at first debate due to COVID-19 Joe Biden should enact critical government reforms if he wins MORE will in large measure be based on his ability to articulate a positive agenda of change, which includes a comprehensive message on jobs, workers, and rebuilding the economy. He will need to level effective attacks on the tariffs imposed by the administration that hurt domestic industries and manufacturing, and for giving handouts to the 1 percent to the detriment of workers.

This will be critical for Biden, since Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden says voters should choose who nominates Supreme Court justice Trump, Biden will not shake hands at first debate due to COVID-19 Pelosi: Trump Supreme Court pick ‘threatens’ Affordable Care Act MORE in recent weeks has started to gain ground across the nation and in swing states, due to the fact that his ratings on the economy are improving. Trump needs to tout his record on the economy before the pandemic and make the case for why, despite the coronavirus downturn, he is still the best candidate to continue leading the recovery.


A major part of the strategy for Biden has been his attacks on the president for the early downplaying and mismanagement of the coronavirus crisis. In the debate, Trump must make the case that his response to the pandemic and support for a vaccine represent a measured response to a difficult crisis, amidst evidence that he watered down the threat in the book by Bob Woodward and that he trails Biden by about 7 points in the polls.

The issue of race and violence in our cities has taken on a renewed shape with the Louisville protests following the verdict in the Breonna Taylor case, which has led to widespread protests that have turned violent, and resulted in two cops being shot. In my view, this issue only benefits Trump and Republicans. Trump will surely seize on Louisville as an opportunity to tout his “law and order” message during the debate, while also working to cast doubt on Biden’s commitment to law enforcement and maintaining order in American cities.

Though, any of Trump’s attacks on Biden as being a “puppet” of the far-left will likely ring hollow if Biden is able to counter these attacks with a similar tone that he struck during a press conference last month, when he bluntly asked the crowd: “do I look like a radical socialist with a soft spot for rioters?” However, Biden has the unique challenge of denouncing the violent protests while also emphasizing his commitment to maintaining order in cities, and sustaining potentially unfiltered attacks from Trump that he condones the far-left’s calls to defund our police.

Moreover, a large focus of the evening will undeniably be on Trump’s Supreme Court pick, who he is set to announce just days before the debate, as well as the controversy surrounding Republicans’ efforts to rush a vote on the nominee. Rather than focusing on the hypocrisy of rushing to appoint a justice, given that Barack Obama nominated Merrick Garland over 200 days before the 2016 election yet Republicans denied him a vote, it would be better for Biden to focus on Trump’s appointee’s stances.

Biden would be wiser to frame Trump’s nominee as someone who will vote to assault health care, abortion rights, and civil rights, focusing on the fact that the justice would vote to overturn the Affordable Care Act in the middle of a pandemic, and to overturn Roe versus Wade.

With regard to the performance aspect, this first debate for Biden about giving a solid, sharp performance, similar to the one Biden delivered during his primary debate with Senator Bernie Sanders. Trump has mocked Biden as “Sleepy Joe” and questioned his cognition and mental acuity, however, this attack strategy may actually now backfire on Trump, given that even a mediocre performance by Biden could translate to an informal win, as voters’ expectations for Biden have undeniably been lowered in part by the president’s sustained attacks. Ultimately, the potential impact of this first debate on the race can hardly be overstated, and both candidates have a great deal on the line.

Douglas Schoen is a consultant who served as an adviser to President Bill Clinton and to the campaign of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. His latest book was “Collapse: A World in Crisis and the Urgency of American Leadership.”