The topic is fraught with land mines for two White men in their 70s, as well as for Wallace, also a White man in his 70s and who already stepped on one by combining the topics into one bucket. It also contains some opportunity for the candidates to make their case to the voters who are still undecided or could change their minds.
The key to success in November for both candidates could come down to who is most effective at turning out his base while nipping away at his opponent’s support on the margins. One way to do that — especially during a pandemic that has significantly decreased the opportunities that candidates have had to connect with their voters — is during debates.
Here’s what each candidate needs to do, plus what to watch for in how Wallace navigates the night.
What Trump needs to do to succeed on this
Make the case himself that he is good for Black Americans: Race — and allegations of racism — have defined Trump’s presidency. About 3 in 4 Black Americans believe Trump is racist, according to a recent Yahoo News-YouGov poll. The president has repeatedly pushed back on that depiction while pointing to his economic record as proof that his policies have benefited Black people, but Trump’s rhetoric and actions on other issues tend to overshadow whatever economic successes have come during his presidency for Black voters. Besides most Black Americans attribute whatever health exists in the economy to President Barack Obama more than Trump, according to a Washington Post-ABC poll.
During the Republican National Convention, one of the main ways he attempted to do that was by having black Americans speak on his behalf while criticizing Democrats. But when recently forced to answer questions directly from black voters at town halls, he dodged the issue at hand and his answers were less than convincing.
On Tuesday, he will once again have to make the pitch himself — this time with a tough moderator and an opponent ready to pounce if he pivots.
Convince voters on the fence that he’s not racist. Trump has a maintained a base-focused strategy, but that base just isn’t big enough to win him the election. Race is one issue that has been critical to him losing support from groups with whom he won in 2016. The suburbs are actually more ethnically diverse than Trump, who often focuses on inner-cities when discussing race issues, seems to realize. Racial inequities in homeownership, public schools and other issues of importance to suburban Americans lead them to want to know if Trump actually has a plan to address the systemic racism that more Americans seem to be noticing.
The percentage of white Americans who support Black Lives Matter was lower in August than it was in June shortly after the police killing of Floyd. Trump has relied on exaggeration and hyperbole about activists to get his point across, but polling doesn’t show this argument is persuading near enough people to be fearful enough that they swing his way.
Trump will have to avoid doing anything to further turn off those voters who sympathize with the protests, which could be a challenge considering that he has spent much of the summer attempting to scare into voting for him by claiming that Biden wants to diversify the suburbs in a way that hurts current residents. Trump has responded to anti-racism protests by painting them as more violent than most of them have been, in an attempt to appeal to suburban women in particular.
Continue to peel off Black and Hispanic men: A key piece of Trump’s Black voter outreach has been targeting Black men. While 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton won the Black male vote, Trump performed better with the demographic than any Republican president in recent history and is hoping to continue that success in November. He has deployed popular athletes and entertainers as surrogates while having aides point to his brash, combative style as proof that he will fight for the issues that black men care about most. He doesn’t expect to win, but he’s hoping he can at least convince them that Biden is no better. Will attacks to that effect land?
What Biden needs to do to succeed
Bring the moral case against Trump on race, to Trump’s face. Biden launched his campaign by highlighting that Trump was unfit to be the leader for all Americans after those who marched with white nationalists in Charlottesville. Since then, one of the main attacks against Trump from Biden is that America has become increasingly unsafe for Black people under Trump — particularly when it comes to interactions between Black people and law enforcement, a group that has largely thrown its support behind Trump in part because of his steadfast defense of police. Biden clenched the nomination largely because Black voters threw their weight behind him when no one else did.
Make the case to voters on the fence. Biden, whose success could also ride on his ability to put a dent in Trump’s support with white working-class voters, independents and suburban voters, will need to convince those who are uneasy about protests and violence that he values law and order without giving the impression that he blindly sides with law enforcement.
Avoid gaffes. Biden often puts his foot in his mouth in a way that makes it difficult for his supporters to defend him, particularly on matters of race. That attracted plenty of criticism in the primary, and may not be as much of an issue in a debate with Trump given the president’s record on race. But even with a comfortable lead in polls, a major slip up could be damaging to Biden.