The Last Debate

Countdown Journal: 26 Days To Go

Let’s talk about flies and oompa-loompas. It’s 2020, so why not?

Welcome to the Countdown Journal. there are 26 days until Election Day and, then another 78 days until the Inauguration.

I’ll get to last night’s veep debate in a moment. Spoiler Alert: it won’t make any difference, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t have some revealing moments.

It was also probably the last debate of the campaign. This morning, the debate commission announced that next week’s townhall would be a “virtual debate,” and Trump promptly pulled out. America is relieved.

Personal note: I voted yesterday. So stop all the campaign mail, already.

We wake up again to the nagging question of this campaign: is it okay to be optimistic? When I started the countdown journal a few weeks back, I wanted to track our (my) emotional and analytical temperature in the run-up to November 3.

So where are we today? There are a raft of new polls suggesting that Joe Biden is holding onto a double-digit lead, and challenging Trump across the political map, including in states that no one imagined would be battlegrounds. Bizarrely, Trump seems to be running out of money, and there are reports that he’s cancelling ad buys in key Midwestern battleground states. The RealClearPolitics average now has Biden’s lead up to 9.7 points.

Even the Trump-friendly Rasmussen poll has Trump down by 12 points. Which is pretty stunning, given its usual role as TrumpWorld’s polling fluffer. The Quinnipiac polls out of Florida (Biden +11) and Pennsylvania (Biden +13) are very likely outliers, but even if they are off by a lot, it’s bad news for Trump.

But Democrats continue to oscillate between exuberance and bed-wetting; while Republicans move between denial and panic. Kirsten Soltis Anderson may have the best explanation for the mood swings.

“In 2016,” she explained, “emotion infiltrated analysis. Polling had the race as a 3-4 point race nationally, but emotionally a lot of people could not shake the feeling there was no way America would elect Trump and discounted chance it could happen.

“In 2020, emotion is infiltrating analysis in the other direction. The polling is clearer and more consistent, with Biden up by 8 in the averages. But emotionally, a lot of people remember the feeling of shock in 2016 and don't want to repeat it. “

Trump’s problems run deep.

A new Fox News (!) poll gives Biden a 10 point lead, but the numbers also suggest that Trump faces massive head winds on the issue of the coronavirus.

-- On coronavirus, most, 72 percent, favor requiring masks when people are outside their home, while the number who think the virus is under control is small (24 percent mostly/completely) -- and down from a month ago (30 percent).  Almost twice as many voters prioritize limiting the spread of coronavirus over restarting the economy. 

-- Most rate economic conditions negatively (65 percent only fair/poor).

Health care is also a huge problem for Trump, and his attempts to exploit law and order have fizzled.

Twice as many voters want to keep ObamaCare in place as want to repeal the health care law (64-32 percent), and voters who prioritize health care favor Biden by 32 points.

Those who say violent crime is the most important factor to their vote favor Trump by a single point, while voters who prioritize racism back Biden by 44.

About the vice presidential debate. The fact that a fly stole the show should tell you something. Both sides claimed victory, but the buzz was all about the fly that landed on Mike Pence’s hair, and apparently got stuck there at least for a while.

Here’s a gratuitous (but completely obligatory) shot of the incident.

So who won? A quickie CNN poll says that Harris won (59%-39%), but members of at least one focus group found her “abrasive.” Pence came off as smooth… and smarmy. He’s a fine debater, but if you were looking for authenticity, forget it. Then there was the jerkitude.

The pundits often try to score these debates on points, as if the substance is what matters. So we tend to focus on the lyrics rather than the melody. I can’t help thinking that a lot of voters found Pence’s demeanor off-putting.

But that could just be me.

The candidates had different goals: Pence was (1) playing to his usual audience of one and (2) setting himself up for 2024. His main job last night was to portray Kamala Harris as a dangerous radical; but does anyone think that was the take-away from the debate?

Harris needed to (1) do no damage, (2) reassure people that she could take over as president.

Her main job last night was twofold (1) defend Biden-Harris from Pence’s charges that they were closet Marxist revolutionaries and (2) to prosecute the case against the Trump Administration’s failures.

Some partisans wanted Harris to land harsher blows. But clearly her brief was to not come off as shrill. Maybe she should’ve been more forceful, or pushed back harder, or made this point or that point about the awfulness of Donald Trump. But she repeatedly parried Pence’s attempts to portray the Democratic ticket as radicals.

Tim Alberta, however, is right:


This feels unfair, because she tried to ask good questions and really had limited control over the format. Short of throwing herself on Mike Pence’s head, how could she have stopped him from constantly over-talking? But some follow-up questions would have been nice.

The GOP Panics. Via Robert Costa:

Facing a political reckoning as Trump’s support plummets and a possible blue tsunami looms, it is now conservatives and Trump allies who are showing flashes of discomfort with the president, straining to stay in the good graces of his core voters without being wholly defined by an erratic incumbent.

For some Republicans, the 11th-hour repositioning may not be enough to stave off defeat. But the criticism, however muted, illuminates the extent of the crisis inside a party that is growing alarmed about its political fate and confused by Trump’s tweets and decision-making.

If only they had been warned.

The president’s behavior this morning. Totally normal. Should absolutely reassure jittery Republicans, said no one.

Free roids! The president released a rambling 5-minute video in which he said, among other things, that his COVID infection was a “blessing from God,” and promised free doses of an experimental antibody cocktail still in clinical trials.

But it was hard not to be distracted by the president’s appearance. If he evoked memories of Evita the other night, yesterday his makeup reminded folks of an oompa-loompa.

Okay, I should have saved that for the cheap shots.

There are 26 days to go.

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Quick Hits

1. Pence Flubbed the Civics 101 Question

Mona Charen writes in today’s Bulwark:

These are elements so basic to our national creed that for Pence not to have the words trip off his tongue is head-snapping and malign. The pre-Trump Mike Pence would have known what to say. But not this Pence. Asked what he would do if President Trump refused to accept the election results, he at first shook his head as if the question were preposterous. And then he declined to answer it. Instead, he spun out a list of grievances:

When you talk about accepting the outcome of the election, I must tell you, senator, your party has spent the last three and a half years trying to overturn the results of the last election. It’s amazing. . . . If we have a free and fair election, we know—we’re going to have confidence in it.

So the loyal lieutenant to the would-be caudillo on the White House balcony will not say the simple words that any high schooler knows.

2. The Indefensible Mike Pence

Amanda Carpenter’s take on last night’s debate:

At first glance, Pence’s performance seemed merely absurd. But it’s far more disturbing when you consider the space Pence occupies.

He’s been an active participant in the rise and spread of coronavirus. The Trump-Pence ticket has toured the country and packed people into rallies. The Republican National Committee held the White House lawn convention, breaking norms and health recommendations with abandon. He clapped along like everyone else at the superspreader event for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett. He’s not quarantining—in fact, he’s planning a MAGA event at the Villages in Florida this weekend.

The horrific death toll hasn’t stopped him, not one bit. Pence remains unfazed.

How can he be so numb?

Well, it took practice.

3. Harris Won By Not Losing

Richard North Patterson in today’s Bulwark:

In sum, when a draw was all she needed, Harris did her job well enough to win.

Pence’s problem was that Trump has made her job too easy—America’s tragedy is that he did so by degrading his office and dividing our country. From that, Pence had no escape. Because he did not, America is one debate closer to escaping Donald Trump.

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Cheap Shots

Deep Thoughts

1. A Face in the Crowd

Jake Tapper writes in the Atlantic abut the lessons from Elia Kazan’s classic depiction of demagoguery:

A Face in the Crowd paints an unflattering portrait of the viewing public’s gullibility and distractibility, but it held out hope that the American people could be made to see through a figure like Lonesome Rhodes. Kazan recognized his mistake in retrospect. In the age of mass media, a skilled demagogue like Rhodes can rise to great heights and defy any easy moral arc as long as the public continues to sit back and enjoy the show. In a 1958 letter to Schulberg, Kazan wrote, “We conceived Face in the Crowd as a ‘warning to the American people.’ ” To that end, they made Lonesome Rhodes play the heavy and take the fall, letting the rest of us off the hook. “We should have been showing that LR was us.” s