The final debate was better for Donald Trump.
In conversations with Republican insiders, there was a mix of elation and relief from Trump’s performance in the presidential debate against Joe Biden on Thursday in Nashville. There was a universal consensus that the president was far better than he was in the first debate in Cleveland. The divide among Republicans with whom I spoke was simply whether this was too late to matter.
One Republican close to the Trump campaign heralded it as an “absolute grand slam” and wondered why the president didn’t deliver a performance like this in the first debate. The Republican thought this “gets Trump back to where he needs to be.” A swing state Republican operative took a different view: While Trump did much better, “I don’t know that it changes anything enough.” The operative added, “I think it does bring a few folks home but not enough to shake anything up.”
One advantage for Trump was that he was on his best behavior Thursday night. Unlike the first debate where Trump repeatedly interrupted and sparred constantly both with Biden and with moderator Chris Wallace, the president acted in a far more conventional manner on Thursday. The Republican close to the Trump campaign marveled “it was truly striking how respectful he was to the debate moderator,” Kristen Welker of NBC News. Another veteran Republican operative noted that the additional constraints imposed after the fiasco in Cleveland served to help Trump. “The mic muting imposes discipline on Trump and he does well when he’s fenced in,” said the operative.
For Republicans watching the debate, much of the night was simply about Trump doing just well enough to give permission to wavering Republicans to voter for him. “Trump won but even more than that Biden lost,” One Republican strategist argued. “Not sure if it’s a game changer but it’s certainly enough to make any undecided voters reconsider a lean toward Biden.” The veteran operative, who thought Biden “did fine” echoed this: “I think it gives the 3 percent or so that approve of Trump’s performance but won’t say they’ll vote for him permission to crank the lever.”
One swing-state Republican operative also argued that Biden once again alienated potential voters by calling Trump a racist: “He’s demonizing a large swath of Americans when he does this. It’s wrong.” The operative though said that this “proves to these Republicans who may be uncomfortable with Trump’s rhetoric but support his policies that the liberals are pulling Joe’s strings and he’s not a moderate.” Biden though made no glaring gaffes that might blow up the race. As one veteran Republican strategist put it: “Biden walks out without any memorable moments which is all he really needed to do.”
Operatives did see opportunities for Trump to take advantage of Biden’s stumbles during the debate. There were moments that stood out to them, ranging from Biden’s opposition to all mandatory minimum sentences to his support for transitioning away from the oil industry. After Biden made a reference to Adolf Hitler during an exchange on North Korea, one operative told Intelligencer: “Getting Joe to mention Hitler means Trump won lol.”
However, the specter of the pandemic that has killed 220,000 Americans and counting still hung over everything. As a swing-state Republican put it, “Take out all the noise and Trump’s character, we’re in the middle of a pandemic and he still can’t give 30 seconds of a health-care plan with any sort of specifics that’s cost thousands and thousands of lives. He could be Mr. Clean and it wouldn’t matter. To me, like, that alone is devastating.”