The hour and a half between 9 and 10:30 p.m. ET on Thursday, Oct. 23, at Belmont University in Nashville was the last chance Donald Trump had to turn it all around.
Did he? Could he?
It’s late in the game, most peoples’ minds are set, and more than 40 million have already voted. But he did himself some good. He wasn’t a belligerent nut. He held himself together, controlled himself, presented opening remarks that made sense. He won, not a dazzling win but a win that kept him in the game. He succeeded in doing what Joe Biden didn’t have to do: If you wanted or needed an excuse, an out, to vote for Mr. Trump, if you wanted an argument that justified your decision in a conversation in the office, he probably gave you what you need.
It was a good debate. The candidates argued big things. Both had some good moves. Mr. Trump was smart to dwell, early on, on opening up economically. He hung a “Closed” sign around Mr. Biden’s neck. Mr. Biden deftly turned accusations of familial venality into reminders of the president’s refusal, after five years of demands, to show his tax returns.
Mr. Biden too often lapses into government-speak—“the public option.” He was in government 47 years, and sounds it. Mr. Trump’s power, recovered Thursday night, is to speak like normal people, so you can understand him without having to translate what he’s saying in your head. He appears to have lied a great deal. That will be adjudicated in the coming days.
Moderator Kristen Welker was fabulous—fair-minded, professional and in control. What a star.
All that said, where are we? This close to Election Day and everyone with bated breath. Everyone sees the polls, the clear Biden lead nationwide and the smaller lead in most of battleground states. We know what those polls suggest. But there is little air of defeat among Trump supporters and no triumphalism among Democrats.
Trump supporters believe he will win because of his special magic, Trump foes fear he will win because of his dark magic. Pollsters and pundits stare at the data and wonder how to quantify his unfathomable magic. It’s remarkable that all in their different ways put such stock in the president’s powers, his ability to pull a black swan out of a hat. I believe he is not magic and faces a big loss, and from the way he’s acted the week leading up to the debate—flailing about, stirring themeless chaos—so does he.
But there are a few points that contradict the picture. One is the number 56. That is the percentage of registered voters who, asked by Gallup if they are better off than they were four years ago, say yes. (Gallup has asked this regularly in election years since 1984.) Fifty-six percent—in a pandemic, after protests, riots and recession!
It’s only a poll, but after Gallup, a New York Times/Siena poll asked the same question, and 49% said they were better off.
What’s interesting, though, is that when Siena asked respondents if the country was better off than it was four years ago, only 39% said yes.
What does this mean? No one knows. If the polling is more or less correct, you wonder: Will people vote on their own circumstances or what they perceive to be the country’s?
The second data point has to do with Mr. Trump’s rallies—big, boisterous and frequent. He’s been in Michigan and North Carolina and has rallies planned this weekend in Ohio, Wisconsin and New Hampshire. “Gastonia Municipal Airport was packed shoulder to shoulder Wednesday night as tens of thousands of people showed up,” read a local North Carolina news report. Mr. Biden doesn’t seem to draw much of anybody, and doesn’t try. He doesn’t have rallies, and barely even appearances at this point. You can, seeing the polls, hypothesize that what you’re seeing at the Trump rallies is a political movement in its death throes. But I don’t know, they look lively to me. You might say, “The Democrats aren’t having rallies because they are more careful about the virus.” Fair enough, but in a lifetime watching politics, sometimes up close, I have never seen crowds keep away from someone they love. They’ll come whether you want them or not; they’ll find out you’re coming and stand at the side of the road to cheer as the motorcade goes by.
It’s funny not to see any of this from the Democrat this year. You can’t gainsay a strategy that seems to be working; internal Democratic critics are called bedwetters. But it doesn’t feel right. Mr. Biden should be talking every day in a big way to the country he wishes to lead. He shouldn’t be seated in a handsome chair waiting for the crown to be passed, or going out for ice cream in a mask like John Dillinger on the lam.
Maybe after the debate he’ll change.
Turnout looks to be historic. There are predictions that it will reach 150 million, even 160 million. In 2016, 137 million people voted. The changes in how we vote, from early voting to voting by mail, all hastened by the pandemic, will have been established after this election, and won’t go away. This will make things appear more democratic and may leave them more Democratic. Progressive preoccupation with the Electoral College is about to diminish, sharply.
If Mr. Biden is an extremely lucky man he will win the presidency and his party will hold the House and lose the Senate. If the Democrats win all three they’ll be a runaway train fueled by pent-up progressive demand. If the Democrats lose the Senate, Mr. Biden will have a handy excuse for his natural moderation: “You guys may want court packing, reparations and taxes on bovine flatulence but I’ve got to get it past Mitch McConnell.” If the Democrats lose the Senate the Biden presidency will be more moderate, and more popular in a country whose nerves are shot.
A Republican Senate will let Biden be Biden.
For her part, vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris is, when on the trail, giddy. She’s dancing with drum lines and beginning rallies with “Wassup, Florida!” She’s throwing her head back and laughing a loud laugh, especially when nobody said anything funny. She’s the younger candidate going for the younger vote, and she’s going for a Happy Warrior vibe, but she’s coming across as insubstantial, frivolous. When she started to dance in the rain onstage, in Jacksonville, Fla., to Mary J. Blige’s “Work That,” it was embarrassing.
Apparently you’re not allowed to say these things because she’s a woman, and she’s doubling down on giddy because you’re not allowed to say them. I, however, take Ms. Blige’s advice to heart: I will not sweat it, I will be myself. Kamala Harris is running for vice president of the United States in an era of heightened and unending crisis. The world, which doubts our strength, our character and our class, is watching. If you can’t imitate gravity, could you at least try for seriousness? I hate the shallowness with which politics is now done, the absolute puerility of it. Do you? We’re on the losing side. The future is an endless loop of Barack Obama on “Between Two Ferns,” stamping on your face, forever.