Originally published in The Sunday Independent
The old rule in cross-examination is that you never ask a question to which you don’t know the answer. That might be adapted for presidential elections, with the advice going to Donald Trump: Don’t make an accusation that cues your opponent to offer a killer line.
During Thursday night’s debate, Trump accused Biden of attempting to bring in socialised medicine like “Bernie Sanders had tried in his state”.
Biden hit back with a response that undercut a variety of Trump’s central attack lines against his Democratic challenger.
“He’s a very confused guy,” Biden told the camera about Trump. “He thinks he’s running against somebody else. He’s running against Joe Biden. I beat those other people because I disagree with them. Joe Biden [is who] he’s running against.”
The confidence of Biden’s response, and indeed of his entire debate performance, put to bed any hope that the ‘Sleepy Joe’ nickname Trump has attempted to affix would have the desired effect. He’s leading by 10 points nine days out from the election and this debate did nothing to move the dial the other way.
The high-risk strategy to imply that Biden had lost the mental agility required for the presidency was predicated on Biden making an obvious, public mistake. The opposite occurred.
Against a somewhat calmer version of Trump, Biden was composed, controlled and coherent.
More importantly, Biden’s answer highlighted the fact that, from the off, Trump hasn’t known how to run against Biden.
The Trump campaign has failed to settle on an effective plan to combat Biden’s reputation for authenticity, his decades of policy moderation and his self-generated narrative as a defender of blue-collar workers.
Biden has been establishing that reputation in America since 1973 – over time it seeps into the consciousness of a nation and can’t be undone by a six-month blast of attacks and allegations.
And that’s one of the central reasons why the recent coverage about his son Hunter Biden’s foreign business dealings won’t have an impact.
The Trump network has gone all-in on a strategy that was successful against Hillary Clinton – the allegation that Biden and his family are corrupt and compromised by foreign governments.
The US president amplified these claims during the debate – referencing unverified emails purportedly recovered from Hunter Biden’s laptop that highlighted business dealings with Chinese and Ukrainian companies.
Biden’s refrain: “It’s Joe Biden he’s running against” was also a subtle defence against these attacks – reminding voters that it’s his name, not his son’s, on the ballot. This is a different campaign to 2016 and Biden is viewed very differently as a candidate than Clinton.
Biden is, fairly or otherwise, perceived to be more trustworthy by the electorate.
In 2016, only 34pc of Americans thought that they could trust Clinton’s honesty – the corresponding figure for Biden is 57pc.
Those numbers mean that any attempt to convince voters that Biden is corrupt have a minimal chance of success. Once a voter has decided on their voting intention, they seek out information that confirms their view, not contradicts it.
When John F Kennedy was running for the Democratic nomination in 1960, his opponents tried to get voters to believe he was just “a scrawny fellow with rickets”. It didn’t work.
Despite the fact that Kennedy did indeed have serious health problems, his image was that of a young handsome Second World War hero. The man who, after his boat was destroyed in the Pacific, swam miles in the open ocean while dragging an injured comrade to safety – with his teeth. Imprinted with the JFK image of health and vitality, people refused to see anything else.
Imprinted over nearly half a century with the view of Biden as trustworthy, today’s voters aren’t willing to entertain any allegations to the contrary.
Trump is running out of potential attacks on Biden. He’s also running out of time to win the additional voters he needs. Few undecided voters are left up for grabs between Biden and Trump; another notable difference from 2016.
A recent YouGov poll showed that, among likely voters, only 4pc said they could potentially change their vote from Trump to Biden or vice versa. Add that to the 2pc who have yet to land on any candidate and we have 6pc of votes still up for grabs.
Two weeks before the 2016 election, 15pc of voters had not yet decided who they were voting for – the majority of this cohort broke for the Trump campaign.
Even if this happens again, it will be less influential. And a significant percentage of voters have already locked in their decision. The early voting figures across America have been historically high.
More than 50 million voters have already cast their ballots – 36pc of the total 2016 voting population.
And research by Politico has found that Democrats are leading significantly in early voting in swing states, importantly performing well with newly registered and low-frequency voters.
Republican voters are more likely to vote in person, but still, a worrying trend for the president.
Trump did provide some glimmer of hope to his supporters on Thursday.
The Republican incumbent was focused on reaching the voters of Pennsylvania, a battleground he has to win.
He successfully pushed Biden to confirm he wanted to wind down the oil industry over time and put him under pressure on his previous comments about banning fracking – hot topics in the Keystone state.
If Trump can overcome his current six-point deficit in Pennsylvania, while holding Arizona, Florida and North Carolina, then he can scrape an electoral college victory – but it’s a difficult task.
It’s getting harder to see Trump mounting a comeback.
This last debate was Trump’s final public opportunity to produce a much-needed trick from up his sleeve – he came up empty. The hard drive on Hunter Biden doesn’t seem to be providing the ace he needs.
Trump is trying to take down Biden. However, it’s looking increasingly as if he just doesn’t know how.
Lorcan Nyhan is head of training with The Communications Clinic