• US Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is up about 10 points nationwide and has a solid lead in more than enough swing states to get to 270 electoral votes.
  • US president Donald Trump needs something to dynamically change the tenor of the race.
  • He didn't get it at the final presidential debate.
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US president Donald Trump had his final outing on a debate stage, and while pundits will argue about his performance the only real question worth asking is this:

Did anything happen on that television broadcast that will ding Democratic challenger Joe Biden's 9.9 percentage point lead within the next 12 days?

Did Biden say something that would jeopardize his lead? Did Trump do something that would win people back? Was that event so obvious that it'll change the tenor of the race in like a week and a half? If the answer isn't objectively yes, then this debate went poorly for the president.

Trump isn't running against Biden anymore, he's running against time. As of this morning, at least 47 million people have voted in the 2020 presidential election. As of this afternoon, Trump was down about 4.9 points in Pennsylvania, 4.6 points in Wisconsin, 2.1 points in Florida, and 3.2 points in Arizona. As of Friday, there are just eleven nightly evening news broadcasts between now and election night.

He has a lot of distance to cover, and he's running out of time to do it. Every day that is not a positive development for Trump is a loss, because not only does he fail to move the needle but he burns another day that could have been used to move it. 

This is what has made his handling of the debates so puzzling. These are large primetime broadcasts covered by every major network and seen by tens of millions of people. The debates are currency he could use to change the news narrative, but Trump's experiences on the debate stage have been fraught with difficulties this year.

Read about the final debate:

His first outing received strongly negative reactions in terms of his demeanor, but regardless of how the event was viewed mere days later the narrative shifted to speculating if he was infected with coronavirus during the event. The subsequent week was spent discussing the president's diagnosis with a virus that has defined his administration, whose handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has been remarkably unpopular with the American people. 

He pulled out of the second debate after it was moved to a virtual setting, and it was replaced with an event that reached a paltry fraction of the viewership that a wall-to-wall official debate would enjoy. 

His third debate, while definitely broadcast out to significantly more people than the town hall, failed to seriously undermine Biden's case for the presidency and failed to bolster his own.

In response to a question about an issue he is fairly strong on — foreign policy, where the American people give his presidency mediocre approval numbers rather than objectively bad — instead he pivoted to discuss Biden's son, who is not a national figure. 

In the end, what was the worst thing that Biden said in the debate in terms of the negative impact it could have on his electoral prospects?

It was probably a moment at the end, where Biden described his environmental policy and indicated that by 2050 he would like to see fewer emissions from the oil and gasoline business, a remark that Trump specifically mentioned Pennsylvania (which has a lucrative if controversial hydraulic fracturing industry) and Texas (the ancestral and corporate home of American petroleum firms) as places where that remark may hurt him. 

Realistically, it's not obvious how that really harms Biden's chances of winning the presidency. Do 5% of Pennsylvanians vote based on the fortunes of a niche extractive business over a thirty-year time horizon? Probably not.

How about Texas? Well, while Biden would likely be thrilled to win Texas — he's down 4 points — any map in which Biden wins Texas is likely one in which he has already won a substantial number of electoral votes. According to FiveThirtyEight, Texas has a paltry 1.8% chance of being the tipping point state in the election, so in a tiny fraction of universes is Biden seriously regretting his choice of words. 

All told, at the beginning of September, Trump had a serious chance to reach the American people and potentially use that time to communicate his strengths and his rival's failures. Instead, he squandered the debates and was unable to control the conversation as he adeptly did in 2016. He has fewer than two weeks to overcome a significant deficit in a half-dozen states, and the final debate probably didn't help. 

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