Trump is trailing former Vice President Joe Biden in national polling by double digits and losing virtually every swing state as well. His overall job approval ratings are in the low 40s — and his numbers on how he has handled the coronavirus pandemic are even lower.
In order to mount a comeback — or hope to mount a comeback — Trump needs to alter the current governing dynamic of the race. And the only way he can do that is to have a major moment, when lots and lots of people are watching. Like, you know, in a debate.
For one reason and one reason only: Because he sees this as an opportunity to continue to build the case for why he lost — if he loses (as now looks more and more likely.)
Remember that Trump views himself as a perpetual winner at life. He is incapable of admitting defeat or failure — his multiple bankruptcies were all strategic successes, any deal that went south was because he decided it was a bad deal etc. — and, therefore, when a loss looks likely Trump naturally looks for reason as to why he was somehow cheated, for example:
His fact-free assertion that 3 to 5 million people cast illegal votes in the 2016 election to explain why Hillary Clinton beat him by nearly 3 million in the popular vote. His blaming of Republicans who refused to run on his record (false!) for GOP losses in the midterms. His ongoing attempts to suggest that everyone involved with the FBI counterintelligence probe, which found that Russia sought to actively interfere in the 2016 election to help him and hurt Clinton, should be jailed. And of course, Trump’s repeated — and repeatedly false — claims that the increase in mail-in-balloting in the 2020 election (due to concerns about Covid-19) will lead to a fraudulent election.
Trump’s refusal to participate in a virtual second debate fits directly into that pattern of thinking: They changed the rules on me! Joe Biden couldn’t survive another in-person debate with me! This is all rigged!
It is another piece of “evidence” that the powers that be or the “deep state” or whoever else Trump thinks is is conspiring to keep him from winning. Because they know he doesn’t owe them anything and they are scared!
(Sidebar: It is a very weird thing for the President of the United States, the single most powerful person in the country, to be claiming that he is somehow the victim of a plot by the, er, elites. He’s the President! It doesn’t get more elite than that!)
What’s clear is that the CPD does not appear to be in the negotiating mood. “There is no law requiring any presidential candidate to debate,” said CPD chairman Frank Fahrenkopf on Thursday morning following the President’s immediate dismissal of a virtual debate. “In fact, in 1980, Jimmy Carter, president of the United States, refused to participate in the first debate, but he did participate in the second debate. So it is up to every candidate to decide whether they want to debate or not.”
That hardline stance presents Trump with a choice. Does he want to find a way to participate in the debate, knowing that he will simply not be able to draw anywhere close to the audience it will bring in on his own — and that such a big audience offers him the chance to change the race? Or does he prefer to use the debate change as a foundational brick in the “I was cheated!” house he has been building for months?
What Trump decides will tell you a lot about whether he is actually focused on winning or spending more time strategizing how he will claim victory — or at the very least a rigged system — when he loses.
My guess? Judging from Trump’s behavior over the last few months (not to mention the polling), he will pass on the debate — and use that decision as proof-positive that he is being screwed out of a fair election. It’s kind of his thing.