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Will The First Presidential Debate Shake Up The Race?

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Welcome to a special edition of FiveThirtyEight’s politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

sarah (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): We’ve been saying for a while now that we’re in the thick of the presidential election, and it’s true, we are! We’ve just a little over a month now to go, and people are already busy casting ballots.

Today, though, marks Americans’ first real opportunity to see President Trump and Joe Biden go head-to-head in the first of three scheduled presidential debates. The candidates are expected to stick to six topics:

  • The Trump and Biden Records
  • The Supreme Court
  • COVID-19
  • The Economy
  • Race and Violence in Our Cities
  • The Integrity of the Election

The reality going into tonight is this: Donald Trump is fairly far behind Joe Biden in the polls, and has been for a while now. According to our forecast, he still has a very real chance of winning, but he is the underdog.

So let’s start there. Given that Biden is ahead (and has been all cycle), does he have more to lose tonight? Or no, Sarah, I disagree.

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): Yeah, Sarah, I think that’s right. We shouldn’t overthink this: As long as everything stays the way it’s been going, that’s good for Biden. The debates, though, represent a chance for the status quo to be disrupted.

Now, I know that we’ve written in the past that the first debate typically helps the challenger — in this case, Biden.

But I’m not sure the ingredients are there for that this year.

sarah: Say more about that. Why not? Because Biden already has such a sizable lead nationally?

nrakich: For one thing, there are very few undecided voters this year. For another, I don’t think Trump has some aura of incumbency around him — he’s pretty unpopular.

Not to mention, both Democrats and Republicans are solidly behind their candidate this year, so there’s less room for party members to “come home” to the base.

I’ll also point out that the first debate in 2016 actually seemed to help Hillary Clinton (who was a member of the incumbent party). Clinton led in our national polling average by 1.4 points on the day of the first debate; a week later, her lead was up to 3.7 points.

So I’m not convinced that the “the challenger usually benefits” thing is an ironclad rule so much as it is just happenstance.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): I might point out that Clinton wasn’t actually the challenger in 2016. There was no incumbent, although she was sort of a quasi-incumbent.

sarah: What does a situation in which Biden actually loses some standing tonight look like, you think?

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): The idea that Biden has the most to lose because he is ahead seems correct to me. I honestly think the worse thing for Biden is if he forgets something like when Rick Perry famously forgot about the federal agencies he was proposing to eliminate in a debate in the 2012 cycle.

One of the Trump team’s biggest arguments is that Biden is too old to be president, and kind of out of it mentally. So a major gaffe that is not really about policy and is easy for the media to cover that could be replayed in a way that might reach undecided voters, who are surely not watching this debate in full, would help Trump.

natesilver: Yeah. They’re setting expectations pretty low for Biden. On the other hand, if there are verbal gaffes — and those are fairly common from Biden — they’re priming folks to give it a lot of attention.

nrakich: Yeah, I agree with all that. I’d also say that Trump could help his cause by appearing prepared and shooting from the hip less than he usually does. Beyond that, if he can center the debate on typical Democratic-Republican partisan issues (rather than, say, the coronavirus, which Americans say 56 percent to 40 percent that he has mishandled), that might cause some reversion to the mean.

sarah: Yeah, this kind of segues into what are the respective candidates’ liabilities? Biden’s is that he’s not that great of a debater, right? That he makes some verbal gaffes, which support this idea that the Trump campaign has leaned into: He’s too old to be president. But doesn’t Trump have a lot of liabilities, too? Especially when you consider some of the risks he takes by not always playing by the book?

natesilver: What are the odds that Trump seems well prepared? He seems to think an off-the-cuff style works for him, but it’s not clear that he’s right.

nrakich: Biden had a few poor moments in the Democratic primary debates, although they obviously didn’t hurt him that much. I’d also point out that Biden kinda has a track record of shifting into a higher gear when the stakes are higher. For instance, his best primary debates were the ones before Nevada and South Carolina, when his candidacy was hanging by a thread, and he did very well in the 2008 and 2012 vice presidential debates, too.

In addition, Biden’s worst moments in the primary debates tended to happen at the end of a two- or three-hour debate. The fact then that tonight’s debate will last only 90 minutes could be good for him.

sarah: One thing I thought was interesting in that article Nathaniel was citing earlier is that regardless of who benefits from tonight, it really is the first debate that can shake up the race the most.

Polls don’t move that much after the first debate
Incumbent Party Average Polling Lead
Year Post-First Debate End of Campaign Absolute Difference
1976 -3.0 -1.3 1.7
1980 -1.4 -3.8 2.4
1984 +17.0 +17.7 0.7
1988 +5.2 +9.0 3.8
1992 -13.5 -8.2 5.3
1996 +15.1 +12.1 3.0
2000 -1.5 -2.1 0.6
2004 +2.4 +1.0 1.4
2008 -6.0 -7.4 1.4
2012 +0.1 +1.5 1.4
Average 2.2

Sources: National Council On Public Polling, HuffPost Pollster

Do we think that’s still the case?

I ask, as we kind of didn’t see a convention bounce this year with everything going on, right?

natesilver: I think it makes sense to expect the first debate to be the most important one. It’s more of a novelty to see the candidates together on stage for the first time. And expectations tend to be better calibrated once the first debate has taken place.

Now, I would say that both Biden and Trump are relatively uneven debaters, so maybe the first debate won’t be as predictive of the remaining debates as normal.

nrakich: Yeah, the convention bounces were minimal, if they happened at all. That’s actually an interesting question: Is there a correlation between the size of the convention bounce and the size of any debate bounces?

I’d expect that the same reason we barely saw a convention bounce this year (high polarization) also makes it less likely that we’ll see a debate bounce.

Nate, maybe you’ve studied that?

natesilver: I mean, you’d expect polls to move less in general under high polarization. And that’s basically been true so far this year. The debate wouldn’t be an exception to it. And polls show that fewer voters than in the past say that the debates will matter to their vote this year.

nrakich: Yeah, Biden’s lead in our national polling average has been between 6.6 points and 9.6 points since early June. It’s been a remarkably steady race.

sarah: So, let’s shift gear to the topics — six in total — ranging from their respective track records to the integrity of the election. Tonight really will cover a wide range of issues, and I’m personally a little curious to see how much overlap there is with the other two debates (I’d imagine quite a bit).

But of the issues tonight’s moderator Chris Wallace and the debate commission picked, which do you think will dominate the evening? Or if you think each will be given truly equal time, which does Biden have the upper hand on? And which does Trump have the upper hand on?

For reference the issues are:

  • The Trump and Biden Records
  • The Supreme Court
  • COVID-19
  • The Economy
  • Race and Violence in Our Cities
  • The Integrity of the Election

nrakich: Well, Biden should have a clear advantage in the COVID-19 and race and violence in our cities segments. Polls have consistently shown that voters trust Biden more than Trump to handle those issues.

By a smaller margin, though, polls also show that voters trust Biden over Trump to pick Supreme Court justices, and of course Trump’s decision to fill Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat now rather than wait until after the election is unpopular. But that segment may play out more along traditional partisan lines, which relatively speaking is good for Trump.

natesilver: I’d also say Biden as a clear advantage on the integrity of the election segment and that’s a place where Trump could get himself in a lot of trouble.

sarah: Yeah … part of me still can’t believe we wrote this article about what might happen if Trump won’t leave office quietly, but 2020: Where … anything is possible?

nrakich: Nate, do you mean like if Trump gets caught saying he won’t respect the election results again?

natesilver: Yeah. I don’t imagine that’s a very popular position, although casting doubt on the integrity of the election can also lower turnout.

nrakich: Yeah, and a debate is a more combative setting where Biden can really go after Trump if he makes a comment like that again — unlike the White House briefing room, an environment that is fairly tightly controlled by the administration.

perry: Biden’s vote in support of the Iraq War. The 1994 crime bill. He sponsored bills to slow down school integration. He voted for NAFTA. He didn’t handle the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings well. Do these things matter? I have no idea. But sharp questions about this pre-VP record seemed to annoy him during the Democratic primary and are a potential weak point now. I would expect Chris Wallace and Trump in particular to press him on the idea that he supported too much incarceration of Black men.

nrakich: Yeah, Perry, there was a lot of that at the Republican National Convention. On the surface it appeared aimed at winning over Black voters, but really it may have been more about winning over white voters who are concerned that Trump is racist. In the debates, it could maybe be an attempt to depress Black turnout.

sarah: Do you think one possible approach for tonight will be Trump trying to paint Biden as too far to the left?

natesilver: I think the debate is a hard moment to paint Biden as being some big leftist. He’s an old white guy who comes across as pretty affable. Better to make that argument in ads where you aren’t featuring Biden himself as much and can argue he’s some sort of Trojan horse.

sarah: What about how Biden will try to paint Trump?

Much of his campaign has been about winning back the soul of America, and Americans are really unhappy.

An AP-NORC poll from this summer also found 8 in 10 Americans say the country is heading in the wrong direction. That’s the highest it’s been since Trump took office.

perry: I think Biden will lean into the decency/character stuff, but I also think The New York Times’s reporting on Trump’s tax returns and Trump’s pick of Amy Coney Barrett for the Supreme Court allow Biden to talk about policy — namely, that Biden will raise taxes on the super-rich and that Trump is trying to get the Affordable Care Act rolled back or Roe v. Wade overturned with Barrett on the court.

nrakich: Yeah, I actually think the debate will be a big indicator of how big of a role the tax returns story plays. If Biden really decides to go after Trump on it, it amplifies the story. If not, the news cycle turns over to whatever topic dominates the debate.

sarah: OK, knowing who “won” or “lost” a debate is difficult to answer. Clinton, for instance, got a lot of positive press coverage for how she handled herself in the debates in 2016, and Trump … won the election. So what if anything are you doing to “update your priors” going into the debate tonight?

natesilver: I think Clinton won the 2016 debates. She moved up in the polls after the debates. But debate bounces can be temporary.

But yeah, how much does the tax returns stuff stick? What about the election integrity segment? Does Biden make some big verbal gaffes or seem “out of it”? Those are all a bit obvious, I suppose, but they’re the things I’ll be most interested to watch.

nrakich: Exactly. I’ll just be reminding myself not to overreact to how the polls change after tonight. Mitt Romney also won the first debate in 2012, remember? But that momentum (our favorite word!) evaporated too.

perry: With so much of the electorate already clear on whom they will support, I think the key thing to watch for is: “What will move undecided voters?” I define that as people who are either soft Biden or Trump supporters, backing a third-party candidate or undecided. And those people aren’t likely to tune into a debate but will see whatever two to three moments get replayed on Facebook, shared on social media, etc.

So I think policy disputes aren’t likely to become big fodder. The most memorable thing from the debates four years ago was in the final debate when Trump got too physically close to Clinton — and this was after the “Access Hollywood” tape had come out.

Does anyone do anything in the debate that becomes a defining moment until the Oct. 7 VP debate?

nrakich: Yeah, to be honest, I remember Ken Bone more than anything Trump or Clinton did in those debates.

perry: People’s views on Trump are so well-defined, I suspect even among undecided voters. It will take something big to shift those.

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

Stream FC Daily on ESPN+
– 2020 MLS Playoffs: Who’s in, schedule and more
– MLS on ESPN+: Stream LIVE games and replays (U.S. only)

Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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