President Trump and Joseph R. Biden Jr. were supposed to debate tonight. But Mr. Trump backed out after the Commission on Presidential Debates ruled that the event could be held only virtually, given the president’s coronavirus diagnosis.
The two men will instead engage in a Battle of the Town Halls, appearing in rival events on different networks. That’s a far cry from a debate, and most analysts assume that it’s unlikely to change minds. Mr. Trump’s supporters will presumably tune in to the president on NBC, while Mr. Biden’s supporters will check out their candidate on ABC. Since the appearances are at the same time, 8 p.m. Eastern, it will take a dedicated voter to attempt a compare-and-contrast.
What that means is that the third debate, in Nashville on Oct. 22, may be Mr. Trump’s last, best chance to change the course of a campaign that is moving against him. It is the final scheduled set piece, all but guaranteed to draw a huge audience and extensive coverage. Unlike, say, tonight.
Mr. Trump’s performance at the first debate was marked by his hectoring of Mr. Biden and the moderator, Chris Wallace, and was widely criticized. Polls suggest it cost him some support. From that perspective, Mr. Trump’s decision to pull out of the next one, rather than just engage Mr. Biden virtually, mystified members of both parties, particularly because Mr. Biden, given his polling lead, has little incentive to debate again.
Republicans had been hoping that tonight could be a mulligan. Now it’s down to Nashville.
“He needs a good debate, practicing common courtesy and restraint, and allowing Biden to speak,” said Charlie Black, a Republican consultant and veteran of presidential campaigns.
This is not ideal for Mr. Trump. Historically, third debates do not have a major influence on the course of a campaign. By the time this one happens, Election Day will be less than two weeks away. Millions of people will already have voted.
Even if Mr. Trump heeds the advice of Republicans on changing his debate tone, there might not be enough undecided people in even that huge audience to make a difference.