Joe Biden (left) and Donald Trump | Credit: Courtesy

Time is running out for President Joe Biden to change the dynamics of his rematch against Donald Trump, the nation’s most momentous election since the Civil War.

The first votes for the November 5 general election will be cast in just 88 days, as Minnesota, South Dakota, and Virginia start early voting September 20. California ballots go out soon after, on October 7.

This means that the stakes for Thursday night’s one-on-one presidential debate could not be higher, and the historical importance of the choice could not be starker.

“This is going to be the most important election since 1860, because it is going to be about the future of this country as a democracy,” Duke University political scientist Herbert Kitschelt told The New York Times.

The Biden–Trump contest is “an election about whether this country will preserve the rule of law in an independent justice system; whether women will be respected as autonomous decision makers or subjected again, step by step, by a religion-encoded male supremacy; whether this country will continue to hold free and fair elections, or generalize to the entire realm a new version of what prevailed in the South before civil rights legislation,” he added.

Why it matters: Presidential debates rarely are pivotal to the outcome of national campaigns, multiple research studies have shown. With few exceptions — 1960 and 1980 come to mind — the televised events are far more spectacle than substance, and the conventional wisdom among the cognoscenti is that they barely matter.

Biden needs to prove the conventional wisdom wrong.

Poll after poll shows that Biden–Trump II is the race a vast majority of Americans don’t want; the Republican former president remains extremely unpopular, and the Democrat has the lowest approval rating ever for a president seeking reelection.

Voters of every stripe — including many Democrats — say that at 81, Biden is too old for the job; while Trump is only three years younger, his campaign effectively fuels the perception that Biden is weak, befuddled, and unlikely to survive a second term — raising the specter of Vice President Kamala Harris, even more unpopular than Biden, occupying the White House.

Although Trump and Biden technically are tied in polls of the national popular vote, the former almost always has a slight but steady lead that is significant directionally, if not statistically.

Crucially, Trump tops Biden in surveys in all six battleground states, which yet again are expected to decide the Electoral College result. Additionally, the impact of third-party candidates on some state ballots, including independents Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Cornel West, and the Green Party’s Jill Stein, is uncertain, although most polls suggest that their inclusion favors Trump.

Biden–Trump polling has basically not budged for months; if, as this indicates, preferences about the contest have begun to calcify, Biden must transform the shape of the race now, from a judgment of voters about him, to a referendum on Trump.

Thursday night’s affair, to begin at 5 p.m. PDT with the debate beginning at 6 p.m., will be hosted by CNN and expected to be aired widely on other cable and network stations, may be his last, best chance to flip the script.

Montesquieu vs. Mussolini: The oldest person ever to run, Biden is a gaffe-prone octogenarian who shows signs of physical decline, from his shuffling gait to his senescent face.

Regardless of this, or of his stances on specific policies, Biden stands squarely within the historic mainstream of American politics and governance. In crafting the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the Framers molded the work of such Enlightenment political philosophers as John Locke and Charles Montesquieu, developing the values of liberal democracy, such as the rule of law, checks and balances, and the separation of powers, which have governed the country for 250 years.

The 78-year-old Trump presents an unprecedented contrast.

After losing in 2020, Trump fought to overturn the election. The violent attempt by supporters to stop its certification on January 6, 2021, marked the first time in history there was not a peaceful transfer of power in the U.S. Spending the past four years spreading lies about the vote, while being indicted by a Special Counsel for his actions, Trump’s convinced nearly three-fourths of Republicans that Biden was illegitimately elected.

Echoing voices of nationalist authoritarianism around the world, he has stated his desire and intent to govern as a strongman; less well-known is that, in a series of public opinion surveys, majorities of Republicans prefer an authoritarian president, to rule without significant interference from Congress or the courts.

On Thursday night, Trump’s basic message is likely to be: “The world is spinning out of control — I’m strong and Biden is weak.”

Biden’s answer: “I may be old, but he’s a deranged dictator.”

The deciders: The timing of Thursday’s debate is a big change from recent elections, because it landed so early in the campaign calendar.

One thing that hasn’t changed: The election outcome will boil down to a relatively nanoscopic number of voters in a half-dozen states, thanks to the calculus of the Electoral College, which makes presidential contests 51 separate elections, including the District of Columbia, not a national one.

Trump has considerably more pathways to the necessary 270 electoral votes, as experts have shown. In a nation divided in political tribes, results in more than 40 states are all but inevitable, meaning a few now-undecided voters in the rest will decide the future of democracy.

The battlegrounds demarcate into these key categories:

The Blue Wall: For the third straight election, the 45 total electoral votes (EV) in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin will be decisive. Until 2016, Democrats had won all in every election since 1992. Regaining them for Democrats in 2020, Biden is all but certain of reelection if he holds them; if he loses even one, his chances of victory decline significantly.

The Sunbelt: In 2020, Biden surprisingly won Arizona and Georgia, and held on to Nevada, which Clinton also captured in 2016, for a total of 33 EV. Now Trump leads all three significantly, making them second tier priorities for Biden.

The Stretch States: Both campaigns claim they can flip a state long held by the other party — North Carolina (16 EV) in Biden’s case, and Minnesota (10 EV) in Trump’s. While vigorously trying to win, the weaker candidate also wants to force the leading campaign to spend its resources defending home turf.

The Congressional Districts: Nebraska and Maine, unlike other states, award EV by congressional district, not at-large, and the presidency may be decided by voters in one of their individual districts.

The Nuclear Option: If the contest ends in a 269-269 tie, the House of Representatives, as elected in November, picks the president. Each state gets one vote, with the majority party in control; if this happened today, Trump would win, as the GOP controls 26 delegations.

P.S. Take it to the bank that if Trump loses on November 5, he and his supporters will refuse to accept the result, triggering another round of stolen election lies, political rage, and possible violence.

Here is a look at the state of play in toss-up states:

The Midwest

Michigan: 16 electoral votes
Result in 2020: Biden: 50.6 percent; Trump: 47.8 percent
Most recent polling: Trump: 48 percent; Biden: 46.7 percent
Fast take: This is a Biden must-win, and he counts on the political organization of Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who’s much more popular than he, to offset lost support among its large bloc of Arab American voters, outraged at his patronage of Israel in Gaza. Trump’s appeals to Black men are increasingly successful and may damage Biden in Detroit.

Pennsylvania: 19 electoral votes
Result in 2020: Biden: 50 percent; Trump: 48.8 percent
Most recent polls: Trump: 47.8 percent; Biden: 45.5 percent
Fast take: Both candidates appear constantly in the Keystone State, where the president appears to have a big edge in ground game organization. But both Kennedy and Stein are poised to win ballot access here, where the third-party factor may have its biggest impact.

Wisconsin: 10 electoral votes
Result in 2020: Biden: 49.5 percent; Trump: 48.8 percent
Latest polling: Trump: 47.4 percent; Biden: 47.3 percent
Fast take: The Republican National Convention is in Milwaukee, and Trump blundered by trashing it as “a horrible city” in a recent closed-door meeting. This was ground zero for the 2020 fake electors scheme, and he’s vowed to not accept the election results if he loses here, where both Kennedy and Stein will probably make the ballot.

The Sunbelt

Arizona: 11 electoral votes
Result in 2020: Biden: 49.36 percent; Trump: 49.06 percent
Most recent polling: Trump: 48.3 percent; Biden: 43.7 percent
Fast take: Abortion rights will be crucial, as Democrats are likely to qualify a pro-choice ballot initiative after the state Supreme Court upheld an 1864 total ban. But Trump’s promise to use U.S. military troops to control immigration may outweigh the issue: Nearly two-thirds of voters here agree with him.

Georgia: 16 electoral votes
Result in 2020: Biden: 49.5 percent; Trump: 49.2 percent
Most recent polling: Trump: 48.5 percent; Biden: 43.7 percent
Fast take: Trump’s infamous 2020 phone call to GOP state officials, demanding they “find 11,780 votes” to reverse his loss, could aid Biden’s 2024 appeals to protect democracy, although the Atlanta DA’s sprawling case about election interference has stalled. Biden’s win four years ago was a huge surprise, but Black voters are considerably less enthusiastic about him this time.

Nevada: 6 electoral votes
Result in 2020:
Biden: 50.1 percent; Trump: 47.7 percent
Latest polling: Trump: 48.3 percent; Biden: 43.7 percent
Fast take: The Silver State was among those hardest-hit by the pandemic, and amid a slow recovery, many blame Biden for inflation, and high gas and grocery prices — and his stubborn insistence on telling them “Bidenomics” have made things better is counterproductive. A Republican hasn’t won here since 2004, but Trump is making inroads among Latino voters.

The Stretch States

North Carolina: 16 electoral votes
Result in 2020:
Trump: 50 percent; Biden: 48.6 percent
Most recent polling: Trump: 47.8 percent; Biden: 42.5 percent
Fast take: One intriguing reason the Tar Heel state could be competitive is that the Republicans nominated homophobic Holocaust denier Mark Robinson for governor, though Biden is competing here largely to force Trump to spend money that might otherwise go to the Midwest.

Minnesota: 10 electoral votes
Result in 2020:
Biden: 52.4 percent; Trump: 45.3 percent
Most recent polling: Biden: 45.7 percent; Trump: 42.7 percent
Fast take: Minnesota last voted for a Republican in 1972, part of Richard Nixon’s 49-state landslide reelection. If Trump wins here, it signals catastrophic defeat for Biden.

Key Congressional Districts

Nebraska Second Congressional District: 1 electoral vote
Result in 2020:
Biden: 52 percent; Trump: 48 percent
Most recent polling: N/A
Fast take: Trump won four of the Cornhusker State’s five electoral votes in 2020, but Biden captured the so-called “Blue Dot” 2nd District, which includes Omaha, more liberal than the rest of the state. The district could be a literal tipping point, moving Biden from 269 to 270 EV.

Maine: 4 electoral votes
Result in 2020:
Biden: 53 percent; Trump: 44 percent (statewide)
Most recent polling: N/A
Fast take: Trump won one electoral vote by prevailing in the rural 2nd District in 2020, but Biden won statewide, including the 1st District, giving him three EV. Professional prognosticators currently forecast the same result in 2024.

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