Today could be the make or break day for Donald Trump's re-election bid.
The US President has consistently polled behind his opponent, former Vice-President Joe Biden, and, with 34 days to go, time is running out.
The Republican and Democrat meet today in Ohio in the first of three presidential debates - which have extra significance this year with campaigning reduced because of the pandemic.
The first debate, especially, is the chance for candidates to get their messages across to millions of voters. The equivalent face-off in 2016 between Trump and Hillary Clinton drew 84 million viewers.
Watch the debate live at nzherald.co.nz from 2pm.
Revelations about the President's taxes have hoisted the stakes for Trump and Biden in Cleveland.
Handing Biden fresh ammo, the New York Times reported that Trump paid only US$750 in federal income taxes in both 2016 and 2017. It added: "He had paid no income taxes at all in 10 of the previous 15 years — largely because he reported losing much more money than he made."
So, after reading the Times article, which makes it sound like Trump is on the edge of financial ruin, and Dan Alexander's piece for Forbes about how he's probably not, it seems like the situation boils down to this: (1/4)https://t.co/UNUHBBIvCp— Jordan Weissmann (@JHWeissmann) September 28, 2020
The President described it as "totally fake news" but the suggested narrative of Trump as a failed businessman would undercut his cultivated image as a wealth creator. He has had a polling advantage over Biden on the economy.
Forbes, in a follow-up report, said that Trump is worth US$2.5 billion. It says "he figured out how to share very little of his fortune with the country he now leads".
Income tax payments are an aspect of Trump's life that voters can compare themselves to. Trump's core base is all in for him, but the election is a scrap for any persuadable independents, and polls show few voters are still undecided.
Clinton raised the issue of Trump's taxes in the 2016 debates and he replied that it showed he was smart. Could the new details have more impact now after years of Trump as president and in difficult economic times?
Perspective: Trump is either a tax fraud or the world’s worst businessman https://t.co/gCySh8rp4J— The Washington Post (@washingtonpost) September 28, 2020
The tax story chimes with a narrative Biden has been pushing of Trump as an offspring of privilege whereas the Democrat knows about hard times and hard work.
The New York Times revelations range from the concerning - Trump would have to pay back millions to lenders during a second term, raising questions of conflicts of interest and leverage - to the absurd - US$70,000 spent on hairstyling became a tax write-off.
At this stage of the election, every negative news cycle is a wasted day for Trump when he has to gain votes. It keeps him on defence and not focusing on what he needs to.
This keeps happening, from revelations in books to the rush in Congress to appoint a new Supreme Court justice before the election rather than putting through stalled economic aid for millions of unemployed.
NEW: In our latest poll with Politico, 60% of registered voters said President Trump should commit to a peaceful transfer of power now, before the election, compared with 25% who said he should avoid making that commitment before Election Day on Nov. 3. https://t.co/aMCQUoeh2i pic.twitter.com/DfRbaskZFI— Morning Consult (@MorningConsult) September 28, 2020
Polling has been stable all year with Biden currently leading by a national average of 7 per cent. His favourability ratings on RealClearPolitics.com have grown since May. Out of 172 national polls on RCP in the past nine months, Trump has been in front in just two. There have also been three ties. Biden is polling well in several swing states - between 47 and 51 per cent.
In the debates Biden needs to hold steady while Trump has to knock him off his stride. Biden cannot be distracted from making his case on jobs, the recovery, healthcare and crime. He has to present facts, points, and illustrating stories in an interesting way.
Trump's strength is making simple, broad points that have impact. He will try to convince viewers the worst of the pandemic is over and a vaccine will soon add a full stop. He is sure to try to dominate and provoke Biden and assert that he is weak.
The gloves will be off for the first presidential rumble.