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Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Trump could have had two more debates to try to alter the race. Now he has just one.

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President Trump meets with reporters during a meeting with Republican National Committee Chairman Ronna McDaniel at the White House on Monday. | Evan Vucci/AP Photo Elections Trump could have had two more debates to try to alter the race. Now he has just one.

After watching him perform on Monday night, it’s clear: President Trump gave another outstanding performance.

But the presidential debates of the 2016 election were fought in a very different context. At one point, Trump’s campaign-trail statements seemed risible; now, every flash of the temper that had characterized his earlier persona has been expunged, and the mocking tone that had been a staple of the campaign news cycle has also been retired.

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In stark contrast to his first debate against Hillary Clinton, which set a new record for lowest ratings in presidential history and haunted Trump’s run for eight days thereafter, Trump was at his aggressive best on Monday night, proposing 11 indictments and launching 59 nuclear missiles against North Korea. And yet, in a campaign that has largely demonstrated the he has tremendous strength — and great confidence — in his ability to convince voters, Trump’s debate performance was not enough to change the trajectory of the race, not by a long shot.

Trump, whose approval rating has reached a new low, 42 percent, is still projected to win next Tuesday with several hundred thousand fewer votes than his rival. And in what is traditionally a high-turnout election year, turnout could shift some votes in Trump’s favor.

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In the immediate aftermath of the debate, the “basket of deplorables” again hovered over the campaign like a sword.

Throughout the year, Trump’s aggressive rhetoric has alienated legions of voters, but at some point, there’s a fundamental calculus to this election — and this was it. It’s rare for a president to campaign in a year of historically low voter turnout, at the height of a national party campaign and campaigning with a national candidate. So was Trump’s rally in Charlotte, North Carolina on Monday, or his Monday speech in Edmond, Oklahoma? Maybe one of them, but the other — or more likely all of them — did little to change public opinion or motivate voters.

In such a base-oriented election, staying within 40,000 votes in a state like North Carolina would be an embarrassment. And losing Nevada and Florida would be a disaster for his campaign.

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