In this special post-debate edition, we answer the question of whether it's 2016 or not. This is The Trailer.

Five years before their final presidential debate, almost to the day, Donald Trump revealed what he thought about a race against Joe Biden. The Democrat announced Oct. 21, 2015, that it was too late for him to enter a Democratic primary and win it, and Trump delivered a backhanded compliment via tweet.

“I think Joe Biden made correct decision for him and his family,” Trump wrote. “Personally, I would rather run against Hillary because her record is so bad.”

Thursday's debate, and the nine months of campaigning that preceded it, suggest that Trump was telling the truth. He invited a man accusing Biden of scandalous behavior to Nashville, stirring memories of one of the stunts he pulled against Hillary Clinton; onstage, Trump struggled to explain what the scandal was. He baited Biden into a discussion of his energy plan and how it would transition the country off fossil fuels. But he didn't get the kind of gaffe that helped him in 2016, when Clinton said flat-out that she'd “put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” 

The evening went better for both men than the shout-fest last month in Cleveland, but it emphasized why Trump has struggled to make a clear case for reelection and failed to negatively define Biden. In the space of five minutes, Trump attacked Biden for taking “money from Wall Street,” then warned that “the stock market will crash” if Biden won the election. Biden took no risks, bringing the conversation back to Trump whenever possible, emphasizing his most popular ideas, and twice admitting that he'd made mistakes — something he knew Trump wouldn't do.

“It took too long to get it right,” Biden said of immigration policy during his eight years as vice president, quickly pivoting to how he'd give citizenship to undocumented immigrants brought to America as children. “Over 20,000 of them are first responders out there taking care of people during this crisis. We owe them.”

Post-debate snap polls found most voters happier with Biden than Trump; post-debate spin focused more on Biden's promise to “transition” toward clean energy and away from fossil fuels, something that Republicans have spent millions of dollars messaging against already. But what else mattered in the final chance either candidate had to do something new in front of a massive audience?

The end of “law and order.” Trump's scattershot general election messaging has been the story of his campaign, epitomized by the disappearance of an issue he'd talked about all summer: civil unrest. In last month's debate, Trump used the phrase “law and order” seven times, repeatedly demanding that Biden utter the words and then falsely insisting that he didn't. Last night, Trump didn't mention it once, reintroducing himself as the greatest president for Black Americans since Abraham Lincoln, and the “least racist” person in Belmont University's auditorium.

“He did such harm to the Black community, and they were called, he called them super-predators,” Trump said of Biden. “And he said that, he said it, super-predators. And they never lived that down: 1994, your crime bill, the super-predators.”

Clinton had used that phrase, not Biden, which muted the effect of the line. One problem for Trump was how much time he'd wasted, pre-debate, in characterizing Biden both as an anti-cop radical supported by rioters and a callous politician who had been too tough on crime in the 1990s. The bigger problem was credibility: Most Black voters believe that the president holds racist views, and Biden was ready with examples of Trump's vintage racial paranoia.

“He talked about marauding gangs, young gangs, and the people who are going to maraud our cities,” Biden said. “This is a guy who with the Central Park Five, five innocent Black kids, he continued to push for making sure that they got the death penalty. None of them were guilty of the crimes that were suggested.”

Trump pushes Biden into a left-wing brier patch. For the second (and final) time, Biden offered a confusing rundown of his health-care plan; for the last time, he rebutted the president's insistence that he'd be run by the far left by invoking his primary wins.

“The reason why I had such a fight with 20 candidates for the nomination was I support private insurance,” Biden said. The disjointed health-care rounds of the debate were problematic for Trump; three years after he failed to replace the Affordable Care Act with his party in control of Congress, he suggested that they could pull it off next year if they got control of Congress again. 

It was striking just how little Trump talked about any traditionally conservative accomplishments, at all. The Supreme Court went unmentioned, apart from health care, the issue Democrats preferred to focus on. Pressed on his immigration policies, Trump suggested that undocumented immigrants who showed up for court hearings must be stupid but spent just a few seconds discussing his goal of a U.S.-Mexico border wall. He spent far more time accusing Biden of being part of an oppressive immigration system and made a detour into self-pity, reminiscing about a photo that had been mislabeled as showing a Trump-era detention center, when it showed one from the Obama era.

The goal was twofold: to damage Biden with Latino voters, who are not supporting him in the numbers they supported Clinton, and to create static between Biden and the Democrats' left wing. Trump has continued to try this even though there's no evidence of the bitterness and distrust that cleaved some left-wing voters away from Clinton. And Biden got a chance to talk about a left-wing priority that flummoxed Clinton, even though it polled well in 2016 and has supermajority support in 2020: a $15 minimum wage.

“There is no evidence that when you raise the minimum wage, businesses go out of business,” Biden said. “That is simply not true.

Biden stumbled over words and facts, and Trump rarely took advantage. Trump's quest to turn Biden into Hillary Clinton has butted into a basic problem, again and again: Neither he nor the conservative media messaging machine have done much to portray Biden as untrustworthy. Incredibly, a candidate whose first campaign for president foundered over plagiarism, who has told tall tales about everything from his civil rights advocacy to the car crash that killed his first wife and daughter, has been rebranded as a truth-telling, avuncular elder statesman

A lot of that has to do with his opponent, who’s a fount of misinformation and in a bad position to fact-check anyone. The exchange about Hunter Biden showcased how much Trump wants something in the final days that radically inverts public opinion of Biden. The Democrat showed his hand, bringing up Rudolph W. Giuliani's role in trying to find dirt on the Biden family before Trump even mentioned it. Conservatives saw it as a blunder, but Biden knew what he was doing, poisoning the well before the president could draw from it.

“He's being used as a Russian pawn,” Biden said of Giuliani. “He's being fed information that is Russian, that is not true. And then what happens? Nothing happens. And then you find out that everything is going on here about Russia is wanting to make sure that I do not get elected the next president of the United States.” There’s evidence Russian operatives were trying to get misinformation to Giuliani last year, and the origin of Hunter Biden's alleged laptop is so perplexing that Biden bet on voters simply being confused.  

That led Trump down one of the most confusing sections of the debate, with far more time than he wanted spent on his own business interests overseas and his refusal to release tax returns. Trump actually confirmed reporting from the New York Times that other outlets had struggled to match, saying he did create an account in China and paid taxes there. “I was thinking about doing a deal in China, like millions of other people,” he explained. On his domestic tax returns, Trump argued that he got “treated worse than the tea party got treated,” a reference to a controversy forgotten everywhere outside the right — the IRS's reluctance to grant tax exemption to start-up political organizations.

He let a lot more slide. It's not true, as Biden said, that his surviving son never did business in China, but Trump didn't pursue that. Nor did Trump do much with the untrue statement that people hadn't lost private insurance plans in the Obama years unless they wanted to; Trump didn't coherently defend the skimpy short-term plans that Obamacare had made illegal and that he'd resurrected. Biden made verbal slips, referring to “mandatory minimums” as “minimum mandatories,” referring to Proud Boys as “poor boys.” But for whatever reason, Trump had abandoned the effort, pushed in paid messaging for much of the year, that Biden was so diminished that he couldn't serve as president.

Biden, meanwhile, tried to bank on voters' goodwill. Trump's struggle to turn him into another Hillary Clinton, a figure undecided voters considered dishonest and likely to be engulfed by scandal, manifested itself when Biden turned to the camera and suggested that people already knew who they trusted.

“You know who I am. You know who he is,” Biden said. “You know his character, you know my character, you know our reputations for honor and telling the truth. I am anxious to have this race. I’m anxious to see this take place. The character of the country is on the ballot. Our character’s on the ballot. Look at us closely.”

Clinton simply couldn't have pulled that off. Trump wouldn't have worried about it working. As Trump himself said five years ago, he didn’t want to run against Biden. And this is a major reason why.

Reading list

The mute button and all the rest of it.

Inside one of October's big cash surprises.

How a gruesome conspiracy theory made the jump from 4chan.

The ongoing Democratic quest to turn 2012 Obama voters away from Trump.

Poll watch

Presidential election in Pennsylvania (Morning Call, 416 likely voters)

Joe Biden: 51% (+2) 
Donald Trump: 44% (-1)

In a strange coincidence, Pennsylvania has been polled more than any other swing state this week, and Pennsylvania was the state Trump's team focused on after the debate, insisting that Biden's energy position would wreck him there. That's not too different than what Republicans said about the Obama administration's coal regulations in 2012, or its opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, and this poll suggests a 2012-size lead for Biden, with a different coalition — fracking country is pro-Trump, but suburban voters and northeast Pennsylvania voters are leaning toward Biden. (See a geographic breakdown of the state's politics here.) The pollster's final 2016 surveys overestimated the number of college-educated White voters and found Clinton leading, but far below 50 percent.

Presidential election in Virginia (Washington Post/Schar School, 908 likely voters)

Joe Biden: 52%
Donald Trump: 41%

Virginia's rapid transition from red state to swing state to a Democratic lock has taken it off the map; the only Trump campaign rally there in 2020 was aimed at rural North Carolina voters in southeast Virginia's media market. Biden's lead this year compounds the gains Democrats have made in Northern Virginia and also finds him doing better than recent Democratic candidates in southwest Virginia — losing it, but by a smaller margin than Hillary Clinton. That suggests some trouble for Republicans down the ballot, where they're trying to hold the Charlottesville-based 5th Congressional District and win back the 2nd and 7th districts; the generic ballot lead for all Democrats is eight points, up from one point four years ago.

Candidate tracker

And they're off, sort of! Donald Trump and Joe Biden return to in-person campaigning today, with the president and the Democratic nominee on the trail through the weekend. 

Trump will hold rallies in the Villages and Pensacola, Fla., on Friday; in Circleville, Ohio, and Waukesha, Wis., on Saturday; and in Manchester, N.H., on Sunday. In between, on Saturday, he'll head to Robeson County, N.C., for remarks “on fighting for the forgotten men and women" — the location has a big Native American population and swung away from Democrats in 2016.

Biden will deliver new remarks on the pandemic in Wilmington, Del., today, then head north toward Pennsylvania, to Bucks County and Luzerne County. Mike Pence will campaign in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida, while Kamala D. Harris will head to Michigan. (The California senator isn't free of Senate duties until Monday, after the vote on the Supreme Court nomination.)

Countdown

… 11 days until the general election 
… 43 days until runoffs in Louisiana
… 52 days until the electoral college votes
… 74 days until runoffs in Georgia
… 89 days until the inauguration