America’s tightening presidential race

As a University of Tennessee football fan in the 2000s, “prevent defense” became feared terminology in my house. We ripped John Chavis (then the defensive coordinator at UT) for his Mustang package (which was just another way of saying dime defense, where an extra defensive back is added on the field).

Chavis was a fine defensive coordinator for three stops in the SEC — Tennessee, LSU and, to a much lesser extent, Texas A&M — before his career petered out at Arkansas, but for Vols fans in the early 2000s, the Mustang package become synonymous with soft coverage and prevent defense.

There was more than anecdotal evidence to back up fans’ fear of Tennessee’s penchant for jumping into a prevent defense a little bit too soon, but none of the losses hurt worse than Georgia in 2001. Travis Stephens had ripped off a big touchdown run after a short-yardage pass from quarterback Casey Clausen late in the fourth quarter, and the Vols appeared to have snatched victory from Mark Richt’s Bulldogs. But Georgia marched swiftly back down the field against Tennessee’s soft coverage, scoring with just seconds remaining in what became known as The Hobnail Boot game (courtesy of the late Larry Munson, the UGA broadcaster who gleefully yelled that Georgia had stomped on Tennessee’s face with a hobnail boot).

Although there are plenty of times when it makes plenty of sense to use a prevent defense in football, there’s another phrase that can be used when teams ease up on the aggression too soon: playing not to lose.

Right now, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden is playing not to lose. And one can’t help wondering if President Donald Trump is about to perform his own hobnail boot trick.

Credit for the prevent defense analogy goes to Michael McKenna, who wrote for The Washington Times today that Biden is losing momentum by playing prevent defense.

He’s right. If you follow the poll averages at Real Clear Politics — and I do, religiously — you’ve noticed that the race between Biden and Trump is narrowing. Once up by more than 8 percentage points, Biden is now up by just 6.4 points in the RCP poll average.

That’s still a modest lead, but it can no longer be called a comfortable lead. And, perhaps shockingly, given everything that has happened in recent months, Trump is trailing Biden by less at this moment than he trailed Hillary Clinton at this same moment in 2016 (Clinton was up 7.3 points at this point).

There’s more. In an average of polls from the top battleground states, Biden’s lead has dipped to just 5 points. Again, it’s still a modest lead. But it’s now only 0.7 points ahead of where Clinton was at this point in 2016 — and we know how that turned out.

To be sure, Trump’s path to victory remains narrow and winding. Biden should be a considerable favorite, and he is (58.9-39 are the latest betting odds). But there’s another old football analogy, too: If you let an underdog hang around until the fourth quarter, anything can happen.

We aren’t in the fourth quarter yet, but we’re late in the third, and Donald Trump is still very much hanging around, easily within striking distance.

Here’s why this is important: A growing number of Democrats are calling for Biden to avoid debating Trump in the run-up to the November election. I have long predicted that there would be no debates this year, and as long as Biden was comfortably ahead of Trump in the polls, that strategy made perfect sense. Why give Trump an advantage to exploit what might be your biggest weakness? It would be akin to sending a safety blitz when you’re up a couple of touchdowns late in the game. You risk giving up a big play that can let your opponent back in it.

As the polls tighten, though, not debating Trump becomes an unfeasible strategy, even as calls for it are gaining momentum.

In January, Tennessee battled back from down 22-9 late in the fourth quarter of the TaxSlayer Bowl against Indiana in Jacksonville. The Vols scored, recovered an onside kick, and scored again to take a 23-22 lead. With less than a minute and no time outs remaining, the Hoosiers needed to move the length of the field to at least get into field goal range if they were going to have a chance to win the game. With Tennessee in its prevent defense (to avoid a big strike where a receiver slips past the coverage), Indiana needed just two big plays to move to the Vols’ side of the 50-yard-line with still plenty of time remaining. At that point, Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt had two options: switch to a more aggressive defense, or let Indiana continue chipping away at the field and win the game. Prevent defense was no longer a viable option. Pruitt, a defensive specialist, switched his defense, sent pressure, and forced Indiana into four consecutive incomplete passes. Game over.

Joe Biden is in a position where — unless Trump fumbles or throws an interception — he’s probably going to have to come out of his prevent defense. Which means we’re probably going to have presidential debates in the weeks ahead. (For the record, Biden has agreed to a three-appearance debate schedule, while Trump is the one holding out. But Trump won’t continue to hold out; to do so would be the closest thing to campaign suicide at this point.)

A necessity for the debates is certainly not a bad thing. No matter what your politics are, we can surely agree that America needs to hear from its presidential candidates. There was a time, long ago, when we voted for presidential candidates without hearing their message. In the era of mass communications, it’s unfathomable that we would head to the polls to vote without each candidate being put to the test and facing scrutiny under a bright spotlight. We have a reasonable idea of what Biden’s platform is, but so far he hasn’t faced much scrutiny. Furthermore, he hasn’t handled the little scrutiny he has been under very well (remember this and this?), and he’s refused to subject himself to an interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace, which would provide a healthy dose of scrutiny. (Despite being a Fox News reporter, Wallace is the toughest and perhaps the fairest journalist in TV news today, and he absolutely ripped up Trump a few weeks ago.)

A debate between Biden and Trump will absolutely be entertaining. It’s likely to make voters of all persuasions cringe a few times, because there will certainly be some off-the-rails moments for either candidate. But at the end of the day, Trump’s preference for speaking without a filter and Biden’s penchant for gaffes is what will make the debates must-watch TV.

In the meantime, for all that talk about how the election was going to be a blow-out … well, that’s just not going to happen. And it probably never was, if we’re being realistic; America’s political ideologies are chiseled in stone. Sure, there are a few Never-Trumpers who traditionally vote Republican but will not pull the lever for Trump unless it’s a cold day in hell — just as there are a few Rust Belt Democrats who traditionally vote blue who supported Trump in 2016 and likely will again in 2020. But, for the most part, America’s elections are decided by a relatively small number of moderate and independent voters.

If we’re talking odds, there’s still a better chance for a Biden blowout win than for a Trump blowout win, certainly. If everything fell the right way, Biden could wind up with more than 350 electoral votes — maybe even closer to 400 if tight polls in Texas and Georgia are to be believed. But, barring an October surprise of monumental proportions, that’s not likely to happen. And given everything we know about Trump at this point, all of the punches that his opponents have landed, and the coronavirus and economic setbacks we’ve endured in 2020, an October surprise seems incredibly unlikely.

In other words: We have a real race, after all.

Ben Garrett is a journalist from East Tennessee. He is publisher of the Independent Herald, a weekly newspaper serving the Big South Fork region of the Cumberland Plateau, with a sideline in website development and digital marketing. He is also an erstwhile blogger.

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