Trump and Biden’s first presidential debate in 2020: what to expect

The first presidential debate between Joe Biden and President Trump is likely to be the most watched political event in U.S. history, and Tuesday’s huge potential audience is just one factor that raised the stakes for both candidates.

For Trump, stuck for months on a losing trajectory, the debate is one of the few remaining opportunities to change the way Americans view the election and to reach voters beyond his deeply engaged core of supporters.

For Biden, who has maintained a large, but not unbeatable, lead nationally and in crucial swing states, the meeting offers a chance to strengthen his position with a key slice of the electorate – voters who have turned around. against the president but remain unconvinced of his challenger.

With this opportunity, however, comes the risk for the former vice president, who, in debates in the primary elections, at times seemed to lack energy or focus.

Debates are often overrated as a turning point in campaigns, said Mike Murphy, the veteran Republican strategist and avid Trump critic who co-directs USC’s Center for the Political Future. Research by political scientists shows that despite all the attention they receive, general election debates rarely have an impact that lasts longer than about a week.

“This debate is a little different,” Murphy said, in part because Trump and his campaign worked hard to raise doubts in the minds of voters about Biden’s mental health and physical endurance.

“For Biden to break through and show he’s sharp and on top of that, it’s an opportunity but also a risk,” Murphy said. “If Biden has a bad debate, Trump has a whole month to exploit it.”

Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg agrees. “The Republicans have been very effective” in spreading the idea that Biden is physically or mentally disabled, she said. “You hear a lot about it” in voter focus groups.

Since most swing voters don’t pay much attention to political news, the debate “will likely be the first opportunity for a lot of voters to see Biden and see that he’s not weakened,” a- she declared. ” This is the main. “

Indeed, many Republicans fear that Trump, with his frequent references to Biden as “asleep” or “beside himself,” has “lowered the bar” too much of what voters may expect from the Democratic challenger, the Democratic challenger said. Republican strategist Alex Conant, a former senior aide to Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.

“It’s definitely a risk they are running.”

A potential parallel could be the 1980 election between President Carter and his Republican opponent, Ronald Reagan. The two held only one debate, on October 28, just a week before the election. Carter entered the debate with a narrow lead. But when voters saw Reagan on stage, he didn’t appear to be the frightening war hawk Democrats had warned about. During the final days of the campaign, which included other events that damaged Carter, Reagan’s position steadily increased and he won by a wide margin.

Biden has been involved in dozens of debates in three presidential nominations as well as vice-presidential debates in 2008 and 2012. He scored high marks for the 2012 game against the then-representative. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), The GOP candidate. In 2008, his skill in primary debates impressed his then-rival Sen. Barack Obama, and that’s one of the reasons Obama chose him as his running mate.

“He was strong, smart and a lot more disciplined than I expected,” Obama told Councilor David Axelrod when they first discussed Biden as a potential running mate, according to Axelrod’s memoir. , “Believer: My Forty Years in Politics”.

Biden has participated in 14 debates this elementary cycle even though he dropped out of the race right after the Iowa caucuses in January 2008. His most memorable debate line stung a Republican, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani: “He only mentions three things in one sentence: A noun and a verb and 9/11. I mean, there is nothing else.

His 2012 clash with Ryan came at a crucial time: Obama had done wrong in his first debate with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, and Democrats absolutely needed Biden to do well to compensate.

He did it: With an aggressive and straightforward performance, Biden demeaned the Tory lawmaker who was decades younger than him. Republicans called Biden’s smirk and condescension disrespectful, but Democrats were invigorated.

“We needed him to deliver an incredible performance against Paul Ryan,” said Dan Pfeiffer, an Obama adviser at the time. “Biden did well. It was a huge boost to our campaign.

In this election cycle, Biden’s main debates were uneven. At first – the debates which attracted the most general public – he often seemed hesitant. Supporters say it reflected rust after seven years off the debate stage and note that this spring, when he found himself a one-on-one with Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, he did much better.

Trump, on the other hand, did not fare particularly well in debates four years ago. The most memorable image of the encounters – her walking behind Hillary Clinton on stage as she spoke – drew cheers from her fans, who saw the move as bold, and protests from her supporters, who treated her of stalker. The split reaction illustrates how most viewers filter a debate through their own preconceptions.

The fact that Trump won the election gave the impression in retrospect that he must have beaten Clinton in the debates. But polls at the time generally showed he was losing ground after the matches, and then rising as the debates faded from the news.

That year, more than 84 million people watched their first debate, according to Nielsen ratings. This set a record. With the focus on this year’s election at an all-time high, the audience could be larger. The audience in that range could approach two-thirds of the number of people expected to vote.

In today’s fractured media world, no other moment in a campaign attracts such a mass audience. In particular, the debates attract the attention not only of die-hard supporters, but also of less engaged voters.

These swing voters will form a prime audience for the two candidates on Tuesday.

Polls show that the vast majority of voters have firmly decided which candidate they support. For them, a debate can serve as a motivational exercise.

But a small group of voters remain undecided. Some back and forth between Trump and Biden. A slightly larger group is “swinging between voting and their couch,” said Ashley Kirzinger, associate director of survey research at the Kaiser Family Foundation, which examined uncertain voters in key states.

A recent poll by Kaiser and the Cook Political Report by voters in three Sun Belt battlefields States – Arizona, Florida, North Carolina – found that three-quarters of voters had made their decision definitively. They were almost evenly split between the two parties. One in 10 said they were undecided, while an additional 3% said they would likely vote for a candidate but still have a chance to change their mind.

These less uncertain voters were younger than average, not particularly partisan and, at least in the three Sun Belt states, much more likely to be Latino, Kirzinger said.

In all three states, a majority of them had a negative view of Trump and a positive view of Biden.

Two-thirds of swing voters see Trump as “unpredictable” – a quality they see as bad, Kirzinger said. They prefer Biden’s leadership style and his stance on issues such as healthcare and coronavirus management.

But they remain uncertain in part because “nearly half say they think Biden is too old to be president,” she said, and only 4 in 10 see him as a “strong leader.”

Strategists from both parties have said Trump’s goal in appealing to these unengaged voters should be to push the election from a referendum on him – a contest he is unlikely to win – to one. more direct focus on Biden’s flaws.

This is a difficult task for any president, as re-election campaigns usually focus on the incumbent president. It’s even more difficult for Trump, who hates to give up attention to someone else.

Biden’s challenge is different: to stay focused on Trump while generating more enthusiasm for himself, which could increase participation on his side.

The same polls that show Biden with a persistent lead also show that a large chunk of his voters say they are more motivated to vote against Trump than for Biden.

These polls also show that despite Biden’s decades in public life, many voters – especially young Americans, members of immigrant communities, and less partisan voters who don’t pay much attention to politics – still don’t know not much of it.

“Biden is not that well defined” in the minds of many voters, Murphy said. It might be hard to believe, he said, for people who are immersed in politics, but for many people “he’s just an old senator.”

In Florida, where anti-Trump groups have done extensive research, the lack of information about who Biden is and what he represents is a problem for many voters and young Latinos, he said.

“He has 40 days to complete this image,” Murphy said.

The debate is a key element. Uncertain voters are “not consumers of political information, and reaching them is really difficult,” Kirzinger said. “They may not watch the debate, but they will certainly hear the narrative that comes out of it. “

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