The State: of the Debates

News / The State September 29, 2020

Through a series of articles we call The State, the American Farm Bureau Federation’s Advocacy and Political Affairs team is providing analysis related to "the state of" various aspects of the 2020 campaign season, including the race for the White House and key elections around the country.

It’s 35 days until Election Day and with the first presidential debate today, we are in the home stretch of the 2020 election. For the next four weeks, Americans will watch one debate per week, with Donald Trump and Joe Biden going head-to-head three times, and Mike Pence and Kamala Harris meeting just once.  The debates offer opportunities and risk for both candidates.  Will the voters see the debates as reassurance or discouragement in their candidate of choice?

With that in mind, let’s preview this stage of the campaign.

Expectations could not be higher for any of the candidates heading into debate night. For President Trump, his focus is likely to be on turning the conversation away from himself and toward Biden. Four years ago, then-candidate Trump ran as the non-politician outsider, which helped him prevail against a longtime politician with low approval numbers. This time, however, Donald Trump is the incumbent with a record on which he will be questioned. Currently, the president has an aggregate disapproval of 52%, versus 43% of Americans who approve of his job as the nation’s chief executive. On the question of the coronavirus pandemic, which has now claimed the lives of over 200,000 Americans, the president has a 56% disapproval to 40% approval rating; among those disapproving –  66% of independents.

This is not a position of strength for any incumbent office holder walking into a debate, and if President Trump wants to claim victory after going three rounds with Joe Biden, he will need to make voters see the election as a “choice” about the economy and not a “referendum” on the handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Former Vice President Joe Biden’s strategy will be the exact opposite – keep the focus entirely on the president. Biden will likely have to answer questions about his own record as vice president and his current policy positions, but he could fall back on a narrative of success during the Obama-Biden years and redirect to the president’s handling of the pandemic and civil unrest. Biden will likely be looking to focus his own responses on winning back the voters who went for Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016, with many answers geared toward blue collar workers and the middle class. For Biden to claim victory from the debates, he will need to be seen as successfully keeping the conversation focused on Trump’s four years in office and establishing the idea that another four years will not benefit swing voters.

The lone debate between Vice President Pence and Sen. Harris will largely be the same. Expectations are high for Kamala Harris to display her skills as a litigator in prosecuting the case against another four years of a Trump-Pence administration. The vice president will be expected to defend his boss while arguing that Biden and Harris are not the answer to the country’s ills.

The next four weeks will also be aimed at a very narrow segment of voters who are still undecided. A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey found that 90% of respondents had firmly made up their minds about their vote and could not be swayed. There is no guarantee though that those remaining 10% of voters will rely on the debates to make their decision. The same poll found that only 29% of respondents said the debates will either be “extremely” or “quite” important in making their decision. This is a historically low number. Data from Pew Research shows that going back to the 1988 election, on average, nearly 60% of voters found the debates   to be “very” or “somewhat” helpful in making their decision. In 2016, 63% of voters found the debates helpful.

By the time the final debate concludes on Oct. 22, all mail-in ballots will have been sent to voters and there will be less than two weeks until day-of voters head to the polls.

With such a small number of voters looking to learn anything from the debates, and fewer who are undecided, the mission of both campaigns is clear for the next four weeks: use each debate as the final chance to overcome the remaining hurdles to victory.

Biden will focus on extending his lead and pulling as far ahead of Trump as possible before Election Day, while Trump, will try to cut into Biden’s lead and make it a fight to the finish.

Michael Sistak is AFBF’s director of grassroots program development.

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