The Presidential Debates hold a special place in the hearts of the American people. The stage has offered powerful moments that have gone on to shape and reshape the electorate’s perspectives on a candidate. Ford’s Soviet domination gaffe, Reagan’s age question, and Nixon vs. Kennedy’s historic encounter stand out as just some of the many moments that made lasting impressions with the public. Historically, the debates have offered an opportunity for candidates to win over the public or lose them entirely. However, in these immensely unique times it appears we have entered a new era, one where partisanship reigns supreme, and decisions are made long before voters enter the voting booth. With recent top rated polls showing a ten percent lead in favor of Biden and a mere three percent of voters undecided, many analysts have expressed the belief that America has become too partisan for debates to be significant. While there is evidence to support that debates no longer hold a decisive role in the election, we need not look any further than 2016 to see that this is not necessarily the case. In fact, the electoral outcome could in large part hinge on the outcome of the debates.
In 2016 America witnessed an abnormally low voter turnout as a proportion of the population. This proved consequential for Clinton, who won the popular vote but lost the decisive electoral college vote due to low Democratic turnouts in states that were key in 2008 and 2012. While Clinton’s loss was certainly unexpected and proved a great shock to the public and the press alike, one can observe a fascinating shift regarding supporters leaning toward a candidate in the polls as a possible red flag for this.
In early August polling showed a Clinton lead of four percent over Trump, with 20 percent of support being lean and 21 percent being strong supporters. This compared relatively well to Trump’s 19 percent strong support and 18 percent lean. These polls were pre-debate and offered insight into initial reactions toward the candidates, but we see an interesting shift in lean demographics as we move past the debates. While both candidates gained four points in strong support, Clinton relied on a much higher percentage of lean support. We also know that a large portion of voters who decided last minute swung to Trump. That being said, a clear inefficiency can be seen in the hyper partisanship hypothesis: lean supporters are fickle and must be handled with care.
While there is historical evidence to support the idea that the debates have little influence on how candidates poll, they offers a unique opportunity to influence the strength of support which one has. Clinton was not able to capitalize on this opportunity, which can be at least in part responsible for her electoral loss. With less than 100,000 votes being the deciding factor in 2016, and a low turnout year for Democrats, her inability to win over hesitant voters could very well have had a significant effect on the results. This is not to discount other factors, such as the late arrival of the investigation surrounding her emails or her past scandal with the Benghazi attack, which clearly had a significant impact upon the public’s opinions of her. However, if Clinton had addressed these points of contention better in the debates, it is possible that she could have won over the voters needed to take the key states that swung to Trump.
This leads us to the matter at hand: the quickly approaching 2020 Presidential Debates. While recent polls show a ten point lead for Joe Biden heading into the debates, Biden sits at a 21 point deficit in supporter strength, with 89 percent of Trump supporters voicing strong support and Biden at a much more slender 68 percent. This means the election could very much still be in play, but the ball is most certainly in Biden’s court.
In an election cycle with little in-person campaigning, the debates offer Biden his greatest, and possibly only, opportunity to shake off the apprehensions and fears that those lean supporters have regarding his fitness to lead and his policy plans. This will be crucial for Biden to unite what could be a large coalition consisting of everything from liberal Democrats to Anti-Trump Republicans. On the other side of the coin, Trump has the tall task of having to bolster apprehensions amongst Biden’s more hesitant supporters while also improving his own support, which must expand for him to truly make this race competitive. While there may be other means for each to push their respective strategies, the debate stage is clearly the most direct, most cost effective, and most spectacular.
The uniquely focused spectacle of the 2020 Debate stage offers both gentlemen a historic opportunity, one which may be difficult to come by again in these unusual and uncertain times. With few remaining chances to control the narrative, this golden opportunity seems almost destined to provide us with the moment that will define this race in the minds of voters and, potentially, non-voters alike.