Tuesday night’s presidential debate is expected to set an audience record, breaking the 2016 mark of 84 million viewers, as President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden meet in person for the first time since Trump’s January 2017 inauguration.
History suggests the clash could make a difference because the White House race is tight in critical swing states, and there are certain keys to a debate victory for each candidate, according to Mitchell McKinney, a presidential-debates expert who leads the University of Missouri’s Political Communication Institute.
“For Biden to win, he’s got to exceed this low bar of expectations that he can’t stand there for 90 minutes and string two sentences together,” McKinney told MarketWatch. “But he also has to demonstrate for anxious, nervous Democrats, and also for an anxious, nervous perhaps even wider swath of the citizenry, that he can aggressively meet Donald Trump and push back.”
He noted that Trump’s critics view him as a “this bully, this tyrant, and the president himself sort of relishes this bully image,” so there’s a risk that Biden “will just fade on the stage.”
Biden faces relatively low expectations ahead of the debate thanks in part to Trump, who has attacked his opponent as not all there, McKinney said. That differs from the typical strategy of trying to set high expectations for your opponent, and Trump’s re-election campaign manager, Bill Stepien, has aimed to do exactly that, telling reporters earlier this month that Biden is “not formidable anywhere else, but he is formidable on the debate stage.”
For Trump, a win in the debate would involve making a “strong case” that he deserves four more years in office, rather than just arguing that a Biden administration would be a disaster, according to the Mizzou debates expert.
The president also could end up being viewed as the victor if Biden only matches or performs below expectations, McKinney said — if the former two-term vice president, who spent 3½ decades in the U.S. Senate, “stumbles, he fumbles,” and faced with the “overwhelming aggression of Donald Trump, he fades in comparison.”
Pundits will focus on who “was most coherent, had fewer issues with the fact checkers, and had the most memorable one-liners,” said Melissa K. Miller, a professor of political science at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.
“Who can forget Ronald Reagan saying ‘There you go again’ to Jimmy Carter? Or Lloyd Bentsen telling Dan Quayle ‘You’re no Jack Kennedy’? ” she told MarketWatch in an email. “These zingers tend to be what gets remembered, though there’s no evidence they actually changed anyone’s mind.”
Other analysts are also questioning the potential impact of the debate, which is slated to take place at 9 p.m. Eastern time on Tuesday in Cleveland, with Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Clinic serving as hosts.
“The debate will likely break ratings records,” but a recent Wall Street Journal column’s view that the clash will have the 2020 campaign’s most important 30 minutes is “an over-exaggeration, to say the least,” said Ben Koltun, a senior research analyst at Beacon Policy Advisors, in a note. “In a year (four years, really) characterized by many remarkable 30-minute intervals, the matchup between Trump and Biden has remained remarkably steady.”
Biden’s polling lead over Trump in top swing states has not ranged that much for the past six months, staying between about 2 percentage points and 6 points, according to a RealClearPolitics moving average of polls.
But Mizzou’s McKinney said his analysis of past debates suggests that Tuesday’s face-off and other debates next month could in fact be influential in determining the outcome of the Nov. 3 election.
“We found that in the range of 90% to 95% of debate watchers are unchanged. They come to the debate with their minds made up, committed to one of the candidates,” he said. However, there is a small slice of the audience, usually 2% to 3% but sometimes as much as 4% or 5%, that is affected, McKinney added.
“These are the folks that typically haven’t been following the campaign very closely,” he said, but they end up being part of a viewing audience that can exceed 80 million, as debates have a “strong reach.”
“That’s where I point to the debates as potentially consequential,” the professor said. “They can move the needle for 2% or 3% of the viewers, and we’ve got races in these states that are just neck-and-neck, virtually tied. They really can have an effect.”
Biden’s polling advantage in the swing states of North Carolina and Florida is just around 1%, according to the RealClearPolitics averages of polls. His lead across six battleground states viewed as likely to decide the election is 3.5% overall, with that figure taking into account surveys in those two states plus Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Trump and his campaign have said pollsters are getting the 2020 race wrong.
The latest jobs report has suggested an economic recovery from the coronavirus recession is still plowing ahead even if the pace of growth has slowed since the start of the summer. The release showed the U.S. regained 1.4 million jobs last month as the unemployment rate fell to 8.4%.
Beyond the polls, Trump often touts the performance of the stock market DJIA, +1.26%. The S&P 500 SPX, +1.52% has been selling off this month, but the equity gauge is still positive for the year and notched an all-time high on Sept. 2.
A campaign’s financial reports are another closely watched measure of viability, and Biden's $466 million in cash on hand at the start of this month exceeded Trump’s cash on hand by $141 million.
Trump and Biden are scheduled to debate two more times after Cleveland, meeting Oct. 15 in Miami and Oct. 22 in Nashville, Tenn.