Skip to content

The debate: Preseason is over

Four things to watch for on Thursday night

No one knows which version of Donald Trump will show up Thursday night, Winston writes, but voters may see a more disciplined, focused candidate relying on policy points rather than personal attacks. Above, Trump and Joe Biden debate on 
Sept. 29, 2020.
No one knows which version of Donald Trump will show up Thursday night, Winston writes, but voters may see a more disciplined, focused candidate relying on policy points rather than personal attacks. Above, Trump and Joe Biden debate on Sept. 29, 2020. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

This is likely going to be the most important presidential debate any of us will ever see. There are plenty of unknowns at this point a day out, but for me, the biggest question is whether the debate revolves around the personal attributes of the candidates or the key issues the electorate is most concerned about. 

Every voter has their own way of judging a presidential debate. There will be plenty of polls in the days after to tell us the impact. But my approach is to assess the lead-up, the debate and the fallout through the lens of four key elements.

The state of play

At this point, the race is dead even at the national level, which means the Electoral College is very much in play — not good for President Joe Biden. With seven target states likely to tip the election and former President Donald Trump leading in four, if that were to hold up, Biden would have to win Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin to win reelection.

In Michigan and Wisconsin, neither candidate has been able to break out, with the current margins being below 1 percent. Pennsylvania polls disagree on the average margin — ranging from +0.7 for Trump (538) to +2.8 for Trump (RCP). Given these tight margins, the outcome of the debate could have a major impact on the trajectory of the race.

Much like the ballot test, when it comes to voters’ negative views of Biden or Trump, not much has changed either. The majority of voters have an unfavorable opinion of each candidate. In the most recent Winning the Issues survey (June 14–16), 22 percent of the total electorate and 38 percent of independents had an unfavorable view of both. 

So, expect more volatile polling ahead as these undecided and unhappy voters struggle to choose between two candidates they don’t like.

The candidates

For Biden, at least the initial most important dynamic in the debate is going to be his age. There is no dodging this. Recently, voters have seen a variety of unflattering Biden videos, challenged by the White House as either out of context or edited to make the president look bad and not reflective of his actual mental capacity.

The debate will provide a clearer picture of Biden’s mental acuity and capabilities. The Biden team is hoping for a “State of the Union” energetic performance from their candidate, but even Democrats are admitting publicly that this will be a high-risk moment for the president.

More to the point, a presidential debate is quite different from a State of the Union, which is a highly controlled event. While Biden did respond to some outbursts from Republicans during the speech, the debate format is far more demanding. Responding clearly and succinctly to 90 minutes of questioning and engaging Trump is what Biden must deliver to overcome the majority of voters’ negative view of his job performance as president.

For Trump, the question is which version shows up. Is it the Trump from the first debate against Biden in 2020 that made Al Gore’s performance against George W. Bush in 2000 look almost reasonable? Or will voters see a more disciplined, focused candidate relying on policy points rather than personal attacks?

The big question is whether Trump can make the No. 1 issue — inflation — the No. 1 issue in the debate. And can he do it without exaggeration and hyperbole?

Trump will also face the issue of his recent conviction, with the label of “convicted felon” likely raised in the debate. It will be a critical moment, and it’s imperative that Trump not take the bait. 

To date, we have not seen a discernible impact post-trial. In the Winning the Issues April survey, Trump’s favorable-unfavorable in April was 39-58. In the June survey, it was 41-57, a very slight improvement but within the margin of error.

In the same June survey, we also asked how important a variety of news stories and issues were to the electorate and included within that list the “Trump trials and conviction” as well as the “Hunter Biden trial and conviction.” Independents put the Trump conviction as 10th on the list and the Hunter Biden conviction at the bottom, 12th.

The top issue

Barring the unexpected, this election will be about the economy. In the recent Winning the Issues poll, voters’ top issue in deciding on a candidate was inflation, at 21 percent. Second was the economy at 17 percent, with immigration third at 14 percent. No other issue was in the double digits. Almost all national surveys are finding similar results.

The YouGov/Economist survey (June 16–18) also asked voters to cite their most important issue. Inflation/prices led the list at 25 percent, and immigration was second at 11 percent, with jobs/economy and health care tied for third at 10 percent. No other issue was above 10 percent.

A CBS News poll (June 17–21) asked voters how big a factor specific issues were in their presidential vote decision. Topping the list was the economy at 82 percent. Second was inflation at 75 percent. Third was the state of democracy at 71 percent, although it’s important to note that over 60 percent of both Democrats and Republicans cited concern for democracy as a key issue.

Fourth was crime, at 60 percent. There were no other issues above 60 percent.

The moderators and the format

Given that the economy/inflation is the top issue, the questions asked by the moderators will hopefully reflect voters’ key issues proportionally. This has not always been the case, as frequently moderators have allowed their preferences to supersede the electorate’s concerns.

When it comes to the format, I believe that having no audience will be a positive change. The purpose of a debate is to allow the viewer to listen to the candidates’ statements and positions to help them make an informed decision. The audience in the hall is generally nothing more than a distraction.

Finally, the debate occurring before either party has officially nominated their respective candidate is unprecedented, and both candidates have a lot riding on their performance. With 11 weeks between the debates, if one side or the other stumbles, the conventions are the next significant opportunity for the candidates to reset whatever perceptions viewers are left with — and it could be a record-setting number who tune in to this debate.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, as well as serving as an election analyst for CBS News.

Recent Stories

These Democrats have called on Biden to quit the race

Gaffe track — Congressional Hits and Misses

Trump’s presidential office hours were the shortest since FDR, Biden’s not far behind him

Biden admits other Democrats could beat Trump, but sends potential rivals a message

Photos of the week ending July 12, 2024

At high-stakes news conference, Biden calls Harris ‘Vice President Trump’