Undecided voters are the prize for both Biden and Trump in Thursday presidential debate

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by Jacob Fischler, Georgia Recorder [This article first appeared in the Georgia Recorder, republished with permission]

June 25, 2024

President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump will get a crucial opportunity to reach undecided voters and set the terms for the 2024 presidential campaign at Thursday night’s debate in Atlanta.

Partisans on either side have already made up their minds about which candidate they’ll support. And with this year’s race serving as a rematch of 2020, many Americans have already formed strong and possibly unchangeable opinions about the candidates.

Yet there is a sizable group of voters who haven’t decided who they’ll support in November, Christopher Stout, a professor of political science at Oregon State University, said in an interview with States Newsroom.

“On one hand, opinions about Joe Biden and Donald Trump are baked in,” Stout said. “On the other hand, there’s a lot of people who aren’t paying any attention to politics and this is their first time thinking about the 2024 election.”

For Biden, a major objective will be to show voters the 81-year-old incumbent can be energetic and forceful, Stout and political strategists said.

Trump, 78, may focus on appealing to voters in the ideological middle and wavering Republicans who want a conservative candidate but are turned off by the former president’s antics.

On policy, each candidate has issues they will capitalize on as strengths. Trump will probably press Biden on immigration and inflation, while Biden undoubtedly will be eager to criticize Trump on reproductive rights.

The debate, sponsored by CNN, will be moderated by the network’s Jake Tapper and Dana Bash and begin at 9 p.m. Eastern, with no studio audience. It is set to last for 90 minutes and will air live on CNN with simulcast available for other cable and broadcast networks.

Each candidate’s microphone will be muted while the other is speaking. No props are allowed but each man will be given a pen, pad and bottle of water, CNN said.

Can Trump be boring?

Trump could gain ground with moderate and independent voters by appearing steady.

After winning the presidency in 2016, Trump lost to Biden in 2020 amid a sense that Republican-leaning voters were weary of his unorthodox style and tendency to create scandal.

“If he’s boring and he looks like a typical politician, that’s going to be a big plus for him,” Stout said. “If he looks like a typical politician and he seems more moderate, then there’s the opportunity to bring back a set of voters who were once Republican who have now left the party.”

At the same time, there’s likely not too much down side for Trump if he does go off-script, as voters have come to expect outlandish comments and behavior, Republican strategist Doug Heye said.

“Donald Trump is gonna say something crazy,” Heye said. “That is all factored in and that’s not changing anybody’s mind.”

Heye cited recent remarks Trump has made about shark attacks, electrocution from oversized batteries and taking his shirt off to reveal psychic wounds inflicted by political opponents.

In a move reminiscent of his reality-show past, Trump has teased a possible announcement of his vice presidential pick at the debate.

But even if voters expect some degree of eccentricity from Trump, that will not help him win over the undecided voters who will decide the election, said Rodell Mollineau, a co-founder and partner at the Washington-based strategy firm ROKK Solutions and a veteran of Democratic campaigns.

“If you’re actually trying to reach voters, I’m not sure how Trump ranting and raving, talking about delusional conspiracy theories, helps him win independent voters,” Mollineau said.

Trump will face an additional unique challenge if he tries to look like a traditional presidential candidate: his 34 felony convictions in New York last month and the three other felony prosecutions against him pending, including two related to his efforts to overturn his loss in the 2020 election that led to the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.

“I’m watching to see how he talks about or doesn’t talk about his many court dalliances and the conviction and whatever else he has hanging over his head,” Mollineau said.

Can Biden be forceful?

Biden faces different questions he must answer.

Voters have doubts about the incumbent’s ability, due in part to his age, inclination for misspeaking and a concerted effort by Republicans and GOP-aligned media to portray Biden as past his prime.

“I think Biden in part is going to be trying to overcome the image that Trump and Republicans in general have been very successful in creating,” University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock said.  “They’ve been working on this now for at least five years, and that is the image of Biden being too old, being not up to it physically or mentally to continue to serve as president for another four years.”

Biden countered that narrative — at least temporarily — with an exuberant performance at the State of the Union address this year, several observers said.

Matching that energy will help him have a positive debate, they said.

But Heye noted that despite rave reviews from Democrats, the president’s State of the Union performance did not improve his standing in polls.

“The reaction from Democrats was: game changer,” Heye said. “And if we look at the polling, the game didn’t change at all.”

Biden would also benefit by reminding voters of his policy record, and contrasting it with Trump’s, Stout and Mollineau said.

“It will advantage him if he can talk about policy,” Stout said. “People don’t know the things he has done and so there’s hope maybe to inform people and sway the electorate.”

Biden should target left-leaning voters by reminding them of his achievements on climate and the environment and his administration’s efforts to create jobs, Stout said.

Mollineau added that Biden must remind voters of Trump’s tumultuous time in office and Biden’s achievements thus far, while balancing that message with an acknowledgment that many Americans are unsatisfied.

An early debate

The debate, which will be broadcast from CNN’s Georgia headquarters, comes much earlier in the election cycle than usual, even before the party conventions that typically symbolize the start of the general election.

The candidates agreed to the unusual schedule after rejecting a proposal from the Commission on Presidential Debates, a nonpartisan organization that has organized the events for decades, typically with three meetings between presidential candidates and one between would-be vice presidents.

All debates are usually in the fall.

This year’s June schedule could give the candidates a chance to frame the race moving forward, as many voters will be tuning in to the contest for the first time.

But the nearly 19 weeks remaining until Election Day could also mean a candidate with a weak performance has time to recover, or that a strong performance could diminish.

“I do not believe anyone is going to either win or lose the election this week,” Mollineau said.

Bullock, the Georgia professor, differed.

Because of the unpopularity of both candidates, and the sense that voters will be choosing the one they view as “the least of two evils,” either could provide a voter’s “final straw,” he said.

“They may hear something coming out of the mouths of one of these and say, ‘Yeah, that’s it,’” Bullock said. “‘That’s the final straw. I can’t support that one. It helps me make up my mind to go with the other person.’”

Ross Williams contributed to this report.

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