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Wednesday, July 10, 2024 | Back issues
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Could a Biden-Trump debate swing voters?

Most Americans have already picked a side and/or are dissatisfied with both Biden and Trump. Still, experts say the debate could be a prime opportunity to reach the few remaining swing voters who could decide the election.

ATLANTA (CN) — CNN on June 27 will host the first 2024 debate between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, casting a spotlight on an election without parallel in modern history.

Voters are both highly polarized and deeply familiar with the candidates. Many already have strong and well-formed opinions about them. And yet political scientists say the televised debate could still provide an opportunity to sway the few remaining undecided and swing voters.

Among top issues for swing voters in this very weird election are the economy, foreign policy and the candidates’ ages and criminal records. Both Biden and Trump are underwater with voters and facing a serious third-party challenge for the first time in decades.

Dissatisfaction transcends party lines, as about one in three voters say they’re more motivated by opposition to the other candidate rather than support for their preferred one. Some voters "are undecided because they are disenfranchised with the vitriol of our polarized political system," said Freddie Jennings, a communication professor at the University of Arkansas.

Swing voters in this election are an especially politically disengaged group, younger and more diverse than the average likely voter and less enthusiastic about the 2024 election.

They prioritize the economy and particularly inflation over other issues. That suggests it could be beneficial for Biden to prioritize economic policy.

"Voters are becoming increasingly alienated by the idea that the Dow Jones represents how the economy is doing when material conditions aren’t improving, people are buried under medical and student loan debt and cost of living continues to outpace wages," said Michelle Funk, an assistant teaching professor in communication at Penn State University.

"A productive strategy would be to give voters some reassurance on our economic future,” Funk added — “especially Gen Z and Millennial Democrats, who aren’t as convinced by the ‘vote blue no matter who’ rhetoric."

Swing voters reject ideological and partisan labels and are more likely to describe themselves as moderates. However, some take clear left or right ideological positions on economic or social issues, according to data from the progressive group Data For Progress.

"Biden currently walks a tightrope on foreign policy — perceived as a weapons peddler and warhawk by the left, and at the same time seen as weak on threats toward U.S. allies by the right," Funk said.

Another of Biden’s challenges this year will be to dispel concerns about his competency as the oldest American President. 

These concerns have prompted calls to replace him as the Democratic nominee. Biden will turn 82 shortly after the 2024 elections — though Trump is just three years younger than him. On that front, the debates could give voters a critical opportunity to assess both candidates.

Then, there’s the issue of the 34 felonies for which Trump was convicted last month. For the first time in American history, a presidential candidate will have to answer questions about not only his status as a felon but his slew of other legal troubles.

To engage with voters outside his own existing fan base, political scientists say Trump will need to persuade undecided voters to overlook all this.

"A lot of these voters — especially those who voted for him in 2016 but then switched to Biden — are concerned about his rhetoric around the election being stolen,” said Regina Wagner, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama. “I think his hurdle there is to address that in a way that assures these voters he will accept the election results.”

With many voters dissatisfied with both major candidates, a third-party candidate is polling at nearly 10% — representing the most serious third-party presidential challenge in decades. Even still, independent candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. will likely not qualify for the June debate due to CNN's qualification rules.

But the CNN debate will be notable for other reasons: It’s the first in 40 years not organized by the Bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates. Both campaigns have expressed concerns about the commission, with Trump blaming it for microphone issues during a debate in 2016 and Biden wanting earlier debates. A debate between the two candidates in 2020 — in which Trump interrupted Biden several times and Biden called Trump a "clown” — also drew public ire.

CNN said the debate will be held in the network’s Atlanta studios without an audience — an anomaly for modern presidential debates. This could prove more beneficial to Biden than Trump, as Trump thrives with an audience, said Patrick Stewart, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas.

Stewart added that camera angles could play an important role in how viewers perceive the candidates and media interpretation. Barry Burden, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and founding director of the school’s Elections Research Center, agrees that perceptions of the debate could be key to who ultimately wins.

"The aftermath of the debate could be consequential if media interpretations of the event strongly favor one candidate or a moment from the debate goes viral," he said. Such viral moments “could affect perceptions such as the seriousness of Trump's legal troubles and Biden's fitness to serve."

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Categories / Elections, Politics

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