Trump-Biden debate: The tough challenge of appealing to moderate voters while making no concessions

The Republican will strike at the Democrat’s record on immigration and inflation, while the president will counterattack with issues such as abortion and the threat to democracy

Joe Biden and Donald Trump on stage at their previous debate, in October 2020.
Joe Biden and Donald Trump on stage at their previous debate, in October 2020.Pool (Getty Images)
Miguel Jiménez

Donald Trump and Joe Biden have not set foot in the same room since their debate in October 2020 during that year’s presidential campaign. Trump did not even have the courtesy of receiving his successor in the White House, but instead left office without admitting defeat — and with mountains of classified documents, although that is another story. The antagonism between the two has continued to grow in the last four years. On Thursday, Biden and Trump will face off in person at the CNN studios in Atlanta (Georgia), in the first of the two presidential debates scheduled for this campaign. Both Biden and Trump need to win over moderate and independent voters, but attracting them in a dog-eat-dog confrontation as each side tries to attack the other will be no easy task.

The debate will take place as a suffocating heat wave grips Atlanta. And it’s not the only event of interest that day in the city. The U.S. soccer team will face Panama in a Copa América match. Shortly after that game, Biden will take on Trump in the presidential debate. While presidential elections typically spark excitement, polls indicate that U.S. voters do not like either of the two candidates, who are set to repeat the 2020 showdown.

There is a certain consensus that Trump’s aggressiveness in the 2020 debates was counterproductive. During a rally last weekend in Philadelphia, Trump asked his supporters how to behave toward Biden: “How should I handle him? Should it be tough and nasty? Or should I be nice and calm and let him speak?” Of course, his supporters called for blood — an approach more in line with Trump’s nature. However, the mere question shows that the former president is aware that showing his toughest side is perhaps not the most productive strategy. After all, he does not need to win over the people who already support him, but rather show that he can be reasonable and sensible, so that moderate and independent voters do not turn their backs on him.

The rules of the debate — which will be held without an audience and with the microphone muted except for the candidate whose turn it is to speak — in principle seem to favor Biden, since Trump is more comfortable making constant interruptions. However, they may end up benefiting Trump by making him appear contained in a way that he would have struggled to achieve on his own. “Could be the most boring debate or it could be quite exciting. Who knows?” Trump said in relation to the rules.

A very low bar

The Trump campaign, on the other hand, has realized that it had set such a low bar for Biden (going so far as to say that he would not be able to stand for 90 minutes or that he would not be able to string two sentences together) that the president only needs to get the lectern without stumbling to exceed expectations, as one Republican strategist joked. For this reason, Trump has also tried to correct part of that messaging.

Trump will undoubtedly try to capitalize on what U.S. voters see as their two biggest problems: inflation and immigration. The former president will foreseeably show his most extremist side on the issue of immigration, with his radical and xenophobic messages and promises of mass deportations.

Biden’s strategy to win the vote of moderates involves, first, showing that despite his 81 years of age, he is only three years older than Trump, and that he is prepared to govern the world’s leading power for four more years. His physical fitness and mental acuity have been called into question and if Biden is to have any chance of being re-elected, he needs to clearing up those doubts. But that alone will not be enough.

Democrats are putting a lot of focus on stirring fear of what a second Trump term could mean for the country. They continue to present Trump as an extremist, as a risk to democracy itself, as a convicted felon seeking revenge who wants to win the White House for his own benefit. Trump is the first convicted felon to participate in a presidential debate. The debate is also happening in the part of Atlanta that belongs to Fulton County, where he is accused of trying to steal the 2020 elections and where his famous mug shot was taken — an image the Trump campaign has later used as a propaganda weapon.

On Wednesday, the Biden campaign received support from a new ally. Former Republican congressman Adam Kinzinger endorsed Biden with a very harsh message against his former leader. “This is about, does democracy survive the way we love it, or does it not?,” he said. “I lived though January 6 [the day of the assault on the Capitol]. I didn’t watch it on television. I was there, and I have a two-and-a-half-year-old kid that I do not want raised in a country where things like that are okay to happen. So for me, it’s just we’ve got to put decency above maybe political differences, and it’s just the right thing to do.” He added: “This is truly the most important election of my lifetime.”

The other issue that Democrats like to use to mobilize voters is abortion rights. Biden will try to take advantage of Trump’s contradictions, who in this matter is guided more by winning votes than by principles. The former president has preferred not to get involved and refers the matter to the states.

The vice presidential candidate

On Wednesday, the hustle and bustle of street closures, traffic detours, credential collection and other paraphernalia associated with the debate, which begins at 9 p.m. Eastern U.S. time, had already begun in Atlanta. The city is not only welcoming the president and former president, but also an entire entourage of notable figures who are joining them. Trump said that one of the people attending the debate will be his running mate. Senators Marco Rubio and J. D. Vance are expected in the city — Vance said that he would be disappointed if he were not chosen — as is the governor of North Dakota, Doug Burgum. But many other contenders will also be at the debate, looking at each other sideways as they show their obeisance to Trump.

The Turner Entertainment Networks headquarters, embedded on the campus of the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech), is already decked out with presidential debate posters. CNN has set up the university team’s pavilion, with capacity for 8,600 people, as a large complementary set from which to follow the debate and to act as an improvised press room for the hundreds of accredited journalists.

The debate, however, will be held in a studio in another building, without an audience, which CNN says is ready. The news channel boasts of being the first television to exclusively organize a presidential debate and has put its logo everywhere, on the floor, on the lecterns, on the screens in the background... There are large, small and medium-sized logos. On a black platform stand two blue and white lecterns that are closer to each other than in the 2020 debates. The decoration has the air and corporate colors of CNN programs.

The network hopes that the broadcast will be the most watched program in its history, counting on the simultaneous retransmission of its signal through the other major channels. Nobody expects, however, that it will beat the 2016 record, when 84 million viewers tuned in to follow the first debate between Hillary Clinton and Trump.

A poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that nearly six in 10 American adults say they are “extremely” or “very” likely to watch, read or listen to commentary about the debate. Many think the stakes are high for both Biden and Trump. A majority of Democrats, 55%, think the debate is extremely or very important to the success of Biden’s campaign. About half of Republicans, 51%, say the same for Trump. The poll shows that the Democratic president and the Republican candidate remain widely unpopular.

Biden probably has the most at stake. According to polls, if the elections were held now, Trump would be elected president. The vast majority of polls show Trump leading in most of the swing states, which are expected to tilt the result one way or the other. The most important swing states are Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, Nevada and Georgia, where the debate is taking place.

However, Biden’s chances have started to improve. Overall voting intentions are very tight, and while most polling aggregators — including pundits from outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post and specialists like RealClearPolitics, Race to the White House and Decision Desk HQ — still put the Republican ahead, one of the most prestigious — FiveThirtyEight — gives Biden a 0.1 point lead. That would not be enough to win the Electoral College, but it is the first time he has been ahead in the popular vote since FiveThirtyEight began its series nearly four months ago.

Both Biden and Trump are optimistic. Both have scheduled rallies the day after the debate in states where their rival is the favorite, but the difference is not insurmountable. Biden will go to North Carolina and Trump will go to Virginia, where he will be joined by the governor, Glenn Youngkin, the latest name to be floated as a possible Republican candidate for vice president. Let’s see if he shows up in Atlanta.

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