Welcome to a special edition of FiveThirtyEight’s Politics Chat. The transcript below has been edited slightly.
Sarah (Sarah Frostenson, Politics Editor): We have been saying for a while that we are in the middle of the presidential election, and it’s true, we are! We only have a little over a month left and people are already busy casting ballots.
Today, however, is the first real opportunity for Americans to face President Trump and Joe Biden in the first of three scheduled presidential debates. Candidates are expected to adhere to six topics:
- The Trump and Biden Records
- The Supreme Court
- The economy
- Race and violence in our cities
- The integrity of the choice
The reality that begins tonight is this: Donald Trump is way behind Joe Biden in the polls, and has been for some time. According to our forecast, he still has a very real Chance of winning, but he’s the underdog.
So let’s start there. Does Biden have more to lose tonight as he’s ahead (and all cycles behind him)? Or no, Sarah, I disagree.
nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, Election Analyst): Yes, Sarah, I think that’s right. We shouldn’t rethink this: as long as everything stays the way it went, that’s good for Biden. However, the debates represent an opportunity to disrupt the status quo.
Now I know we have written in the past that the first debate usually helps the challenger – in this case, Biden.
But I’m not sure if the ingredients for it are there this year.
Sarah: Say more about it. Why not? Because Biden already has such a big head start at the national level?
nrakich: For one thing, there are very few undecided voters this year. Second, I don’t think Trump has a tenure aura around him – he’s pretty unpopular.
Not to mention, both Democrats and Republicans stand firmly behind their candidate this year, leaving party members less room to come home to the grassroots.
I would also like to point out that the first debate in 2016 actually seemed to help Hillary Clinton (who was a member of the incumbent party). Clinton led our national poll average on the day of the first debate with 1.4 points; a week later they were 3.7 points ahead.
So I am not convinced that what the challenger usually benefits is an ironic rule, just a coincidence.
Nate silver (Nate Silver, Editor-in-Chief): I’d like to point out that Clinton wasn’t really the challenger in 2016. There was no incumbent, although she was practically an incumbent.
Sarah: What about a situation where Biden actually loses prestige tonight?
Perry (Perry Bacon Jr., Senior Writer): The idea that Biden has the most to lose because he’s in front seems right to me. I honestly think the worst thing for Biden is when he forgets something like Rick Perry famous for forgotten by federal authorities He suggested eliminating in a debate in the 2012 cycle.
One of the Trump teams greatest arguments is that Biden is too old to be President and somehow mentally straying from it. A big gaffe that doesn’t really deal with politics and is easy for the media to deal with, and that could be repeated in a way that could reach undecided voters, who certainly are not fully following this debate, would help Trump.
Nate silver: Yes. They set expectations pretty low for Biden. On the flip side, when there are verbal gaffes – and these are pretty common in Biden – they prepare people to pay a lot of attention to it.
nrakich: Yes i agree I would also say Trump could help his cause by appearing prepared and shooting off the hip less than usual. Additionally, if he can focus the debate on typical Democratic Republican partisan issues (rather than the coronavirus, which Americans say it abused 56 to 40 percent), it could reverse the mean.
Sarah: Yes, this kind of subdivision into the liabilities of each candidate? Bidens is that he’s not that big a debater, is he? That he’s doing some verbal gawking in support of the idea that the Trump campaign relied on: he’s too old to be president. But doesn’t Trump also have a lot of liabilities? Especially when you consider some of the risks he takes if he doesn’t always play by the book?
Nate silver: What are the chances that Trump appears well prepared? He seems to believe an off-the-cuff style will work for him, but it’s not clear he’s right.
nrakich: Biden had some bad moments in the primary Democratic debates, although obviously they didn’t hurt him that much. I would also like to point out that Biden has a track record of shifting into higher gear when the stakes are higher. For example, his best main debates were those before Nevada and South Carolina when his candidacy was hanging by a thread, and he did very well in the 2008 and 2012 vice presidential debates as well.
In addition, Biden’s worst moments in main debates usually came at the end of a two- or three-hour debate. The fact that today’s debate will only last 90 minutes could be good for him.
Sarah: One thing I found interesting in this article Nathaniel quoted earlier is that it is really the first debate that can shake up the race the most, regardless of who benefits from tonight.
|Average voting lead of the incumbent party|
|year||Post-first debate||End of the campaign||Absolute difference|
Do we think this is still the case?
I ask because we kind of haven’t seen a congress this year with everything going on, have we?
Nate silver: I think it makes sense to expect the first debate to be the most important. It is more of a novelty to see the candidates together on stage for the first time. And expectations are usually better calibrated once the first debate has taken place.
Now I would say that both Biden and Trump have relatively unequal debates. Perhaps the first debate is not as meaningful as normal for the remaining debates.
nrakich: Yes, the convention jumps were minimal, if at all. That’s actually an interesting question: is there a relationship between the size of the convention leap and the size of the debate leap?
I would expect that, for the same reason that we have barely seen any upturn in the Convention this year (high polarization), it would also make it less likely that the debate will take off.
Nate, maybe you studied that?
Nate silver: I mean, you would expect polls to move less in general when the polarization is high. And that’s basically how it was this year. The debate would be no exception. And polls show that fewer voters than in the past say the debates will matter to their vote this year.
nrakich: Yes, Biden’s lead in our national survey average has been between 6.6 and 9.6 points since the beginning of June. It was a remarkably stable race.
Sarah: So let’s move on to the topics – six in all – that range from their respective track records to the integrity of the elections. Tonight is really going to cover a wide range of topics, and personally I’m a little curious to see how much the other two debates overlap (I would imagine quite a bit).
But from the problems Today’s moderator, Chris Wallace, and the Debate Committee have chosen what you think will dominate the evening. Or if you think everyone really has the same amount of time, which one does Biden have the upper hand? And where does Trump have the upper hand?
For reference, the problems are:
- The Trump and Biden Records
- The Supreme Court
- The economy
- Race and violence in our cities
- The integrity of the choice
However, polls also show that voters trust Biden over Trump to select the Supreme Court justices and, of course, Trump’s decision to occupy Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat now rather than waiting for the election to be unpopular. But this segment could be more traditional partisan lines, which is relatively good for Trump.
Nate silver: I would also call Biden a clear benefit to the integrity of the electoral segment, and this is one place where Trump could get into big trouble.
Sarah: Yeah … part of me still can’t believe we wrote this article about what could happen if Trump doesn’t quietly leave office, but 2020: Where … is anything possible?
nrakich: Nate, do you mean if Trump gets caught saying it? I will no longer respect the election results?
Nate silver: Yes. I can’t imagine this being a very popular position, although doubts about the integrity of the elections can also lower voter turnout.
nrakich: Yes, and a debate is a more combative situation in which Biden can really investigate Trump if he makes such a comment again – unlike the White House briefing room, an environment that is pretty tightly controlled by the administration.
Perry: Biden’s vote in support of the Iraq war. The 1994 Crime Act. He sponsored bills to slow school integration. He voted for NAFTA. He did not handle the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings well. Are These Things Important? I have no idea. But sharp questions about that record in front of the vice president seemed to anger him during the Democratic primary and are now a potential flaw. I would expect Chris Wallace and Trump in particular to push him on the idea that he supports too much incarceration of black men.
nrakich: Yes, Perry, there was a lot of that at the Republican National Convention. On the surface it seemed aimed at attracting black voters, but in reality it may have been more about attracting white voters who are concerned that Trump is racist. In the debates, it could perhaps be an attempt to lower black voter turnout.
Sarah: Do you think one possible approach for tonight will be Trump trying to paint Biden too far to the left?
Nate silver: I think the debate is a difficult moment to identify Biden as a big left. He’s an old white guy who seems easy to get along with. It’s better to make this argument in ads where you can’t show Biden yourself and argue that he’s some kind of Trojan horse that often.
Sarah: What about Biden trying to paint Trump?
Much of his campaign was about reclaiming the soul of America, and Americans too Really dissatisfied.
An AP-NORC poll this summer also found that 8 in 10 Americans say the country is going in the wrong direction. This is the highest level since Trump took office.
Perry: I think Biden will lean into the decency / character stuff, but I also think the New York Times is covering it Trump’s tax returns and Trump’s election of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court allows Biden to speak out on politics – namely, that Biden will raise taxes for the super-rich and that Trump is trying to roll back the Affordable Care Act or Roe v. Wade with it to pick up Barrett on the court.
nrakich: Yes, I actually think the debate will be an important indicator of the role the history of tax returns plays. If Biden really does decide to go after Trump, it will reinforce the story. If not, the news cycle shifts to the topic that dominates the debate.
Sarah: OK, knowing who “won” or “lost” a debate is difficult to answer. Clinton, for example, received a lot of positive press coverage about how she acted in the debates in 2016, and Trump … won the election. What if you do something tonight to update your priorities?
Nate silver: I think Clinton won the 2016 debates. She rose in the polls after the debates. But debates can be temporary.
But yes, how much do the tax returns stick? What about the electoral integrity segment? Does Biden do some big verbal gaffs or does it seem “out of it”? It’s all a bit obvious, but it’s the things that will interest me the most.
nrakich: I agree. Just going to remind myself not to overreact to how the polls change after tonight. Mitt Romney also won the first debate in 2012 remember? But this momentum (our favorite word!) Also evaporated.
Perry: With so much of the voters already clear who they are going to support, I think the most important thing to look out for is, “What will move undecided voters?” I define that as people who are either soft Biden or Trump supporters support a third party candidate, or are undecided. And these people are likely not to enter into a debate, but rather see which two to three moments are repeated on Facebook, shared on social media, etc.
So I think political disputes are unlikely to be big fodder. The most memorable part of the debates four years ago was the last one when Trump got too close to Clinton physically – and it happened after the Access Hollywood tape came out.
Is anyone doing something in the debate that will be a crucial moment before the VP debate on October 7th?
nrakich: Yeah, to be honest, I remember Ken Bone more than anything Trump or Clinton did in those debates.
Perry: People’s views of Trump are so clearly defined that even among undecided voters I suspect. It will take something big to move this.