The 2020 Presidential Debates: Can They Swing the Election?

Image courtesy of National Review

By Megan Leibfreid 

With a country more polarized and divided than ever, many Americans are asking the question, will the 2020 presidential debates even matter? The quick answer is yes; these debates will still matter. Besides the crucial roles these debates play in strategy and fundraising for both candidates, the debate stage will still play an integral role in swaying voters this election cycle. Picking up these swing voters will be key to winning this election, especially for Biden. While much of the American electorate is decided at this point in the election cycle, winning the 2020 presidential election is still reliant on garnering strong support in key swing states. This series of debates can mean the difference between winning and losing certain states, and in turn, the election.

Countless analysts have dubbed this election a referendum on Donald Trump’s presidency. A “referendum election” results in the challenger, Joe Biden in this case, not so much advocating for  their own platform, but for the fact that they are different from the incumbent, Trump. While this pattern is extremely evident in the 2020 election, this same pattern can also be seen in the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan. The parallels between the 1980 presidential election and the 2020 election cycle can show us just how important these upcoming debates will truly be. Before the first debate of the 1980 presidential election, 51% of Americans believed that these debates would not play a role in deciding how they would vote. However, in this same poll, a plurality of voters said they would be voting for Jimmy Carter on Election Day, plans that obviously did not come to fruition. 

Ronald Reagan’s debate performances were vital to his victory in 1980. While a majority of the electorate did not have a favorable opinion of Jimmy Carter, the voters also did not know enough about Reagan to put their trust in him before the debates. The favorability ratings of Carter versus Reagan are incredibly similar to Trump, the incumbent, and Biden, the challenger. That being said, Biden’s performance during the debates will directly affect his performance on election day.

It’s no secret that the United States’ population is more divided than ever before. Every election cycle, fewer voters identify as swing voters. While the amount of undecided voters has drastically shrunk through the years, the populations of key swing states, like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan, still have large portions of swing voters. These three battleground states proved themselves to be indispensable in 2016 to success in any future presidential campaign. In Wisconsin, more than 10% of likely voters have not committed to either Trump or Biden. Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette poll, stated that “Many independents — over 20 percent — say they don’t know enough about Joe Biden yet”. This sentiment of “not knowing enough” about Biden parallels directly to the electorate’s feelings toward Reagan before the first 1980 presidential debates, with 32% of the electorate not knowing enough about Reagan or being undecided. If Biden is able to persuade these undecided voters, like Reagan did in 1980, he will be able to win back the ever-important swing states that Hillary Clinton lost in 2016, making his journey to 270 much more feasible. 

Biden’s unique position in this unprecedented race during a global pandemic allows him to campaign on what he isn’t rather than what he brings to the race. Biden can walk away from the debates successfully if he can convince the undecided American electorate that he is not Trump, not too old, and not too radical. Reagan faced similar apprehensions from voters leading up to the debates of the 1980 election; he had the crucial task of easing the public’s worries about his age. During his steady and powerful debate performances, Reagan calmed the public and won over their support, and eventually the election. Biden must do the same on the debate stage to ensure his chances of winning this election cycle.

The 2020 presidential election will be one of the most consequential elections in our lifetime with the current pandemic, racial inequalities, and recession all coming to a head at once. The 2020 presidential debates will give the American public the chance to hear from candidates in an election that has very limited person to person contact and campaigning. In a more partisan and divided United States, it seems at first glance that the series of presidential debates will not leave much of an impact on the race. However, due to the nature of the referendum election, key swing state polling, and the nature of Biden’s candidacy, the debates this election cycle may matter more than they ever have before. If Biden can connect to swing voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, like Reagan connected to the American electorate in 1980, the 2020 presidential race may be decided on the debate stage.

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