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Will The First Presidential Debate Shake Up The Race?

Welcome to a special edition of FiveThirtyEight’s politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

sarah (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): We’ve been saying for a while now that we’re in the thick of the presidential election, and it’s true, we are! We’ve just a little over a month now to go, and people are already busy casting ballots.

Today, though, marks Americans’ first real opportunity to see President Trump and Joe Biden go head-to-head in the first of three scheduled presidential debates. The candidates are expected to stick to six topics:

  • The Trump and Biden Records
  • The Supreme Court
  • COVID-19
  • The Economy
  • Race and Violence in Our Cities
  • The Integrity of the Election

The reality going into tonight is this: Donald Trump is fairly far behind Joe Biden in the polls, and has been for a while now. According to our forecast, he still has a very real chance of winning, but he is the underdog.

So let’s start there. Given that Biden is ahead (and has been all cycle), does he have more to lose tonight? Or no, Sarah, I disagree.

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): Yeah, Sarah, I think that’s right. We shouldn’t overthink this: As long as everything stays the way it’s been going, that’s good for Biden. The debates, though, represent a chance for the status quo to be disrupted.

Now, I know that we’ve written in the past that the first debate typically helps the challenger — in this case, Biden.

But I’m not sure the ingredients are there for that this year.

sarah: Say more about that. Why not? Because Biden already has such a sizable lead nationally?

nrakich: For one thing, there are very few undecided voters this year. For another, I don’t think Trump has some aura of incumbency around him — he’s pretty unpopular.

Not to mention, both Democrats and Republicans are solidly behind their candidate this year, so there’s less room for party members to “come home” to the base.

I’ll also point out that the first debate in 2016 actually seemed to help Hillary Clinton (who was a member of the incumbent party). Clinton led in our national polling average by 1.4 points on the day of the first debate; a week later, her lead was up to 3.7 points.

So I’m not convinced that the “the challenger usually benefits” thing is an ironclad rule so much as it is just happenstance.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): I might point out that Clinton wasn’t actually the challenger in 2016. There was no incumbent, although she was sort of a quasi-incumbent.

sarah: What does a situation in which Biden actually loses some standing tonight look like, you think?

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): The idea that Biden has the most to lose because he is ahead seems correct to me. I honestly think the worse thing for Biden is if he forgets something like when Rick Perry famously forgot about the federal agencies he was proposing to eliminate in a debate in the 2012 cycle.

One of the Trump team’s biggest arguments is that Biden is too old to be president, and kind of out of it mentally. So a major gaffe that is not really about policy and is easy for the media to cover that could be replayed in a way that might reach undecided voters, who are surely not watching this debate in full, would help Trump.

natesilver: Yeah. They’re setting expectations pretty low for Biden. On the other hand, if there are verbal gaffes — and those are fairly common from Biden — they’re priming folks to give it a lot of attention.

nrakich: Yeah, I agree with all that. I’d also say that Trump could help his cause by appearing prepared and shooting from the hip less than he usually does. Beyond that, if he can center the debate on typical Democratic-Republican partisan issues (rather than, say, the coronavirus, which Americans say 56 percent to 40 percent that he has mishandled), that might cause some reversion to the mean.

sarah: Yeah, this kind of segues into what are the respective candidates’ liabilities? Biden’s is that he’s not that great of a debater, right? That he makes some verbal gaffes, which support this idea that the Trump campaign has leaned into: He’s too old to be president. But doesn’t Trump have a lot of liabilities, too? Especially when you consider some of the risks he takes by not always playing by the book?

natesilver: What are the odds that Trump seems well prepared? He seems to think an off-the-cuff style works for him, but it’s not clear that he’s right.

nrakich: Biden had a few poor moments in the Democratic primary debates, although they obviously didn’t hurt him that much. I’d also point out that Biden kinda has a track record of shifting into a higher gear when the stakes are higher. For instance, his best primary debates were the ones 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, too.

In addition, Biden’s worst moments in the primary debates tended to happen at the end of a two- or three-hour debate. The fact then that tonight’s debate will last only 90 minutes could be good for him.

sarah: One thing I thought was interesting in that article Nathaniel was citing earlier is that regardless of who benefits from tonight, it really is the first debate that can shake up the race the most.

Polls don’t move that much after the first debate
Incumbent Party Average Polling Lead
Year Post-First Debate End of Campaign Absolute Difference
1976 -3.0 -1.3 1.7
1980 -1.4 -3.8 2.4
1984 +17.0 +17.7 0.7
1988 +5.2 +9.0 3.8
1992 -13.5 -8.2 5.3
1996 +15.1 +12.1 3.0
2000 -1.5 -2.1 0.6
2004 +2.4 +1.0 1.4
2008 -6.0 -7.4 1.4
2012 +0.1 +1.5 1.4
Average 2.2

Sources: National Council On Public Polling, HuffPost Pollster

Do we think that’s still the case?

I ask, as we kind of didn’t see a convention bounce this year with everything going on, right?

natesilver: I think it makes sense to expect the first debate to be the most important one. It’s more of a novelty to see the candidates together on stage for the first time. And expectations tend to be better calibrated once the first debate has taken place.

Now, I would say that both Biden and Trump are relatively uneven debaters, so maybe the first debate won’t be as predictive of the remaining debates as normal.

nrakich: Yeah, the convention bounces were minimal, if they happened at all. That’s actually an interesting question: Is there a correlation between the size of the convention bounce and the size of any debate bounces?

I’d expect that the same reason we barely saw a convention bounce this year (high polarization) also makes it less likely that we’ll see a debate bounce.

Nate, maybe you’ve studied that?

natesilver: I mean, you’d expect polls to move less in general under high polarization. And that’s basically been true so far this year. The debate wouldn’t be an exception to it. And polls show that fewer voters than in the past say that the debates will matter to their vote this year.

nrakich: Yeah, Biden’s lead in our national polling average has been between 6.6 points and 9.6 points since early June. It’s been a remarkably steady race.

sarah: So, let’s shift gear to the topics — six in total — ranging from their respective track records to the integrity of the election. Tonight really will cover a wide range of issues, and I’m personally a little curious to see how much overlap there is with the other two debates (I’d imagine quite a bit).

But of the issues tonight’s moderator Chris Wallace and the debate commission picked, which do you think will dominate the evening? Or if you think each will be given truly equal time, which does Biden have the upper hand on? And which does Trump have the upper hand on?

For reference the issues are:

  • The Trump and Biden Records
  • The Supreme Court
  • COVID-19
  • The Economy
  • Race and Violence in Our Cities
  • The Integrity of the Election

nrakich: Well, Biden should have a clear advantage in the COVID-19 and race and violence in our cities segments. Polls have consistently shown that voters trust Biden more than Trump to handle those issues.

By a smaller margin, though, polls also show that voters trust Biden over Trump to pick Supreme Court justices, and of course Trump’s decision to fill Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat now rather than wait until after the election is unpopular. But that segment may play out more along traditional partisan lines, which relatively speaking is good for Trump.

natesilver: I’d also say Biden as a clear advantage on the integrity of the election segment and that’s a place where Trump could get himself in a lot of trouble.

sarah: Yeah … part of me still can’t believe we wrote this article about what might happen if Trump won’t leave office quietly, but 2020: Where … anything is possible?

nrakich: Nate, do you mean like if Trump gets caught saying he won’t respect the election results again?

natesilver: Yeah. I don’t imagine that’s a very popular position, although casting doubt on the integrity of the election can also lower turnout.

nrakich: Yeah, and a debate is a more combative setting where Biden can really go after Trump if he makes a comment like that again — unlike the White House briefing room, an environment that is fairly tightly controlled by the administration.

perry: Biden’s vote in support of the Iraq War. The 1994 crime bill. He sponsored bills to slow down school integration. He voted for NAFTA. He didn’t handle the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings well. Do these things matter? I have no idea. But sharp questions about this pre-VP record seemed to annoy him during the Democratic primary and are a potential weak point now. I would expect Chris Wallace and Trump in particular to press him on the idea that he supported too much incarceration of Black men.

nrakich: Yeah, Perry, there was a lot of that at the Republican National Convention. On the surface it appeared aimed at winning over Black voters, but really it may have been more about winning over white voters who are concerned that Trump is racist. In the debates, it could maybe be an attempt to depress Black turnout.

sarah: Do you think one possible approach for tonight will be Trump trying to paint Biden as too far to the left?

natesilver: I think the debate is a hard moment to paint Biden as being some big leftist. He’s an old white guy who comes across as pretty affable. Better to make that argument in ads where you aren’t featuring Biden himself as much and can argue he’s some sort of Trojan horse.

sarah: What about how Biden will try to paint Trump?

Much of his campaign has been about winning back the soul of America, and Americans are really unhappy.

An AP-NORC poll from this summer also found 8 in 10 Americans say the country is heading in the wrong direction. That’s the highest it’s been since Trump took office.

perry: I think Biden will lean into the decency/character stuff, but I also think The New York Times’s reporting on Trump’s tax returns and Trump’s pick of Amy Coney Barrett for the Supreme Court allow Biden to talk about policy — namely, that Biden will raise taxes on the super-rich and that Trump is trying to get the Affordable Care Act rolled back or Roe v. Wade overturned with Barrett on the court.

nrakich: Yeah, I actually think the debate will be a big indicator of how big of a role the tax returns story plays. If Biden really decides to go after Trump on it, it amplifies the story. If not, the news cycle turns over to whatever topic dominates the debate.

sarah: OK, knowing who “won” or “lost” a debate is difficult to answer. Clinton, for instance, got a lot of positive press coverage for how she handled herself in the debates in 2016, and Trump … won the election. So what if anything are you doing to “update your priors” going into the debate tonight?

natesilver: I think Clinton won the 2016 debates. She moved up in the polls after the debates. But debate bounces can be temporary.

But yeah, how much does the tax returns stuff stick? What about the election integrity segment? Does Biden make some big verbal gaffes or seem “out of it”? Those are all a bit obvious, I suppose, but they’re the things I’ll be most interested to watch.

nrakich: Exactly. I’ll just be reminding myself not to overreact to how the polls change after tonight. Mitt Romney also won the first debate in 2012, remember? But that momentum (our favorite word!) evaporated too.

perry: With so much of the electorate already clear on whom they will support, I think the key thing to watch for is: “What will move undecided voters?” I define that as people who are either soft Biden or Trump supporters, backing a third-party candidate or undecided. And those people aren’t likely to tune into a debate but will see whatever two to three moments get replayed on Facebook, shared on social media, etc.

So I think policy disputes aren’t likely to become big fodder. The most memorable thing from the debates four years ago was in the final debate when Trump got too physically close to Clinton — and this was after the “Access Hollywood” tape had come out.

Does anyone do anything in the debate that becomes a defining moment until the Oct. 7 VP debate?

nrakich: Yeah, to be honest, I remember Ken Bone more than anything Trump or Clinton did in those debates.

perry: People’s views on Trump are so well-defined, I suspect even among undecided voters. It will take something big to shift those.

Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s former politics editor.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.