By Gabriella Garcia
On Sep. 29, the first of three presidential debates between Democratic candidate Joe Biden and Republican candidate Donald J. Trump will take place, leaving American citizens on the edge of their seats, pondering over which candidate will out-perform the other.
Director of the Political Communication Institute at the University of Missouri, Dr. Mitchell McKinney, has taken special interest in this particular debate, as he believes the candidates’ performance on stage could strongly influence how citizens decide to vote.
According to McKinney, the debate can go one of two ways: either the incumbent president “throws Biden off, making him seem rattled or somewhat weak, [feeding] into the narrative that Biden is not fit, not ready [to be president], and is beyond—in terms of his age—taking on the presidency”, or, “Biden [will] show up and be… aggressive, and not have some major ‘oops’ moment, and demonstrate [his capabilities] to not only his supporters, but also to those who may be leaning… and not yet committed…”
Swing states are the most influential in terms of electoral victory; how citizens vote in these states plays a large role in whether or not a candidate will win the election.
“[In] battleground states… those polls are very tight. [This is when] the presidential debate can affect decision and vote choice, even by two to three percent”, McKinney explains.
According to his studies, 90 to 95 percent of debate viewers are already committed, and are “watching the debate to cheer on their chosen candidates and… reinforce their choice.”
However, only two to three percent “come away from the debate saying they did… make a voting choice for a candidate.” Although this may not seem like much, for swing states such as Florida, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, this small portion of voters could ultimately decide who wins the election.
According to CIRCLE, more than 15 million people have turned 18 years-old since the last presidential election, and these youngest eligible voters form a potentially decisive voting block in the 2020 election.
In their study conducted in 2018, CIRCLE found that voters ages 18-29 contributed to the highest youth voter turnout ever seen in a midterm election, increasing by at least seven percentage points in 40 of the 42 states studied, and doubling in digits in 31 states.
So how can the candidates effectively grasp the attention of these viewers?
“Many of these top concerns for young voters are really front and center of what is happening in our country currently”, McKinney explains. “Therefore, we go back to that principle proposition of this debate: how has the current president addressed these issues?”
One thing is certain: this debate will not lack topics of discussion.
From concerns regarding police brutality, the murder of unarmed black men and women, environmental sustainability, a new Supreme Court Justice nomination and finally to health concerns surrounding the future of this country as we battle Covid-19, McKinney believes how well Trump proves he deserves to be in office, and how well Biden can prove otherwise, plays a significant role in them maintaining, and/or obtaining, support.
“It will be for Joe Biden to point out what mistakes have been made… and it would be for the president to convince voters that, no, he handled it fine, or his performance in dealing with [the pandemic] has been acceptable,” he says.
Trump is known for his very distinct communication style, which differs from the passive and indirect commentaries citizen’s have seen throughout the years.
“We have become accustomed… even immune to [Donald Trump’s] aggression and taunting tactic”, says McKinney. He predicts Trump’s aggressive personality will not only be displayed on the debate stage, but it will play a crucial role in whether or not Joe Biden could win the election.
Furthermore, Biden has a very different style of communication, similar to that of former president Barack Obama, who was known for being charismatic and having verbose speeches that grasped the attention of millions throughout the nation.
“[Biden’s style] tends to be much more somber [and] reflective. Joe Biden likes to project, or does project, an image of care… concern and of empathy, in quite the contrast with Donald Trump’s,” he says.
While Donald Trump maintains an aggressive persona throughout both his presidential campaigns, citizens everywhere first witnessed these one-on-one attacks during the 2016 presidential debates with the previous candidate, Hillary Clinton. Which, according to McKinney, were “the most conflictual, most attack-oriented presidential debates in the history of presidential debates.”
However, unlike 2016, Trump now has political experience he used to lack. In only four years, Trump has caused quite a stir amongst the public with rape allegations, bribing of foreign leaders, vulgar and insulting language, and much more. “Trump may want to keep the debate on the level of taunt and attacks and aggression,” argues McKinney, as it “could divert time and attention away from an examination of his record.”
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