How the Presidential Debates Will Influence the Outcome of the 2020 Election

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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  1. Keith Olsen

    Will Biden be able to stay awake for the entire debate?  He’s already asking for breaks.

    Will Biden be wearing an ear piece?  Although he already agreed to an ear piece check from a third party he’s now saying he won’t allow the check.

    Will Biden end up babbling as he’s often been accustomed to doing while being hidden in his basement?

    I guess we’ll find out tonight.




    1. Ron Oertel

      (Cited comment was deleted during editing period.)  🙂

      This is actually one debate that I’m kind of looking forward to, mostly because I want to see if there’s any name-calling, etc. I don’t expect issues to be debated.

      I think it’s going to be entertaining.

      1. Ron Glick

        Q:How do you know when they are lying?  A:Their lips are moving.

        There are very few undecided voters so I doubt this will change much.

        Our campaigns are much too long. Trump has been running for re-election for four years. Biden has been running for President for 30 years. The election is a simple choice. Do you want four more years like the last four years or do you want something different? Most people can figure that out in about one second.

        1. Ron Oertel

          Most people can figure that out in about one second.

          I’m assuming that they are not trying to appeal to “most” people, let alone those in states in which the outcome is (almost certainly) already decided.

          Seems like many are predicting that the (total) outcome is already decided. We’ll see.

          But anyone’s (individual) vote in California is essentially meaningless.

        2. Keith Olsen

          California is already decided, but I think Trump will perform better here this time around.  People are tired of the protests and many of the Democrat policies in CA.  I look for Trump to get a higher percentage of the CA vote.

        3. Ron Oertel

          Which is why I say, sit back and enjoy the show!

          (In response to Keith – I don’t recall how well Trump did the first time, but I suspect he’ll do worse this time. Too much negative publicity, including from those who blame him for the protests.)

        4. Keith Olsen

          Even though some are I don’t think most people are blaming Trump for the protests.  That falls squarely on the Democrats with their policies and looking the other way when protests take place mainly in Democrat run cities.

  2. Jim Frame

    California is already decided, but I think Trump will perform better here this time around.

    The polling has it pretty much the same:  62%/32% in 2016 (Wikipedia) versus 62%/31% now (FiveThirtyEight).

  3. Keith Olsen

    I doubt any Biden voters are voting for him because they actually like him, it’s more they are voting against Trump.  There’s nothing to Biden, he’s an empty suit.

    1. Keith Echols

      I doubt any Biden voters are voting for him because they actually like him, it’s more they are voting against Trump.

      I’d say that’s more of an indictment of Trump.  At any rate politics these days has become irrationally tribal and antagonistic.  As you say much of it is people simply being against other people.  Most of them don’t even understand the beliefs and practices of the two parties.  You ask most people that say they’re liberal that while they support government spending on programs for the government….many of them will say they’re in favor of controlled spending and cutting government waste.  They’ll say they’re cool with state and local government management of resources and services.  Most liberals like having their taxes cut. Many people that say they’re conservatives will say they’re all for more money to the schools, they’re cool with medicare and affordable healthcare (but not Obamacare for antagonistic tribal reasons).

      As for Biden?  Yeah many of the far left progressives would prefer Bernie or Warren.  There were many Republicans that would have preferred Romney or Jeb Bush.  Most people are always going to end up with not quite what they want in a candidate.  That’s the way the system works.  As usual all my great life lessons are summed up in a “South Park” episode.

      Stan:  I think voting is great. I just didn’t care this time because it was between a giant douche and a turd sandwich.

      PETA Balding Man: But Stan, don’t you know? It’s always between a giant douche and a turd sandwich. Nearly every election since the beginning of time has been between some douche and some turd. They’re the only people who suck up enough to make it that far in politics.

      Sharon: Stan, you came back. Does that mean… you learned the importance of voting?

      Stan:  I learned that I’d better get used to having to pick between a douche and a turd sandwich because it’s usually the choice I’ll have.

      1. David Greenwald

        Keith Echols: Exactly.  Most people who are voting for Biden are doing so because he’s not Trump.  Not sure how Keith Olson spins that into anything other than an indictment for Trump.

        1. Keith Olsen

          No I get it, people didn’t vote for Hillary because well, she was Hillary.

          People won’t vote for Trump, because he’s Trump.

          But don’t act like Biden is a good candidate.

        2. Keith Echols

          I guess that depends on what you call a “good candidate”.

          Biden is about as moderate as you can get for a Democrat .  He’s going to appeal to conservative moderates that don’t like Trump.  Most of them didn’t care for Trump in 2016 but disliked Hilary even more so.   The big question of course is will enough of them switch sides and vote for him in the swing states?

          Progressives have little choice but to accept Biden.  Most of them that abstained or voted third party in 2016 have learned their lesson.

        3. Ron Oertel

          I don’t understand this business of “liking” or “not liking” candidates.

          Biden is probably more likeable than Hillary Clinton, but I suspect Clinton was sharper and more capable. I’m not sure if “likeability” is that important, except for getting elected.

          Then again, I recently learned that Biden was a “stutterer” in his youth, which I assume explains his continuing struggles with communication.

          Obama was the best speaker that I can remember.  Maybe of all time.

        4. Keith Olsen

          Biden is acting moderate now in order to try and secure votes.  For instance, he’s now for fracking when he was against it in the primary debates.  He kept quiet about the riots but he’s now for law and order because the democrats realized it was hurting his chances.  Everyone knows he’s just a puppet whose strings are going to get pulled by the more left activist leaning part of his party.  [edited]

        5. Ron Oertel

          He might, but I’m not sure that Trump is all that healthy.  A little younger, though.

          I tried to add (earlier) that I’m not sure why Trump courts evangelicals, as he doesn’t seem all that religious himself.  For support?

          I’m not sure why Trump wanted to be president in the first place.

          The REAL question is, who would win in a fight “behind the woodshed”, or something like that? (I think attributed to Biden.) Biden looks like a dummy, when he talks like that. Can you imagine Obama saying something like that?

          What happened to his “No Malarkey” tour, by the way? He does appeal to older voters – something that Hillary Clinton didn’t necessarily do.

        6. Keith Echols

          What in the world are you talking about?   Biden’s history is about as politically right as you can get without being a republican.  You question his stance against riots and support of the police?  You think that’s controlled by his party?  That’s far more inline with his political history. Your claims that he’s going to be a political puppet by the left sound like right wing propaganda designed to scare moderates away from him.  But of course it makes no sense.   If he’s president why does he need or want his party to tell him what to do; he can tell them to kiss of if he wants.  He could do it now…what’re the democrats going to do withdraw him from the election?

        7. Ron Oertel

          Just a “heads up”:

          If anyone asks me a serious question here, I’m going to respond that it’s all a bunch of “malarkey”.  Already decided that, in advance.

          I think that South Park might be the place to look toward, for answers.

        8. Keith Echols


          Evangelicals make up a large portion of the swing/battleground states.   You also have to give Trump credit that he’s fulfilled his campaign promises that matter to them…the appointment of conservative judges (at the federal and supreme court levels).  I believe there are plenty of socially conservative former democrat voters (like union workers…etc..) that aligned more with Trump and his evangelicals conservatism (and anti-liberalism) than with the more progressive “elite” liberals…like Hilary appeared to represent (being progressive was her message even if politically she was very moderate).

          I have to give credit to the Republicans they were playing political chess while the Democrats were playing checkers.  The Republicans gamed the system and continue to do so.

        9. Ron Oertel

          I’ll provide a more serious response:

          In general, why does anyone run for office, unless they stand for something (or want to get something accomplished that means something to them)?  Especially someone as wealthy as Trump.

          I don’t have an answer, but I might look to South Park for one at some point. (Also part of my “serious” answer.)

          Is anyone’s ego, for example, so important to them that they’re willing to subject themselves to this process and “job” – if they win? It is, after all, the ultimate in public service.

        10. Ron Oertel

          Matt:  It’s a cartoon (sorry – “animated series”) which pokes fun at political and social issues, among others. Keith E. has sometimes referred to it.

          Sometimes, people don’t realize that cartoons are among the most effective (and humorous) ways in which to make a point. There is a certain freedom allowed in that medium.

        11. Matt Williams

          Ron, most cartoons these days are above my pay grade.  I would have been on the far side if I had been asked a cartoon question during my 2016 campaign.  Crusader Rabbit is more my speed.

        12. Ron Oertel

          I would have been on the far side if I had been asked a cartoon question during my 2016 campaign.  Crusader Rabbit is more my speed.

          Love the first reference, not familiar with the second.  😉

          Getting back to the debate, it was not nearly as much fun as I had hoped. I think I’m one of the 69% who found it “irritating”.


  4. Don Shor

    The issue in the campaign is the character of the president and the chaos of his presidency. Biden is popular with moderate Democrats, older voters, and Black voters, all of whom turned out in record numbers for him in the primaries. As long as he performs adequately in this debate, his polling numbers IMO will hold up. Nobody has high expectations for either candidate in this debate. But Trump has to answer questions about the recent news about his taxes, and his handling of COVID-19 is going to be a central issue. The focus will be on his performance, not Biden’s.


  5. Matt Williams

    Yesterday on KQED’s morning talk show Forum with Michael Krasny, one of the guests was Bruce Cain, Professor of Political Science at Stanford University and Director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West.

    He was specifically talking about the Trump Tax Returns news and how it might affect the vote, as well as Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to fill the open Supreme Court seat.  However, I believe the point he made applies to the debaters as well.

    His point was that “nothing that is happening is going to affect 90 percent of voters” because “at this point the lines are drawn for that 90%”  He then went on to talk further about the remaining 10%, which he referred to as swing voters.  No matter how the swing voters in blue states like Hawaii and Massachusetts and California and Maryland and New York are impacted by the debate, that will not impact in any way the Electoral College vote.  Similarly, no matter how the swing voters in red states like Nebraska and Wyoming and West Virginia and Idaho and Oklahoma are impacted by the debate, that will not impact in any way the Electoral College vote.

    Cain went on to say, “What we are really talking about is that sliver of the electorate … the swing voters in the swing states … that’s what matters.”  So, bottom-line tonight is all about what the debate means in Nevada, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Georgia, Iowa and Texas.

    Here is a handy and helpful graphic from that puts the swing states into perspective.

  6. Ron Glick

    People voted for Biden in the Primaries because he wasn’t Bernie. Now they are going to vote for Biden in the General Election because he is not Trump. We will find out if the center can hold come November.

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