Undecided voters are the prize in the presidential debate for both Biden and Trump

President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump will have a key opportunity to reach undecided voters and set the terms of the 2024 presidential campaign when they debate in Atlanta tonight.

Partisans on both sides have already made up their minds about which candidate they will support. And with this year’s race being a rematch from 2020, many Americans have already formed forceful and perhaps unchanging opinions about the candidates.

However, there is a enormous group of voters who have not decided who they will support in November, Christopher Stout, a political science professor at Oregon State University, told States Newsroom.

“On the one hand, opinions about Joe Biden and Donald Trump are deeply entrenched,” Stout said. “On the other hand, there are many people who do not pay attention to politics and are thinking about the 2024 elections for the first time.”

For Biden, the main goal will be to show voters that the 81-year-old incumbent president can be energetic and decisive, Stout and political strategists say.

Trump, 78, may focus on attracting middle-of-the-road voters and undecided Republicans who want a conservative candidate but don’t like the former president’s antics.

When it comes to politics, every candidate has issues they can exploit as strengths. Trump will likely press Biden on immigration and inflation, while Biden will undoubtedly be eager to criticize Trump on reproductive rights.

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The debate, sponsored by CNN, will be moderated by the network’s Jake Tapper and Dana Bash and will begin at 9 p.m. EST, without a studio audience. The program is expected to run 90 minutes and will air live on CNN, with simulcast coverage available on other cable and broadcast networks.

Each candidate’s microphone will be muted while the other candidate is speaking. No props are allowed, but each man will receive a pen, clipboard and bottle of water, CNN reported.

Can Trump be tedious?

Trump may gain popularity among moderate and independent voters if he appears stable.

After winning the presidency in 2016, Trump lost to Biden in 2020 amid a sense that Republican voters were tired of his unconventional style and tendency to cause scandals.

“If he is boring and looks like a typical politician, that will be a big plus for him,” Stout said. “If he looks like a typical politician and seems more moderate, there is a chance of bringing back a group of voters who used to be Republicans and have now left the party.”

At the same time, Trump probably won’t have much downside if he deviates from the script because voters have come to expect outlandish comments and behavior, said Republican strategist Doug Heye.

“Donald Trump is going to say something crazy,” Heye said. “All of this has been taken into account and it doesn’t change anyone’s mind.”

Heye cited Trump’s recent comments about shark attacks, being electrocuted by oversized batteries and taking off his shirt to expose psychological wounds inflicted by political opponents.

In a move reminiscent of his reality TV past, Trump teased a possible announcement his election as vice president at the debate.

But even if voters expect a degree of eccentricity from Trump, it won’t assist him win over the undecided voters who will decide the election, said Rodell Mollineau, co-founder and partner at the Washington strategy firm ROKK Solutions and a Democratic campaign veteran.

“If you’re actually trying to reach voters, I’m not sure how Trump’s rants and nonsense and talk of delusional conspiracy theories help him win over independent voters,” Mollineau said.

If Trump tries to look like a time-honored presidential candidate, he will face an additional, unique challenge: his own 34 criminal convictions last month in New York and has three other criminal charges pending against him, including two related to his efforts to reverse his 2020 election loss that led to the January 6, 2021 insurrection.

Donald Trump answers a question from Joe Biden during the presidential debate at Belmont University on October 22, 2020 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo: Morry Gash-Pool/Getty Images)

“I watch him talk or not talk about his many courtroom dalliances, his conviction and whatever else is hanging over his head,” Mollineau said.

Can Biden be forceful?

Biden faces various questions that he must answer.

Voters have doubts about the incumbent president’s abilities, in part because of his age, his tendency to make mistakes and a concerted effort by Republicans and GOP-affiliated media to portray Biden as past his prime.

“I think Biden will be, in part, trying to overcome the image that Trump and Republicans in general have been very successful in creating,” said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock. “They have been working on this for at least five years and this is the picture of Biden, who is too old, not physically and mentally strong enough to continue to serve as president for another four years.”

Biden countered that narrative – at least temporarily – with a spirited performance at State of the Union address this year, several observers said.

They figured that matching this energy would assist him have a positive debate.

Heye noted, however, that despite rave reviews from Democrats, the president’s State of the Union address did not improve his standing in the polls.

“The Democratic response was a game changer,” Heye said. “And if you look at the polls, the game hasn’t changed at all.”

Stout and Mollineau said Biden would also benefit from reminding voters of his political history and comparing it to Trump’s.

“It will be beneficial for him to be able to talk about politics,” Stout said. “People don’t know what he has done, so the hope is that he can inform people and influence the electorate.”

Stout said Biden should appeal to left-leaning voters, reminding them of his record on climate and the environment and his administration’s job creation efforts.

During his first visit to Pittsburgh in 2024, Biden focused on unions and steel

Mollineau added that Biden needs to remind voters of Trump’s tumultuous time in office and his accomplishments to date, balancing that message with an acknowledgment that many Americans are dissatisfied.

Early debate

The debate, which will be broadcast from CNN headquarters in Georgia, begins much earlier than usual in the election cycle, before party rallies that usually symbolize the start of a general election.

The candidates agreed to the unusual schedule after rejecting a proposal from the Commission on Presidential Debates, a nonpartisan organization that has organized the events for decades, typically consisting of three meetings between presidential candidates and one with potential vice presidents.

All debates usually take place in the fall.

This year’s June schedule could give candidates a chance to determine the course of the race as many voters will be participating in the contest for the first time.

But the nearly 19 weeks remaining until Election Day could also mean that a candidate with a needy performance will have time to recover, or that a forceful performance could deteriorate.

“I don’t believe anyone will win or lose the election this week,” Mollineau said.

Bullock, the Georgia professor, disagreed.

Due to the unpopularity of both candidates and the feeling that voters will choose the one they consider the “least evil”, he said that either of them could be the “last straw” for the voter.

“They might hear something coming out of one of them’s mouths and say, ‘Yeah, that’s it,’” Bullock said. “This is the last straw. I can’t support this. It helps me make the decision to go with another person.”

Ross Williams contributed to this report.

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