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Debate Me Bro

The Two Events That Could Save Biden

Polls this far out from the election are notoriously unreliable. But the outcome of Trump’s hush-money trial and the first presidential debate could help shift public opinion.

Joe Biden wears aviator sunglasses and raises his right hand as he leaves the White House on a sunny day.
Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images
Joe Biden leaves the White House on April 30.

Even though the election is still months away, there is a panting urgency to campaign stories at mainstream publications, as political reporters and columnists brace for another Donald Trump presidency. 

Last Sunday, New York Times columnist Ezra Klein wrote a piece with the ominous headline: “Seven Theories for Why Biden Is Losing (and What He Should Do About It).” On Wednesday, Reuters reported, “Joe Biden’s public approval rating this month fell to its lowest level in almost two years, tying the lowest reading of his presidency.” A day later, The Wall Street Journal unveiled its “Swing States Dial,” which mostly contained bad news for Biden from states like Pennsylvania: “A small shift in support from white working-class voters could put the state back in Trump’s column.” The same day, Morning Joe, desperate to offer a ray of optimism, ballyhooed break-even poll numbers showing Biden and Donald Trump “close in every swing state.”

What is missing from most of these stories is a sense of timing and perspective. As The Economist pointed out as it dutifully ran its own polling report: “It should be noted that pre-election polls have limited predictive power for the final result until the end of the summer in an election year.” Campaign reporters and political mavens who nervously obsess over cross-tabs are like hard-core gamblers in a Western mining town who know the roulette wheel in the saloon is crooked but keep playing because “it’s the only wheel in town.”

This obsession with premature polling would be merely annoying if this were a normal election year. But the only thing normal about the 2024 presidential race is that it will end on a Tuesday in early November. While Trump and Biden are depressingly familiar figures to most Americans, the wavering voters who will likely decide the election are, for the most part, not paying attention. And the Republican-backed, third-party candidacy of Robert Kennedy Jr. makes everything more unsettled. A recent national Quinnipiac University Poll found that one-fifth of the electorate said they could change their minds and abandon their currently favored candidate. 

With the Trump-and-the-porn-star felony case heading into final arguments this week, pollsters have been gamely struggling to quantify the electoral effects of both a guilty verdict and a hung jury. (A not guilty verdict is unlikely.) The problem with all polling questions is that voters are not reliable predictors of their own future behavior. 

The Quinnipiac survey found that 6 percent of Trump voters would be less likely to back him if he were a convicted felon. A poll by Marquette University Law School, conducted before former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen testified, tried a different approach. Marquette asked half of a national sample how they would vote if Trump were convicted—and, under this scenario, Biden led by four points. The other half, told that the verdict was “not guilty,” gave Trump a six-point edge. But most polls on the Manhattan trial are close to worthless. Typical was a CBS News survey that indicated that 52 percent of the voters (none of whom have been in the Manhattan courtroom for a trial that is not on television) believe that Trump will probably be found guilty. 

One of the knottiest problems with unprecedented political situations is that they are, well, unprecedented. The conventional wisdom in political circles is that Trump’s hush-money payoff to Stormy Daniels has already been factored in by the voters since the details have been known since 2018. As Politico put it, “The payments … seem to largely be baked in with the electorate after years of stories on the issue.” But while New York’s no-cameras-in-the-courtroom rules have prevented voters from directly seeing the testimony, there will be compelling video moments if Trump becomes the first former president to be found guilty of a felony. 

Equally hard to assess will be the impact of the slated June 27 CNN debate between Biden and Trump. Again, it is hard to find parallels since the earliest prior debates between the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates were three months later in September. 

While Biden and Trump have debated before, including in the superspreader Covid faceoff in September 2020, the stakes are potentially  higher this time around. Biden, who is portrayed by the Republicans as so gaga that he needs a minder, has the opportunity to upend all the clichés about his age, much as he did during the State of the Union address. Trump has a choice about whether to turn the debate into a festival of grievances about his trial and the 2020 election or whether to spend his time insulting Biden. What is guaranteed is that the debate will not be a high-minded discussion of differing approaches to tax policy. 

With Trump there is always a chance that the debate will be canceled, either over ludicrous demands or because the oft-indicted former president belatedly discovers that Maria Bartiromo and Sean Hannity are not the debate moderators. To my mind, Biden snookered Trump by insisting on a debate in a TV studio (much like the ballyhooed 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates) rather than having an audience that might be packed with MAGA sycophants. Although ratings are impossible to predict a month in advance, the Quinnipiac poll did find that 72 percent of surveyed voters planned to watch the debate. 

As a general rule, almost all campaign events that occur in June have a short shelf life. This helps explain why even seemingly devastating TV ads are evanescent. This may also be the case with the early summer debate. But I believe there is a significant chance that a strong Biden performance might alter the contours of the race. The downside for the Democrats, of course, is that a faltering Biden showing could have major repercussions. Remember that a compelling orator like Barack Obama was verbose and overly defensive during his first 2012 debate as an incumbent president with Mitt Romney. What helped turn things around for the Democrats was a compelling performance by a guy named Biden in the follow-up vice presidential debate with Paul Ryan.  

A presidential election year in which we have a felony verdict and a presidential debate, both before the Fourth of July, should humble any political handicapper. Instead, pundits and reporters unapologetically cater to demands for false certainty. The Magic 8 Ball got things right in the 1950s when it offered as one of its answers, “Cannot predict now.” How I long to see a TV cable panel in which someone wisely responds to a question about this roller-coaster election with words of humility about the inability to foresee anything five months in advance.