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The First Debate

Last night, President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden took the stage for the first time in the 2020 presidential debate series. For much of the 90 minutes, insults and interruptions abounded resulting in little in-depth policy discussion about where each candidate wants to take the country in the next four years.

From the start, it was clear that President Trump wanted to rattle the former Vice President into making a serious gaffe or to appear incoherent. Following months of questioning Mr. Biden’s cognitive fitness, the Trump campaign set the expectations so low for Mr. Biden to the point where all he needed to do was stay upright for the duration and string together several coherent sentences. On this aim, the President failed. On the issues, President Trump concentrated on rebuilding the economy and safety from the unrest in many metropolitan areas.

The President is attempting to rebuild his winning coalition in the battleground states that concentrated on 2016 economic issues. He tried that in last night’s debate by highlighting his Administration’s economic record pre-COVID and outlining how he would re-build the national economy moving forward post the related shutdown.

On law enforcement and public safety, an issue area emphasized in an attempt to re-connect with many suburban female voters who have left his coalition since the last election, Mr. Trump attacked hard. The President probably scored his strongest point of the night regarding this issue area as he pinned Mr. Biden down about the lack of law enforcement groups supporting the Democratic nominee’s candidacy.

Mr. Biden, on the other hand, is zeroing in on healthcare, most specifically protecting the Affordable Care Act (ACA), or often referred to as Obamacare, and attacking the president over his COVID-19 record. This was a smart move by the Vice President as the coronavirus and health care rank first and second, respectively, in the list of issues that matter most to voters right now. For reference, the economy, race relations, and public safety follow in the top five issues.

The former Vice President was strong in his defense of the ACA, and again exposed the weakness in the Republican issue platform because the GOP doesn’t have an alternative plan to what currently exists. The Biden emphasis was also an attempt to target the higher educated suburban voter, and particularly the white, married female.

Additionally, the healthcare line of attack was also geared toward the base Democratic voter who depends on the ACA as their sole provider. Again, illustrating that these individuals would lose their healthcare coverage if the Supreme Court were to declare the program as unconstitutional very likely scored political points for Mr. Biden within his targeted constituency groups.

In the closing section of the debate, President Trump used his time on the issue of mail voting to express his concerns about ballot security and the length of the post-election period that we will see in many states. Expecting political overtime to last “weeks, if not months,” Mr. Trump reiterated that concerns exist about whether we will have a verified election, while citing the many states that experienced problems during the primary season.

The President’s move here was not so much aimed at a particular constituency, but perhaps to sow doubt and indirectly call out election officials such as Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar who has issued an order prohibiting county clerks from comparing a person’s signature on the absentee ballot to their individual voter registration card. No other state official has taken the mail vote procedure as far. Knowing that the Keystone State could again be determinative in deciding the national election, the President is pulling out all the stops to draw national attention to this potential chaotic post-election situation.

One issue not addressed, and curiously so from President Trump’s perspective, was the area of gun control, or 2nd Amendment protection, during the free discussion period. The issue also appeared surprisingly absent in US Senate debates from places like Iowa and Montana in debates that occurred over the weekend.

Polling has proven that the gun issue is probably the top driver of low propensity right of center voters, which will be key for Trump and the Republican Senate candidates in several battleground states. This appears to be a missed opportunity especially in light of the Supreme Court vacancy and the upcoming confirmation process in which this issue could directly relate.

It remains to be seen what, if any, effect last night’s debate had on battleground state polling. For those voters who are still undecided, the debate may not have done much to sway them. Veteran Republican pollster Frank Luntz conducted a virtual debate focus group with 15 undecided voters (nine men, six women) from Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. After watching, four said they are backing Mr. Biden, two support President Trump, and the remaining nine continue to be undecided.

The next forum features the vice-presidential candidates, incumbent Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), and will occur from Salt Lake City on October 7. The succeeding presidential debate will be a town hall format from Miami on October 15, followed by the October 22 finale in Nashville featuring the same format we saw last night.