Biden-Trump debate offers rare chance for change in stubbornly tight presidential race

"Somebody's going to take advantage of it," one strategist predicted.

ByTal Axelrod ABCNews logo
Monday, June 24, 2024
Biden-Trump debate offers rare chance for change in presidential race
Biden-Trump debate offers rare chance for change in presidential race

Even with under five months left to go until Election Day, the electoral calendar is nearly devoid of marquee chances for this year's presidential race to change in a major way.

There are the two party nominating conventions, with the Republican confab in July likely coinciding with a vice presidential pick from Donald Trump. The former president also is set to be sentenced next month after being convicted of 34 felony counts in his hush money trail in New York. Beyond that, there are few concrete events with the potential to move an electoral needle that has refused to budge for months beyond the margins.

That's where this week's debate comes in.

SEE ALSO: Watch 'Race for the White House' & ABC News' coverage of the CNN Presidential Debate on June 27

While operatives who spoke to ABC News were torn over how much Thursday's head-to-head matchup could alter the fundamentals of a race between a former and current president -- both with virtually universal name recognition -- all agreed that the debate represents one of just a few foreseeable instances for the candidates to at least try to improve their fortunes.

"If you're looking at the calendar for the next five months, this is one of those moments. And somebody's going to take advantage of it," said Chip Saltsman, a GOP strategist who worked on former Vice President Mike Pence's now-suspended GOP presidential bid.

Already, recent history has failed to budge close polling numbers by more than a few points. Trump's felony conviction led to only marginal fluctuations. The felony conviction of President Joe Biden's son Hunter on gun charges already has largely dropped out of the news cycle.

The current 538 national polling average of the race shows a virtual tie, but some polls show Trump with a wide advantage in key battleground states.

Thursday's debate -- much earlier than usual in a presidential race -- offers both candidates a chance to change or reinforce perceptions.

"I think this will be the most consequential presidential debate ever," said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who worked on Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio's 2016 presidential campaign.

SEE ALSO: Trump expects Biden to be a 'worthy debater' after spending months attacking his mental fitness

"We've also never been a situation where there's so many questions about both candidates' core abilities. Is Biden too old? Is Trump too unstable?" he told ABC News. "These are existential questions that a lot of the people tuning in are going to be asking. And then, obviously, we've never had a debate this early in the calendar, so it is likely to set the tone for the rest of the campaign."

For Biden, strategists on both side of the aisle said avoiding "senior moments" will be crucial, given heightened focus on the president's age and mental acuity -- reinforced by the Republican social media and cable ecosystem.

"We know one of the biggest obstacles to support for President Biden is concerns about his age and whether he's up for the job. And I see the debates as a real opportunity for him to demonstrate that he has what it takes to do the job of president effectively and assuage a lot of those concerns that are currently holding back a lot of Democratic-leaning voters from supporting him," said one source familiar with the Biden camp's strategy.

Biden is anticipated to hammer away at what he calls Trump's threat to democracy, a theme that animated their 2020 race. But Democrats also hoped the debate's early timing could help the incumbent president replicate part of former President Obama's 2012 playbook when he seized early opportunities to define Mitt Romney, his general-election opponent, as an out-of-touch millionaire who didn't care about working class Americans.

Biden has already attempted to do so with Trump, mixing that messaging with what he claims is his administration's economic progress. But strategists said a more forward-looking message on the economy and attacks on Trump's proposed tax cuts for wealthy Americans and corporations should be more front-and-center in Biden's campaign -- and that Thursday's debate gives him a chance to drive that message home.

"I think he ought not to try to argue to people that this is a great economy," said Peter Giangreco, an Obama campaign alum. "What Obama would say was, 'We've made progress. There's more to do.' And if Trump gets in, it's going to be a whole lot worse. And I think that's where you go after him. He's got the opportunity to say, 'This is the guy who's going to reward the people who are gouging you.'"

"Make the economic contrast about the next four years, not the last four years or the last eight years. To me, other than just showing strength, that's job number one."

Trump, meanwhile, has to reinforce his own contrast with Biden, Republicans said.

Polls show that more voters trust Trump than Biden on the top issues they care about, including the economy and immigration, offering Trump what GOP consultants called an advantage in a battle over who has the better record. That's on top of efforts by the former president and his allies to cast Biden as too old and unfit for office.

"If I'm giving advice, I'd just say, do a strong comparative between your economy and Joe Biden's economy, and it narrows it down to one thing. It narrows it down to inflation," said one former Trump campaign official who's in touch with his current team. "Anytime you're talking about anything else, whether it's Biden's age, whether it's Hunter, it's a distraction from the economy, and that's not the debate we need to have the win."

Going hand-in-hand with that is the need to come off as presidential, Republicans said, in an acknowledgement of the character concerns that caused Trump to shed voters in 2020, particularly in the suburbs.

"I think Trump needs to appear reasonable, in command and not turn off independent voters, swing voters. The people that voted for him in 2016 but then voted against him in 2020, he needs to win them over," Conant said.

Both candidates will have to navigate a unique debate format on Thursday to get their messages across.

CNN, the debate host, will be able to mute the contenders' microphones when they're not speaking. There will also be no audience in the Atlanta television studio to play to.

Most Republican and Democratic strategists said the format benefits Biden by robbing Trump of the ability to overwhelm the president's answers with crosstalk and feed off the energy of an audience.

"I think the fact that Trump cannot just bully the conversation and just talk over President Biden constantly is a good thing for the president. I think that gives the president more opportunity to define a clear choice in the election, whether it comes to protecting democracy, protecting abortion rights or creating an economy that helps working families," said the source familiar with the Biden campaign's strategy.

Still, some speculated that if the goal for Trump is to come off as "presidential," having the microphones cut off helps the former president by essentially preventing voters at home from hearing him try to derail the conversation.

"I think it's good for Trump because it does enforce some discipline and allows for him to avoid those bad moments where he just comes off as a total bully," GOP strategist David Kochel told ABC News.

Still, in the end, the debate may produce little or no change in the race.

Trump has barreled through seemingly campaign-shattering events since his first run for the White House, surviving the "Access Hollywood" scandal, accused in two impeachments, Republican electoral failures, felony convictions and more -- all without seeing his polling affected by more than a few points. That make thinking debates could have a bigger impact seem quaint by comparison.

"It's hard to see how there is a big shift or a big thing in this race where there's also a lot of fairway left to play. I mean, you still have sentencing, conventions, VP, picks another debate. You have another five months, that's a lifetime," said GOP pollster Robert Blizzard. "Just look at what's happened the last couple months, and the race just really has not fundamentally changed."

Yet given the race's stability and the outsized personalities of the two candidates, Thursday's debate amounts to must-see TV as much as virtually anything else this election cycle.

"I think it's going to be a good one," Kochel predicted. "It's got the potential to be one of those debates that we talk about for years."