UNLV expert: Debates more geared toward turnout than persuading voters

Presidential candidates will debate three times, but are they changing anyone’s mind?



In this combination of file photos, former Vice President Joe Biden speaks in Wilmington, Del., on March 12, 2020, left, and President Donald Trump speaks at the White House in Washington on April 5, 2020.

Tue, Sep 29, 2020 (2 a.m.)

The debate tonight between President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden won’t persuade as many potential voters as past election cycles, says Jacob Thompson, director of the UNLV debate team.

“The number of persuadable voters out there is quite low nationwide, and we don’t know how many persuadable voters there are in the state of Nevada,” Thompson said.

There are 390,084 registered nonpartisan voters in Nevada, but that doesn’t mean that those voters don’t identify more strongly with one party or haven’t already decided how they would vote.

“The highly partisan nature of politics over the past four years has really decreased the persuadability of the average voter in America,” Thompson said.

The more important benefit of the debates for campaigns is the chance to fire up their bases.

“I think this is turnout election,” Thompson said.

Most polling shows Biden leading Trump by about seven points. If those polls are off in a systemic way by three to four points, Thompson said, Trump’s turnout machine will matter.

As for debate strategy, Thompson suggested that Biden would have to push back against Trump’s attacks on his cognitive abilities, but not directly.

“That's like saying, ‘I didn’t commit this crime,’ which indicates you may actually have committed a crime,” he said. “Instead, what you do is disprove it through enactment, which is having clear, concise answers that get to the point. Avoid stumbling, avoid being confusing or contradicting yourself.”

Thompson expects Biden to focus on health care “quite a bit,” along with race relations and issues around policing. Biden throughout his campaign, including in the primary, sought to cast himself as a return to normalcy.

“I expect Biden to talk about moral, presidential leadership and character, as well as judgment issues,” Thompson said.

He expects Trump to bring up the economy and policing, though through a lens of “law and order.” Trump has made “law and order” a hallmark of his campaign, seeking to cast ongoing protests around police brutality as violent.

“Trump, in 2016, demonstrated that his debate style is not to go on the defensive. Instead, he acts as a counterpuncher … he attacks back,” Thompson said. “I expect him to be on the offensive the entire debate.”

He said Trump would likely keep to his debating style regardless of the fact that he is now running as an incumbent, not a political newcomer. He called Trump an “instinctual debater” who debates “from the gut.”

“Trump will not change,” Thompson said. “We’ve seen no evidence of his willingness or desire to alter his approach to dealing with the media, to addressing the public or to political communication writ large.”

The pandemic, Thompson said, will give Biden an opportunity to attack Trump on his actions to mitigate the spread of the virus and to tie the ongoing crisis to health care in general.

He said that presidential debates going forward may or may not return to being events that target persuadable votes.

“My earnest hope is that future candidates will treat democratic norms with respect and governmental institutions with more respect and deference, and that moving forward debates will be different in 2016 than they’re likely to be in 2020,” Thompson said.

It all depends on November, Thompson said.

“If Trump wins in 2020, they’ll stick with this playbook I think,” Thompson said. “But if he doesn’t, there will be soul-searching within the Republican Party.”

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