US 2020 election: How the first presidential TV debate impacted the polls

President Trump may have thought attacking Biden on law and order would boost his base. It did the opposite. 

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Last week, Twitter and the American electorate appeared to reach a rare agreement on something: that the first presidential debate of the US election season was a disaster.

Since then, Americans who watched the shout-off on Tuesday, 29 September, have been telling pollsters how it made them feel. The most popular opinion, voiced by 69 per cent of viewers polled by YouGov, was that they found the episode “annoying”, with just 17 per cent finding the content “informative”. Perhaps surprisingly, 31 per cent said they found the debate “entertaining”.

It’s hard to tell if Donald Trump entered the debate with much in the way of strategy. Assuming one existed, it perhaps would have been to paint Joe Biden as a bogeyman to Trump's white working-class base. Trump won in 2016 by enthusing and energising white voters without a college education to turn out in greater numbers for him than was previously thought possible. Trump's biggest problem in 2020 is that this base is, according to all voting intention breakdowns, increasingly moving in Biden's direction.

To deter his base from Biden, Trump's best strategy may be to exploit divisions in culture and personality in the US, for example by associating Biden with the Black Lives Matter movement (only 45 per cent of white Americans tell Pew they support BLM), or linking him to figures towards the (relatively) far left of the Democratic Party, such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. This attempt to portray Biden as less moderate than meets the eye has already become evident in tweets and adverts throughout the campaign; it may be that this is how Trump's team see him advancing on areas of policy that Republican voters traditionally respond to, such as law and order.

Biden leads Trump on law and order
Pre and post-debate polling on whether Donald Trump or Joe Biden would be best to deal with certain issues.

But if this was Trump's strategy on debate night, it didn't pay off. According to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal tracker, Trump went into the debate leading Biden on the economy by ten points and law and order by two points. He left it having ceded ground on the former (but still ahead by seven points), and falling behind on the latter – Biden having taken a four-point lead. That is significant: many commentators thought Trump could use the reaction to protests and riots in Democrat-run cities for partisan gain.

Elections are not decided by debates, however, and that general truth is likely to be particularly true in 2020. More than two-thirds of voters declared to pollsters in the immediate aftermath that the verbal onslaught between Trump and Biden made no difference to their voting intention. Compared to previous first debates, this is a record high. 

A growing indifference to TV debates
Post-first debate polling on how the proceedings impacted voter choices
Pollster: NBC News/Wall Street Journal surveys

While the debate may have done little to alter voting intentions, it could have damaged voter enthusiasm – or rather, enthusiasm for the Republican incumbent.

Polls taken before and after the debate find a small but near-uniform boost for the Democratic challenger by a margin of over one point to his overall voting intention figures, with the share of voters committed to Trump down by a mirror margin.

Biden extends his lead in most polls
Poll lead for Democratic challenger Joe Biden in voting intention surveys taken both before and after the first presidential debate

What we’ve seen over the course of the past week is not necessarily transfers from Trump to Biden, but rather a small fall in enthusiasm from Trump’s supporters. A post-debate IBD/TIPP survey finds more than one in four Trump supporters (26 per cent) say they’re willing to change their mind before polling day, compared to just 13 per cent of Biden voters. 

What this could mean is that Trump voters are, on average, slightly less likely to turn out on election day as a consequence of the debate. If that's the case, it would give Biden a greater share of the voting population.

Will Trump's voters be more motivated to turn out after his Covid-19 diagnosis? We don’t yet have enough data on how it might change voting intentions, but we do we have some useful indicators. A majority of Americans blame the president’s own actions for contracting Covid-19, with 59 per cent telling YouGov Trump underestimated the risks of the virus. Sixty-one per cent agree Trump’s regard for mask-wearing has been lacking, which suggests his ridiculing of Biden’s mask in the debate backfired.

As I wrote elsewhere, Trump could at best receive a sympathy boost from some voters, or respond to his newfound regard for Covid-19. There is little evidence, however, to suggest the volume of either outcome would be significant enough to change the overall result.

 Ben Walker is a data journalist at the New Statesman

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