Home Politics The First Presidential Face-Off

The First Presidential Face-Off




At the debate tonight, Trump will be looking to press reset. But don’t expect Biden to let viewers forget about those tax returns. It’s Tuesday, and this is your politics tip sheet. Sign up here to get On Politics in your inbox every weekday.

Workers put the final touches on the stage where President Trump and Joe Biden will face off in Cleveland.


While most Americans are deeply certain of their feelings about the president, a crucial fraction of the millions who tune in to tonight’s debate will not yet have made up their minds. Ten percent of likely voters in the nationwide Times/Siena poll didn’t express a vote preference, or said they favored a third-party candidate.

Chris Wallace will center the debate around six topics: the Supreme Court, the coronavirus outbreak, the integrity of the election, the economy, “race and violence in our cities” and the two candidates’ political records.

Here’s a look at what polling tells us about where the public stands on those issues — and how Trump and Biden could score points with undecided voters on each of those fronts.

Just before Trump nominated Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court on Saturday, polls showed that most voters would rather wait and let the winner of the November election choose the next justice. But now that Barrett has been chosen, the public’s attention turns to the high stakes involved in the confirmation fight.

If Barrett were to help overturn Roe v. Wade, as Trump said on Sunday she “certainly” could, that would go against the will of most Americans, who support keeping abortion legal. In the Times/Siena poll, voters said by more than two to one that they would be less likely to back Trump if he appointed a justice who would overturn Roe.

Since May, the pandemic has been a political weak point for Trump — in part because most Americans have consistently disagreed with his focus on a speedy reopening. By a 15-point margin, respondents to the Times/Siena poll said they disapproved of how he had handled the virus.

At the debates, look for Biden to return to the virus as often as he can, hammering the president on what he sees as his greatest vulnerability.

If there is one area in which Trump retains at least a slight advantage, it is the economy. By a 12-point margin, respondents to the Times/Siena poll gave him positive marks on that front.

But where the economy intersects with the virus, things grow dicier for the president. Fifty-five percent of likely voters said he was at least partly responsible for the economic downturn, according to the Times/Siena poll.




All year, Trump has employed an ever-growing array of narratives to cast doubt on the electoral process — while downplaying the threat posed by foreign countries, particularly Russia, that are seeking to interfere in the election.

Fifty-one percent of Americans said in the recent NPR/PBS/Marist poll that they thought Trump was encouraging election interference, versus just 38 percent who said he was working to make elections safer.

Still, Trump’s sowing of doubt may have had the desired effect, in at least one sense: Americans have broadly lost faith in the electoral process. In the CNN poll, just 22 percent of voters described themselves as very confident that all votes would be counted fairly, a 13-point drop from 2016.

For the president, this could be the moment in the debate when close scrutiny is turned toward his decades of tax evasion. Those tax revelations surfaced too recently for polls to address them, but we do know that Trump has never received high marks for honesty (three in five likely voters called him generally dishonest in a Quinnipiac University poll this month), and that 56 percent of Americans told the Pew Research Center in June they thought he had a responsibility to publicly release his returns.

When it comes to criticizing Biden, the president has seemed most intent on painting his opponent as a tool of the far left, an argument that has largely proved unsuccessful in siphoning off support from swing voters.

Trump has pounced on the Black Lives Matter demonstrations across the country in his attempts to convince voters that a vote for Biden would be dangerous. But while public support for Black Lives Matter and the protests did plateau this summer after rising in the spring, the president’s attacks mostly seem to have whiffed.

In a Monmouth University poll this month, 61 percent of Americans said Trump’s handling of the protests had made the situation worse, while just 24 percent said he had made things better. Forty-five percent of Americans said Biden would have handled the situation better, according to the poll, while just 28 percent said he would have done worse.

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