The 2020 race is beginning to enter its final stage: the debates. Families and individuals all around the country will sit in their living rooms and watch the debates, an American tradition. While these debates are key dates on the timeline of the race for political pundits and analysts, at this point, American voters have already made up their minds on who they will vote for. A mere 3% of voters are undecided at this point in the race, so the debates will not be extremely useful.
There is one issue, unlike any other in recent years, that is driving the election: the pandemic. Americans are concerned about when they will be able to return to work and when their children can return to school. Simply put, Americans wonder when the U.S. will “return to normalcy,” to quote President Warren G. Harding. Even putting the pandemic aside, national polls indicate that the race between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden has remained consistently stable since September of 2019. There has never been a period where Trump and Biden have been “neck and neck” in the national polls. Biden has consistently maintained a national lead. The polls suggest that the battleground states most in contention are Florida and North Carolina.
Three ninety-minute debates will not have an effect on how the voters feel about the candidates. As far as the issues go, Biden is leading in COVID-19 response, race relations, and immigration, just to name a few. Trump enjoys a lead over Biden in two issues: handling of crime and the economy. It is unlikely that the debates will have much of an impact on these issues. Nothing said at the debates will change these consistent trends overnight. Voters have seen how President Trump has governed the last four years and he will be judged accordingly. Joe Biden portrays himself as the “respectable guy” with the experience necessary to get the job done. Leaders will be judged not by their words at a debate, but by their actions.
Hyper-partisans, that is, people who will vote for Trump or Biden no matter what, will watch the debates and loudly support their candidate. As for the very low amount of undecided voters, the debates will likely not make much of an impact. The policy stances and personal characteristics of the two candidates have been on full display for months. Undecided voters have had plenty of time to form an opinion on the candidates. President Trump has been in the news every single day for the past five years. People know what they think of him by now. John Sides of Vanderbilt University explains, “There were Republicans who were undecided in 2016 but ultimately rallied to Trump. This year, they’re likely on board. And, if not, they jumped ship a while back. Biden is a more popular figure than Clinton was. So there are likely fewer Democrats who are undecided this year compared to 2016.”
Given the fact that the number of undecided voters is extremely low, this proves that most Americans have an opinion on the candidates. In 2016, the vast majority of the 18% of undecided voters made a selection (mostly for Trump) at the last minute. If the debates really mattered, the majority of undecided voters would not have made this last-minute decision on Election Day. Aside from that, a 2016 Gallup poll showed that after all three debates had concluded, viewers, regardless of who they were supporting, believed Hillary Clinton “won” all three debates by an average of 27 points. Trump won the presidency a few weeks later. This proves that who wins debates does not always correlate with who wins the election.
If anything, presidential debates are an opportunity for the candidates to formally lay out their stances in real time and show their ability to think on their feet. They have become a long-standing tradition in American politics and are not required to run for president.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi even argued that Biden should not debate Trump at all. If the debates really played a part in swaying this miniscule number of undecided voters, this high-ranking Democrat would likely support them.
In some states, early voting has already begun. Florida, one of the tightest states in the polls, is one of them. Of course, this is pre-debate and for those who have already voted, there is no turning back. Americans are eager to cast their votes. The election is upon us.
If there were more than 3% of undecided voters, like in 2016, the debates might have more merit. Realistically, 3% of undecided voters spread all across the country (not within a particular state) is a very small percentage and is not likely to make a difference in the end. The pandemic and state of the economy have sealed voters’ decisions. A ninety-minute debate, which very well could digress into a shouting match, will not change that.
Ben Kelley is a Talbot County resident and political science major at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.