Tonight’s critical debate audience

President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump meet tonight for the first of two debates before the November General Election, and America will be watching and listening. A Marist Poll from earlier this month found that 61 percent of voters questioned said they would “watch all or most of the debate.”

If true, that means 98 million people will watch, and I doubt that will happen. The potential audience is probably inflated because some voters do not want to admit that they will not watch the debate.

Still, the high stakes and the intense media build-up translate into a potentially huge audience. We will see if it tops 2016, when 84 million viewers saw Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump go toe-to-toe.

All the pundits are weighing in on strategy, so I will also.

Even though tens of millions of voters will be watching, the target audience for each of the candidates is actually very small. Most voters have already made up their minds and it is generally believed the election will come down to a handful of swing states: Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

An IPSOS Poll shows that only 15 percent of the voters in those seven states remain undecided. If roughly the same number of people vote in those seven states in 2024 as did in 2020, that equates to 31 million individuals. If 15 percent remain undecided, that means just under five million people in those key states are waiting to be convinced.

And they are the target audience.

Trump does not have to throw red meat to his base by claiming for the umpteenth time that the 2020 election was stolen, and Biden cannot be helped by pandering to the far left. Trump supporters are going to be with him regardless. Biden’s base is much less enthusiastic, but the options for those voters are limited.

Trump should try to appear rational, while citing achievements during his previous administration. Biden should try to reassure undecided voters that he is physically and mentally capable of doing the job, while trying to goad Trump into unhinged behavior.

Each should spend a lot of time on kitchen table issues. The undecided voters will want to know who is best equipped to ease their concerns about the economy, crime, health care affordability and border security.

We in the media tend to remember debate zingers, and it is always possible in a pressure-packed debate that one of the candidates will make a catastrophic mistake. However, I heard pollster Frank Luntz say in an interview yesterday that post-debate focus groups show most voters remember more issue-oriented content.

And that brings us back to the relatively small number of voters in just a handful of states who will likely decide the outcome of this election. Many, if not most, of them will be watching or listening tonight.

We will find out in a few hours which of the two candidates can do the most effective job speaking to them.



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