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The Expectations Game: Debate 2024

Takeaways

  • What voters want to see: Younger Americans want Biden to discuss clear policies during his debate. Older Americans want him to draw a character contrast with Trump. All voters want to see him alert, focused, and concise. 
  • Substantial opportunity: If he performs well, Biden can shore up support among his base and even persuade some Undecided voters.

Biden and Trump will hold their first Presidential debate tonight. Before the debate, we polled 1,000 Americans to ask what they want to see. We asked Biden supporters what they wanted their candidate to do, and we asked Trump and Undecided Voters if anything could change their minds. We were surprised at the results!

What does Biden need to do to win, according to his supporters?

Ask three Democrats, and you'll get three different answers: what does Biden need to do on Thursday night to win? Some people focus on his policies, others on his behavior, and others on his character. We categorized hundreds of responses from Biden voters into those three categories and broke the data down by age bracket. We were surprised to see a clear trend in the data.

Younger voters were more likely to mention policy when asked what Biden needed to do in the debate. In contrast, older voters rarely mentioned policy (only 17% of responses) and instead focused on his behavior and character.

Policies: Celebrate achievements and address inflation

Many supporters, especially older ones, who mentioned policy when asked what Biden needs to do to win said they want to see Biden celebrate his accomplishments of the past 4 years:

"Be himself, explain what he has done in his first term and what he will do in the next. Explain, clearly, that another Trump presidency is the end of our Democracy."  -- Age 52 · Men · Country Club, FL 

"He needs to show the major contrast between himself and Trump. He also needs to talk about major legislation he's passed so far and what he's proposing for the future."  -- Age 55 · Women · Warrington, FL

"Just keep making good decisions for the people."  -- Age 62 · Women · Clarksville, IN 

"Speak to his many accomplishments in the last four years."  -- Age 71 · Women · Mesa, AZ

A similarly common topic was inflation and the economy, but this was more common among Millennial-aged voters. Many Biden supporters said they wanted to hear a clear plan to address inflation:

"Speak of STOPPING INFLATION!" -- Age 38 · Women · Rosemead, CA 

"More on inflation."  -- Age 32 · Women · Philadelphia, PA 

"Lower this damn inflation."  -- Age 45 · Men · Denver, CO 

"Joe Biden needs to lower prices on food and rent and bring more jobs back."  -- Age 30 · Women · Mount Airy, NC 

Lastly, a handful of Biden supporters said they want to see him address the war in Gaza:

"End the Palestine- Israel war."  -- Age 66 · Women · Charlotte, NC

"Do something about Palestine."  -- Age 29 · Women · Lake Forest, CA 

Perhaps most interestingly, very few supporters mentioned some of Biden's most recent policy initiatives. We struggled to find any mention of Biden's student loan initiatives. Media reports have suggested that Biden's student loan initiative is meant to help shore up support among younger voters, but while younger voters are talking about policy, they aren't mentioning student loan relief. Furthermore, we found almost no mention of Biden's tax plans or abortion. 

Instead, supporters want Biden to take a bit of a victory lap and to hear a concrete plan to address inflation.

Character: Supporters want Biden to demonstrate a clear contrast

Many respondents wanted to see a strong contrast between Biden's and Trump's character during the debate. They emphasized Biden's honesty, care and empathy for the American people and level headedness. They want Biden to let "Trump be Trump." In other words, let Trump's antics speak for themselves while Biden presents a better alternative for America.

"Hold his head up high."  -- Age 48 · Women · Hayward, CA 

"Just be himself."  -- Age 71 · Women · Layton, UT

"Make sure he share his true and honest opinions about everything."  -- Age 21 · Women · Phoenix, AZ

"Demonstrate leadership and list accomplishments."  -- Age 55 · Men · Brandon, FL

"Show the world that he is a colloborator versus Trump who is a diminisher."  -- Age 58 · Men · San Francisco, CA

"Be sincere and not be baited by Trump. Don't get into mudslinging and compete on his level."  -- Age 63 · Men · Norwood, NC

"He needs to be an adult and let Trump look crazy."  -- Age 68 · Women · Erlanger, KY

Recent media reports have suggested that Biden's campaign wants to emphasize the "end of democracy" narrative to contrast with Trump. While some supporters mentioned that narrative, more supporters talked about a more straightforward contrast between Trump and Biden: Biden as a leader who wants to get things done. Meanwhile, they view Trump as a destroyer, a child, and a liar.

Behavior: Supporters want Biden to stay focused and concise

Overall, the most-mentioned topic was Biden's behavior. Many supporters simply want to see Biden survive the debate while remaining focused and concise. Perhaps this is setting a low bar, one that Biden could hurdle over with ease:

"Articulate clearly. Answer precisely."  -- Age 66 · Women · Panama City Beach, FL

"Talk coherent and not look confused."  -- Age 45 · Men · North Canton, OH

"Maintain composure and stay calm."  -- Age 76 · Men · Chippewa Falls, WI

"Be more animated and not let Bully Trump bully him."  -- Age 76 · Women · Washington, UT

"Stick to a plan, be well spoken, and not go on long tangents."  -- Age 29 · Women · University City, MO

"Stay alert and attentive and step up his game."  -- Age 52 · Women · Hamburg, PA

"Show his age isn't an issue."  -- Age 54 · Women · Warsaw, NY

"He needs to speak confidently and decisively. He needs to stay alert."  -- Age 42 · Women · Moore, OK

Interestingly, most comments from supporters did not explicitly mention Biden or Trump's age. Instead, they focused on ensuring that Biden does not ramble or go on tangents. They want to see concise, clear answers to questions. And they want to see Biden maintain his composure in the face of Trump's well-known penchant for insults and interrupting.

What, if anything, could win over a Trump or Undecided Voter?

In any campaign, the million-dollar question is often whether anything can be done to persuade people to your side. Many campaigns in the modern era focus on turning out their base, deeming persuasion to be nearly impossible or too risky. We asked Trump and Undecided Voters what Biden could do in the debate to persuade them to support him.

About half of respondents said "Nothing" could convince them to support Biden. But we were surprised at how many gave genuine answers to the question.

Behavior: the low-hanging fruit?

Approximately 15% of these voters said that Biden simply needed to stay awake and have a good debate performance. While we don't expect these voters to support Biden if he performs well instantly, it shows that Biden has potential for improvement if he has a strong performance.

"Finish all questions in sentence form."  -- Age 30 · Women · Mansfield, OH

"Have a great performance."  -- Age 41 · Men · Chandler, AZ

"He would have to be clear headed and sharp witted unlike his past appearances. He's slipping mentally and it shows."  -- Age 68 · Women · Crestwood, KY

"Make sure he can stand the entire 90 minutes."   -- Age 55 · Women · Riverview, FL

"Seem awake and involved."  -- Age 59 · Women · Boise City, ID

A strong performance (staying on track, concise, focused, and alert) will not only shore up support among Biden's base but could also persuade a sizable chunk of Undecided voters.

Policy: "It's the economy, stupid"

The most commonly cited factor that could persuade someone to support Biden was policy. Inflation seemed to be the most common topic within policy, with immigration as a distant second.

"A plan. Explain a plan that's different than his current policies."  -- Age 42 · Men · Jennings, MO

"Give us a good plan to control inflation."  -- Age 40 · Men · Orlando, FL

"He can clearly state what his plans would be when it comes to inflation because it is affecting everything and is becoming very hard to deal with unless you are upper class."  -- Age 44 · Women · Putnam Lake, NY

"Lower housing prices. Lower the prices of the economy because it is hard and we are barely making it to the point where sometimes we don't have food on our table. I like him but we are struggling so bad my family and I.."  -- Age 55 · Women · Drexel Heights, AZ

"Lower taxes gas prices."  -- Age 47 · Women · Sumter, SC

"Promise to do something about lowering the prices of groceries."  -- Age 63 · Men · Lake Charles, LA

"Immigration close border."  -- Age 47 · Women · Kings Mills, OH

"Show he will close the borders and reduce inflation, and stop sending aid overseas."  -- Age 22 · Men · Forest Park, OH

Once again, these results suggest that Biden could give the American people a clear plan to address inflation and it would shore up support among his base while simultaneously improving his standing among Undecided voters. 

Conclusion

As Biden and Trump head to their first debate, our initial research suggests that Biden has a significant opportunity to make an impact. A strong performance could improve the confidence of his supporters in his campaign.

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Methodology

This survey was conducted on Swayable over 24 hours between June 25 and 26 with responses from 1,045 respondents in the United States. Questions were asked of a general population sample aged 18+ using Swayable’s proprietary online platform.

The sample frame is U.S. smartphone users in all 50 states with active internet connections who are users of popular mobile and web apps that make up Swayable’s network of respondent partners. Respondents are solicited from partner apps with non-monetary reward offers for their participation. Respondents were recruited with an approximately even ratio of men and women imposed via separate quotas for each. This is a “non-probability sample” (in the conventional terminology of public opinion research, although this team believes this concept is not meaningful since genuinely random sampling of the population is not possible via any methodology). To correct for over/under-sampling, all samples are post-stratified to the general U.S. population using cross-tabulations accounting for factors including age, ethnicity, gender, educational attainment, and geography, based on the latest available data from the U.S. Census Bureau and Swayable’s proprietary population modeling. Margins of error quoted are based on response distribution statistics and sample sizes and are calculated independently for each given result.

This research was conducted and self-funded by Swayable.

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