Trump Faces Higher Expectations Than Biden for First 2024 Presidential Debate

44% expect Trump to perform best, up from the first 2020 matchup
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June 26, 2024 at 2:26 pm UTC

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Former President Donald Trump faces higher expectations in his first 2024 debate against President Joe Biden than when the two initially faced off against each other in 2020. 

According to a new Morning Consult survey conducted in advance of Thursday’s debate hosted by CNN, voters are slightly more likely to expect Trump to perform better than Biden, 44% to 41%.

More Voters Expect Trump to Win First Presidential Debate, in Shift from 2020

Voters were asked ahead of the first debates in 2020 and 2024 whom they expect to perform best
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Surveys conducted Sept. 25-27, 2020, and June 22-23, 2024 among roughly 2,000 registered voters each, with unweighted margins of error of +/-2 percentage points. Figures may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

The slightly heightened expectations for Trump marks a shift from ahead of the first 2020 contest, when expectations were similarly higher for Biden. While Democratic confidence in Biden’s debating abilities slid a bit over the four years, the bulk of the movement came among independent voters, who are now more likely to give Trump the advantage, 37% to 31%, compared with a 9-point edge for Biden in 2020. 

These lower expectations for Biden come as both campaigns have telegraphed opposing approaches for each candidate heading into Thursday: The president is said to have spent days preparing for the matchup while Trump’s allies have downplayed his need for rehearsing. After months of attacks on Biden’s mental fitness, Trump has more recently flip-flopped, going from calling Biden the “worst debater I have ever faced” last month to a “worthy debater” last week.

It’s a sign that Republicans understand that attacks on Biden’s acuity can backfire when he delivers a decent performance, as was the case after his State of the Union Address in March when voters’ concerns about his age eased a bit.

Amid questions about whether voters will tune in for the earliest presidential debate in modern political history featuring two well known and unpopular figures, there does appear to be a high level of interest in the verbal contest. 

Roughly 2 in 3 voters said they had seen, read or heard something about the matchup, and just 14% said they plan to tune it out entirely — down from 22% ahead of the first 2020 debate. Over half of voters (53%) said they plan to watch all of the debate, up from 28% in advance of the first Republican primary debate last August.

What issues voters want to hear about in the first debate

While much of the chatter about the Biden-Trump contest has revolved around personal matters such as Biden’s age and the legal troubles surrounding Trump and Hunter Biden, the most pressing topics of discussion on voters' minds center on pocketbook issues.

Hunter Biden’s and Trump’s Legal Issues Rank Low in Debate Topic Interest

Shares of voters who said it was “very important” for the candidates to discuss the following issues:
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Survey conducted June 22-23, 2024, among a representative sample of 1,741 registered voters, with an unweighted margin of error of +/-2%.

Roughly 3 in 4 voters said it is very important for the candidates to discuss the economy, followed by about 2 in 3 who prioritize issues such as high consumer prices and government spending. Just 30% of voters said the two candidates should prioritize discussion of Trump's ongoing legal issues, and even fewer (16%) said the same of Hunter Biden — making him the least relevant debate topic among the 20 tested. 

Among independent voters, a group that’s narrowly opting for Trump at this point in the contest while many are undecided or threatening to vote third-party, issue interest at the debate mirrors the overall electorate though they are slightly less likely to prioritize crime and immigration. 

The bottom line

Despite the high level of interest for Thursday night, there aren’t many voters who believe the debates will change their vote.

Few Voters Believe Debates Will Change Their Vote Choice

Shares of voters who said it is “very likely” they’ll change whom they plan to vote for based on the debates
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Survey conducted June 22-23, 2024, among a representative sample of 1,741 registered voters, with an unweighted margin of error of +/-2%.

Just 11% of voters said they are "very likely" to change whom they plan to vote for based on the presidential debates. Independent voters were least likely to say they were inclined to change their mind based on the debates, while more than 20% of Black, Hispanic and 18- to 34-year-old voters Black voters and voters ages 18-34 — groups Biden is struggling with compared to 2020 — said they were very likely to do so.

In a contest that is so close, all of these groups will matter. And if Biden outperforms expectations again, it could help him solidify his standing while the alternative would put Trump on solid footing heading into the next major moment of the campaign after the debate: the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee. 

Cameron Easley contributed.

A headshot photograph of Eli Yokley
Eli Yokley
U.S. Politics Analyst

Eli Yokley is Morning Consult’s U.S. politics analyst. Eli joined Morning Consult in 2016 from Roll Call, where he reported on House and Senate campaigns after five years of covering state-level politics in the Show Me State while studying at the University of Missouri in Columbia, including contributions to The New York Times, Politico and The Daily Beast. Follow him on Twitter @eyokley. Interested in connecting with Eli to discuss his analysis or for a media engagement or speaking opportunity? Email [email protected].

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