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Cost of living, abortion rights, Medicare, intensifying global conflicts, and a spat about golf handicaps. For all the pressing issues facing American voters of this year's US Election, much of the interest in the first debate focused on the presence and performance of Joe Biden and Donald Trump.

The candidates did not shake hands at the start of the debate, hosted by CNN at its Atlanta studio. The first question, about the economy and cost of living, was asked of President Biden, who delivered his response in a noticeable hoarse voice. His early responses seemed at times foggy and disjointed. Further into the 90-minute debate, Biden found more of his mettle, especially during questions of foreign policy, firing back at Trump over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and labelling him “the guy who wants to get out of NATO.”

Trump’s performance was in stark contrast to his more vitriolic debate showing in 2020, with the New York Times reporting that his team had deliberately changed his approach to have him appear more disciplined, and less aggressive. He seized on early stumbles by Biden and ended one response with “I don’t really know what he said at the end of that sentence. I don’t think he knows what he said either.”

Under the rules issued by CNN, each candidate had two minutes to answer questions, followed by one-minute rebuttals and responses to the rebuttals. Their microphones were muted when it was not their turn to speak. There was be no live studio audience and no live fact-checking by CNN’s moderators Jake Tapper and Dana Bash.

The significance of the debates

Unlike in Australia, the United States election debates are hugely consequential.

It is commonly accepted that Australia’s federal election debates are ineffective and irrelevant, with poor viewership numbers and no material effect on voters’ decisions. In America, where more than 70 million people are expected to tune in to the first 90-minute contest (surpassed only by the Super Bowl), the debate will be Biden and Trump’s best chance to sway a significant proportion of low information voters.

Joe Biden is convinced if only the voters knew what he knew —that the economy is growing faster than almost any other western country; that unemployment and inflation rates are declining; that while grocery prices are increasing, wages are increasing by more — then he would win this election in a canter. Biden and his team’s gripe is not with the voters themselves, but with the various entities they blame for preventing this crucial information from reaching the voters.

At times they have criticised the mainstream media for focusing too much on Trump’s rallies and headline-grabbing remarks. They regularly call out TikTok and Instagram for enabling disinformation to flood users’ feeds, and they have even started to reject negative polling as biased and inaccurate. Troublingly for Biden, many of these tactics echo those of Trump’s campaigns in previous elections, and they are often the sign of a losing team.

Were the election held today, it is more likely than not that Donald Trump would once again assume the Oval Office.

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Donald Trump and Joe Biden during the first 2024 US Presidential Debate, hosted by CNN

Where Biden is down

How do we know who is winning and losing? As the candidates often say, the only poll that matters is the one on election day, and that’s of course true. But political candidates all around the world rely on pre-election polling as much as the media does.

All polls are inaccurate to some degree (hence the ‘margin of error’), but most reputable polls prove accurate to within that margin of error, and polling averages — which account for each poll’s recency, sample size, methodology and previous biases — are valuable tools for political journalism.

Though candidates might publicly reject unfavourable polls, their campaigns treat them with utmost importance.

In the recent weeks following Trump’s criminal conviction, most polls have shown a 1-2per cent ‘bump’ for Biden, enough to move him into the lead in national polls by about half of one per cent. If those numbers hold, Biden will narrowly win the popular vote. Unfortunately for Democrats (who have won the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections) the President is not decided by popular vote. And Biden is struggling in the six most important battleground states.

The Sun Belt

The Sun Belt is a region of the United States that receives a high amount of annual sunshine, with hot and dry conditions stretching across the Southeast and Southwest. In 2020, Biden won all three of its swing states, Georgia, Arizona and Nevada, claiming 33 electoral votes on his way to overall victory.

This was a landmark for Democrats who have historically struggled in the Sunbelt; a success due in large part to the increasing population in the region of two of the Democrats’ strongest demographics — young voters, for whom these states boast increasingly sought after universities, and Black voters, for whom the Sun Belt offers employment opportunities superior to much of the country.

The populations of these two crucial demographics have not declined in Georgia, Arizona and Nevada, but their support forJoe Biden has. Biden won 87 per cent of Black voters in 2020; current polling shows his support hovering around 70 per cent. Biden took home 60 per cent of voters aged 18 to 29; those numbers are now closer to 40 per cent.

Why Biden is down

What explains such a massive decline in support? Are young and Black voters really turning to Trump? There are several explanations.

Biden’s preferred explanation, beyond blaming ‘biased’ polls, is that it’s the media’s fault. That’s why the President and his team have been working around the clock on debate prep in recent weeks, treating the debate as their best opportunity to bypass the media and arm the voting public with precisely the information they want to convey, namely (in their words) Biden’s positive economic and legislative record, his exciting plans for a second term, and the threat to democracy and reproductive rights posed by his opponent.

In the view of Biden’s campaign, many of his previous supporters who have turned on him or otherwise decided not to vote, particularly young and Black voters, will return to the Democrats once they have the necessary information to make an informed vote.

Another explanation for Biden’s struggles is simpler: voters think he is too old. While the President is only three years older than Trump (81 compared to 78), his age captures much more attention than his opponent’s. His gait is halting, his voice stuttering more than ever, viral videos (often misleading) show him confused, seemingly frozen in time or wandering off, and he lacks the charisma and communication skills of an Obama or Bill Clinton to counter these ingrained perceptions.

Supporting this theory is extensive data that show Democrats who are not named Biden are doing much better than the President himself. In Arizona and Nevada, the Democratic candidates for the United States senate both lead their Republican rivals by 6 per cent, whereas Biden trails Trump in those same states by 4.5 per cent and 7 per cent respectively. That means voters favour the Democratic Senate candidate in their own state by 10.5 per cent and 13 per cent more than they favour Biden. It’s a similar story in many other battleground states and a strong sign that Biden’s personal unpopularity is the Democrats’ biggest liability.

Some Democrats and progressive supporters, including the popular New York Times columnist Ezra Klein, have suggested the nuclear option: picking a new nominee at the Democratic National Convention. In other words, uprooting the longstanding status quo and convincing delegates at the August convention (who these days serve a largely ceremonial role) that another candidate, precisely who is unclear, has a better chance of beating Trump in November.

It would make for a thrilling spectacle, but it also almost certainly won’t happen. The race will be between Biden and Trump, and it’s up to Democrats to find a way to convince voters that anything bar a Biden victory will spell catastrophe for the nation.

There is plenty of time to go

The good news for Biden is that he still has a solid path to victory.

Georgia, Arizona and Nevada — where the President trails by anywhere between 5 and 10 per cent — appear gone.

But even without the Sun Belt, Biden can still win the election if he wins in the Rust Belt — the blue-collar states of the Midwest: Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

Biden claimed all three of these states (and their 44 electoral college votes) by tiny margins in 2020. If he holds onto them in November, even if he loses the Sun Belt, he will win the election by the narrowest possible margin — 270 to 268 electoral college votes.

Currently he leads in Michigan by 0.4per cent and in Wisconsin by 0.5 per cent, and trails in Pennsylvania by 0.5 per cent. In other words, it’s incredibly tight. If the polls hold, all three states’ results would trigger an automatic recount; the lawsuits would be almost unending and the result of the election probably wouldn’t be finalised for months.

Biden is likely to spend the majority of his time campaigning in these three states over the next few months. In Pennsylvania, Biden will seek to emphasise his ties to the state as a long-time resident. There and in Wisconsin, the President will focus on the many middle-class and blue-collar workers, discussing at length his plans for local industry and manufacturing. And in Michigan, a state with more than 300 thousand Arab Americans, Biden will need to distance himself from Israel’s Prime Minister and a war that many progressive Americans believe has gone on too long.

There are many competing priorities, crucial demographics, and battleground states with disparate needs. How do Biden and Trump appeal to the voters that matter most, in the states that matter most, without alienating too many others? It’s a tricky game — and those watching today’s debate are likely to be left with more confusion than clarity.