In 2020, the electorate is even less satisfied with the incumbent than they were in 1980. Trump has trailed Biden consistently since Biden emerged as the Democratic frontrunner and later the nominee. As in 1980, the country is beset by troubles—a pandemic, a severe recession, and racial strife. And unlike Carter, Trump has never enjoyed majority support. The electorate is poised to fire the president.
The one remaining test they need is to see Biden pass is debate. Pundits keep saying that Trump and Biden are well-known figures and that there aren’t going to be any surprises in the race. I’m not so sure. Trump is known. But is Biden? Sure, people know he served in the Senate and as Barack Obama’s vice president. But do they have a real sense of how he talks, how he interacts with others, how he leads? Fewer than 20 million Americans watched the Democratic debates. And those committed enough to tune in to the intra-Democrat contest are probably not in doubt about which party to support in November. About 25 million watched some portion of the Democratic Convention, but how many of those were undecideds? Hard to know. An estimated 156 million Americans will vote in November.
Debates are not really about policy, but about whether you can imagine the person in the Oval Office. Yes, Trump inexplicably cleared this hurdle in 2016, but his opponent was a hate figure for half of the country. Biden is not hated. He is, I believe, hardly known at all. “There is some awareness that he is a longtime politician, but there is little substance or specificity behind the impressions,” consultants associated with the pro-Biden Super PAC Unite the Country told the Atlantic.