What Pa. voters can expect from Biden and Trump’s historic presidential debate

A national poll found Trump has a slight lead over Biden. The same goes for polling focused on Pennsylvania, where the lead is often within the margin of error.

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President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump face off Thursday night in Atlanta for the first presidential debate of the 2024 general election. The debate, hosted by CNN, is historic because it will be the first debate between a sitting president and a former president.

A Quinnipiac University national poll of registered voters released Wednesday found Trump has a slight lead over Biden. The same goes for polling focused on Pennsylvania, a key swing state with the most electoral votes, where the lead is often within the margin of error — an effective tie. With less than five months before voting day, the stakes are high for the candidates as they try to inspire their supporters and woo the undecided voters.

The Biden campaign has the heavier lift when it comes to winning the debate, said James Lee, president and CEO of Pennsylvania-based Susquehanna Polling and Research.

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“They have to show Americans, we’re making progress, we’re moving in the right direction,” Lee said. “They have to try to convince the electorate and the viewing public that things aren’t as bad as Trump will make them out to be, we can’t risk changing leaders now because the threat of what Trump promises will take us in the completely wrong direction.”

Jeff Jubelirer, vice president of Bellevue Communications and a political consultant who has worked for both Democrats and Republicans, agrees, but added Biden also “has the bigger opportunity.”

“There’s a sense that many people aren’t expecting him to perform well, and that if he does a half decent job and he’s loosened and he answers questions concisely and clearly, has positive energy, and is enthusiastic and so forth, that would be a tremendous opportunity to help his campaign,” he said.

The economy, reproductive health rights, immigration and the January 6 riots are expected to be the hot topics.


A majority of Pennsylvania voters trust Trump more with the economy, according to a recent poll. In 2020, Biden won the state by 80,000 votes. Ray Zaborney, partner and founder of Red Maverick Media, which specializes in Republican campaigns in Pennsylvania, said the current economy is a weak point for Biden among Pennsylvanians. The most recent economic outlook by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia found that some key indicators — such as employment and business growth — ticked up slightly last month, but expectations for economic growth in the region edged down slightly over the next six months.

“I think what President Trump will try to do is to compare between his four years and the last four years and where the economy was and where it is now,” Zaborney told WHYY News. “I think you’ll hear things like interest rates, home ownership, or home mortgage rates being what they were under President Trump versus now, the cost of goods and services, what they were versus now.”

Democrats said that the economy is doing better than Republicans are willing to admit and it’s only a matter of time before voters realize it.

“Nearly every Republican president of my lifetime, and since FDR, has left this country worse off economically than when they started,” said Edge Hill Strategies’ Joe Corrigan, a political consultant who works with Democratic clients. “Vibes from Fox News and OAN are not the economy, 3-million-new-jobs economy is the real economy.”

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Abortion is a hotter election issue than ever. The Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, which overturned Roe v. Wade two years ago, prompted 21 states to pass laws to ban or restrict abortion.

Jubelirer said that it’s a winning issue for Biden and he will probably talk about it.

“It’ll be a reminder to women who are soft on Biden or not sure who they’re going to vote for, that he and the Democrats are there in their corner,” he said.

Both Democrats and Republicans give Donald Trump credit for overturning Roe v. Wade after he nominated three Supreme Court judges a 6-3 majority to the conservatives.

Trump has since demurred on whether he would institute a national abortion ban, and Zaborney of Red Maverick Media said that he believes Trump will be able to blunt abortion as an issue.

“I think you’ll hear Joe Biden try to remind people that it was Trump’s court that overturned Roe, but I think President Trump’s been clear, he has accomplished what he wanted to on abortion,” he said.

Amy Raslevich, a health care advocate and breast cancer survivor, told WHYY News that Pennsylvania voters shouldn’t feel complacent just because abortion access is still safe in Pennsylvania.

“Young people don’t understand how much things have changed in the past 30 years, things that millennials and Gen Zers take for granted which we fought for and they’re really in danger of being taken away,” she said.

Biden, Raslevich added, should speak directly to them.

“I think taking a direct line to say we’re not only protecting your reproductive rights, we’re trying to improve your health,’ we’re not going to let the states decide because we’ve seen that the states don’t necessarily rely on science,” she said. “They don’t necessarily rely on fact and they certainly don’t appreciate a woman’s right to her autonomy and health.


Immigration is another flash point, and polls show that voters in the Keystone State believe Trump is best positioned to address the issue, especially after historic numbers of migrants have tried to enter the southern border under the Biden administration.

Biden recently enacted stricter controls at the border, significantly limiting the number of people who could enter the country while their asylum claims are reviewed. He also offered amnesty to undocumented immigrants married to U.S citizens.

Jubelirer said it’s still a winning issue for Trump, who will speak to it from an “emotional” perspective rather than discuss policy.

“He has anecdotes,” Jubelirer told WHYY News. “He will talk about some of the horrific cases that he feels exemplify Biden’s failure on immigration, whether it be immigrants committing crimes and so forth. Whether or not he’s completely truthful, that’s another story.”

Like the economy, Corrigan said he believes Republicans are dishonest on the issue.

“Most of the immigration friction has come from right-wing media and has not been at all in good faith,” Corrigan argued. “The president has been trying to move the ball forward on immigration and unfortunately has had to move unilaterally.”

Threats to democracy

Many Democratic voters — as well as some Republican ones — say potential “threats to democracy” are guiding their decision in November. It is very likely that the January 6 riot will come up in the debate, probably as a “zinger” for Biden who has said “democracy is on the ballot.”

Jubelirer thinks it might fall flat.

“All that does is help Trump with his own base and keeps Biden’s base as is,” he said. “Not everyone in the country can really touch or feel what it means for democracy to be in peril. I don’t know what that means.”

Zaborney said he thinks that the topic may even help Trump, who has called his various legal woes the result of “Biden’s communist show trials.” He pointed out that in swing states as a whole — including Pennsylvania — Trump is now trusted more than Biden on democracy.

He believes that Trump will probably attack Biden on “using the justice system to indict your opponents, et cetera, and what’s now being commonly referred to as ‘lawfare.’”

In the end, Joe Corrigan believes that the debate will help show that the choice is ultimately very simple.

“There’s only one of these people coming in here with 34 convictions, 34 felony convictions,” he said, adding that Biden should “just be himself.”

“Joe Biden is a good man who cares about everyday people in this country because he is of everyday people in this country,” he said. “And the more that empathy shows through, the more that shines through versus the vindictive, frankly, out-of-touch, silver-spooned, Mar-a-Lago, terrible-hair-having Donald Trump, I think that’s a win for him.”


Viewers can watch the Biden-Trump debate on WHYY-TV, listen on WHYY-FM or watch online at WHYY.org.

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