Battleground: Could Atlanta debate change voters’ minds in swing state Georgia?

(The Center Square) – Joe Biden won Georgia in 2020’s election by 0.23% of the vote, the narrowest margin of any state. What happens in Atlanta on Thursday could determine whether he wins the state, and the presidency, again.

Biden and presumptive Republican nominee and former President Donald Trump will meet for the first presidential debate of the 2024 election, hosted by CNN, on Thursday night in Atlanta. The highly-anticipated clash between both men – two U.S. presidents, rivals in 2020, who have personally attacked each other for years – and their tight race in Georgia lead some political experts to think the debate could prove decisive in the swing state, a target for both campaigns.

“[T]he earlier timeline for the first debate (which is typically held in the fall) may mean there is a slightly larger percentage of undecided voters compared to usual,” Jamie Carson, a professor of political science at University of Georgia (UGA), wrote to The Center Square. “At this point, both candidates are unpopular, so a decisive first debate victory might change the minds of some voters.”

Georgia voted for Trump in 2016’s election and Biden in 2020, with the later result being widely attributed to suburban voters in Metropolitan Atlanta – particularly, the counties of Gwinnett, Cobb, Henry, and DeKalb – voting for Biden. Currently, Trump leads Biden by a margin of 5 percentage points in the state, according to a June poll by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Biden and Trump have debated each other twice before, during 2020’s election, which were watched in real time by 73 million and 62 million Americans, respectively, according to Pew Research. Thursday’s debate will likely receive as many, if not more, viewers – who will be scrutinizing both candidates’ performances.

“[A]ll eyes will be on Georgia this week…[it’s] a ‘must-win’ event,” Carson noted.

Other political observers suggest that the behavior of the candidates, more than their arguments, will affect the outcome.

“I think it could have an effect both in Georgia, [and] everywhere, if one of two things happens: either Biden has some kind of ‘senior moment’ and it’s really obvious … or Trump appears sort of unpresidential, argumentative and yelling,” M.V. “Trey” Hood III, the director of the Survey Research Center at UGA, told The Center Square. “It depends on … less of the content of the debate versus the behavior of the two candidates.”

Hood’s observation about behavior echoes the first presidential debate of 2020, when Biden and Trump faced off in an event moderated by then-Fox News anchor Chris Wallace. The event was widely criticized after Trump repeatedly interrupted Biden and challenged Wallace’s moderating, with experts claiming that his performance hurt his outreach to suburban voters.

Biden, who is currently 81 years old, has made several public gaffes in office and has been attacked by Trump, 78, about his mental fitness to participate in the debate. “DRUG TEST FOR CROOKED JOE BIDEN??? I WOULD, ALSO, IMMEDIATELY AGREE TO ONE!!!” Trump wrote on his social media platform on Monday.

Still, most data suggests that debates rarely change voters’ minds. A poll by Monmouth University in 2020 indicated that 87% of voters reported the debates would not affect their decision.

“You know, people know who these two guys are at this point, and they’ve already factored all that in to their own preference,” Hood said.

Biden’s and Trump’s presidential campaigns did not immediately respond to a request for comment.