First US presidential debate: What polls say about 2020 race as Biden and Trump square off

Most voters know for certain where they stand in the contest between Joe Biden and Donald Trump.
Most voters know for certain where they stand in the contest between Joe Biden and Donald Trump.PHOTOS: AFP

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - In the realm of public opinion, one overarching issue has dominated this year's presidential race: President Donald Trump himself.

Throughout his term, Americans have expressed strong opinions about him one way or the other, according to polls.

And today, most voters know for certain where they stand in the contest between Trump and Joe Biden - largely because they're certain about whether they want to reelect the president.

In a New York Times/Siena College survey released on Sunday (Sept 27), more than three-quarters of likely voters nationwide called this the most important election of their lifetimes, reflecting the strong feelings on either side.

Still, a crucial fraction of the millions who tune in to the first presidential debate on Tuesday will have yet to make up their minds. Fully 10 per cent of likely voters in the Times/Siena poll didn't express a vote preference, or said they favoured a third-party candidate.

Will the president or Biden be able to peel away enough of those votes to make a meaningful difference in the race?

Chris Wallace, the Fox News host who will moderate the debate Tuesday, has announced the six topics on which it will be focused: the Supreme Court, the coronavirus outbreak, the integrity of the election, the economy, "race and violence in our cities", and the respective political records of Trump and Biden.

Here's a look at what polling says about where the public stands on those issues - and how the candidates may be looking to score points on each front.


In the wake of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's recent death, Trump wasted no time in choosing a successor. He tapped Judge Amy Coney Barrett, an appeals court jurist with a staunchly conservative record - including a history of opposition to the Affordable Care Act.

Polls conducted just before Barrett was announced as the nominee showed that voters preferred the winner of the November election to name Ginsburg's replacement, following the precedent set four years ago, when Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, refused to hold hearings during an election year on Judge Merrick B. Garland's nomination.


Fifty-six per cent of likely voters said so in the Times/Siena poll, compared with 41 per cent who said Trump should go ahead and fill the seat now.

Two NBC News/Marist College surveys in Michigan and Wisconsin released Sunday also found that a slim majority of likely voters in those swing states thought the winner of the election should be allowed to fill the seat.

But now that Barrett has been nominated, both presidential candidates have made it clear that this debate is about a lot more than Senate precedent.

In an interview that aired on Sunday, Trump declared that with Barrett on the bench, it was "certainly possible" that the court might overturn Roe v Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that legalised abortion nationwide.

Such an outcome would go against the will of most Americans, who support keeping abortion legal.

In the Times/Siena poll, voters said by more than 2-to-1 that they would be less likely to back Trump if he appointed a justice who would overturn Roe. By 20 percentage points, voters said in a Kaiser Family Foundation poll this month that they trusted Biden on issues of abortion and family planning more than Trump.

Meanwhile, Biden, who himself has a mixed record on abortion rights, has put a much more urgent focus on the Affordable Care Act, a law that has grown increasingly popular during Trump's term. Americans now tend to say they support it, according to various polls.


In the Times/Siena survey, independent voters alone supported it by more than 2-to-1. And in the Kaiser poll, voters said by a 13-point margin that they preferred Biden over Trump to determine the law's future.

The administration is currently backing a lawsuit before the Supreme Court that seeks to annul the Affordable Care Act, and Biden has argued that confirming Barrett could mean the end of the law.


In making that argument, Biden has returned repeatedly to the health threats posed by the coronavirus.

"We are still in the midst of the worst global health crisis in a century, a crisis that has already taken over 200,000 lives - between 750 and 1,000 lives a day, and counting," Biden said on Sunday. "And yet the Trump administration is asking the Supreme Court right now, as I speak, to eliminate the entire Affordable Care Act."

Since May, the pandemic has been a weak point politically for Trump - in part because a majority of Americans have consistently disagreed with his focus on speedily reopening, and because many voters simply don't feel they can trust him on this life-or-death matter.


By a 15-point margin, respondents to the Times/Siena poll said they disapproved of how he had responded to the virus - including 50 per cent of white voters, who generally lean toward supporting the president.

According to an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist College poll this month, 65 per cent of Americans said they tended not to believe the information the president provided on the virus. In poll after poll, voters consistently say by double-digit margins that they think Biden would do a better job handling the pandemic.

At the debates, look for Biden to return to the virus as often as he can, hammering the president on what he sees as his greatest vulnerability.


If there is one area in which Trump retains at least a slight advantage over Biden, it is the economy. Even as the pandemic has shuttered businesses across the country, putting millions of Americans out of work, a majority of voters have continued to express approval of how Trump handles economic matters.

By a 12-point margin, respondents to the Times/Siena poll gave him positive marks on that front. In the NPR/PBS/Marist survey, Americans favoured Trump over his opponent by 7 points on handling the economy.

To the extent that Trump can succeed in reminding voters of how things were going before March, he appears to have a strong hand. But where the economy intersects with the virus, things grow dicier.

Fifty-five per cent of likely voters said he was at least partly responsible for the economic downturn, according to the Times/Siena poll - a reflection of how frustrated many Americans have been by his refusal to coordinate a national response to the pandemic.

Forty-nine per cent said that the federal government had not done enough to support the economy amid the outbreak, while just 9 per cent said it had done too much.

And in a sign of the country's appetite for government relief, 72 per cent of likely voters said they thought Congress should pass a new, US$2 trillion stimulus package to combat the pandemic's effects.


Trump has employed an ever-growing list of narratives to cast doubt on the electoral process - whether he is questioning the security of mail-in voting or encouraging supporters in North Carolina to vote twice, which would be a felony. He has also downplayed the threat posed by foreign countries, particularly Russia, that are seeking to interfere in the election.

Fifty-one per cent of Americans said in the recent NPR/PBS/Marist poll that they thought Trump was encouraging election interference, versus just 38 per cent who said he was working to make elections more safe.


In a CNN poll last month, 51 per cent of Americans disapproved of how the president had handled matters of election security, while just 40 per cent approved.

Still, Trump's sowing of doubt may have had the desired effect, in at least one sense: Americans have broadly lost faith in the electoral process.

In the CNN poll, just 22 per cent of voters described themselves as very confident that all votes would be counted fairly, a 13-point drop from 2016.

At least in theory, voters continue to broadly back expanding the means of voting. Asked about whether they would support their state allowing universal access to voting by mail this fall, 73 per cent of Americans said they would, according to a Washington Post/University of Maryland poll last month.


One segment of Tuesday's debate will be devoted to the respective records of each candidate - and, presumably, both will get the opportunity to attack the other over their pasts.

For Trump, this could be the moment when close scrutiny is turned toward his decades of tax avoidance, as detailed in a recent New York Times investigation - a narrative that Biden is likely to take up in his own attacks.


Those tax revelations surfaced too recently for polls to address them, but we do know that Trump has never received high marks for honesty (3 in 5 likely voters called him generally dishonest in a Quinnipiac University poll this month), and that 56 per cent of Americans told the Pew Research Centre in June they thought he had a responsibility to publicly release his tax returns.

For Biden, his 36-year career in the Senate provides ample fodder for the president to seize upon - from his support for the 1994 crime bill to his vote to authorise the Iraq War.

But Trump has seemed most intent on painting the former vice-president as a tool of the far left, an argument that runs counter to much of his Senate track record, and one that has largely proved unsuccessful in peeling away support among swing voters.

For instance, when Americans were asked by Pew this month whether they thought Biden had voiced support for defunding police departments (he hasn't), just over a quarter said yes.


Trump has pounced on the Black Lives Matter demonstrations across the country - and the conflicts that have occasionally flared up around them - in his attempts to convince voters that a vote for Biden would be dangerous.

But while public support for Black Lives Matter and the protests did plateau this summer after rising in the spring, Trump does not appear to have gained from this line of attack. When asked whom they trust more to handle crime, voters are about evenly split in most polling. In the NPR/PBS/Marist poll, 47 per cent said Biden would handle crime better, while 44 per cent chose Trump.

And when asked in a different way in a Monmouth University poll this month, Americans delivered a decisive rebuke to the president's combative approach.

Sixty-one per cent said they thought Trump's handling of the protests had made the situation worse, while just 24 per cent said he had made things better.

Forty-five per cent of Americans said Biden would have handled the situation better, according to the poll, while just 28 per cent said he would have done worse.