Barry McNamara   |   Published August 28, 2020

Focusing on the Electorate

Debates will be next big moment in presidential election, according to political science lecturer Robin Johnson.

MONMOUTH, Ill. – With the Democratic and Republican national conventions now in the rearview mirror, the next date to circle prior to the first Tuesday in November is Sept. 29. That’s when the first of three scheduled presidential debates will be held.

ROBIN JOHNSON: ?Most voters are pretty well locked in. Some of the polls say the number of undeci... ROBIN JOHNSON: “Most voters are pretty well locked in. Some of the polls say the number of undecided voters is 15 percent. In my opinion, it's between 10 and 15 percent.”The first debate between President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden will be held at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, followed by Oct. 15 in Miami and Oct. 22 in Nashville.

The debates will help sway the opinion of about “10 to 15 percent” of American voters, according to Monmouth College political science lecturer Robin Johnson.

Vice President Mike Pence and Biden running mate Sen. Kamala Harris – who Johnson called “a solid pick” – will debate Oct. 7 in Salt Lake City.

“Most voters are pretty well locked in,” said Johnson, who hosts the radio show Heartland Politics on KBUR-AM in Burlington, Iowa. “Some of the polls say the number of undecided voters is 15 percent. In my opinion, it’s between 10 and 15 percent.”

Asked if Biden could hold his own against Trump on the national stage, Johnson replied: “I think he can. The Democrats need to be prepared. They know Trump’s style, and they know he’s unpredictable. And there are risks for Trump, too. There are still a good number of voters who could be persuaded on who should lead the country.”

Although Johnson said “the COVID-19 pandemic is in a lot of ways front and center now, not only substantively, but also process-wise,” the 2020 presidential election could very much look like the pre-pandemic election of 2016, when Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania were key battleground states. Trump won all three states by less than 1 percent of the vote, including a very narrow 0.23 percent margin in Michigan. Despite losing the popular vote by about 66 million to 63 million to Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, Trump won the electoral vote 306-232.

“The electorate is still up for grabs in key states,” said Johnson, referring to the aforementioned three states. “I expect Biden to focus on his working-class background to appeal to voters in those states.”

Areas of support

Johnson said Biden’s camp claims to be making strides in Iowa and Ohio, while Trump’s team is pointing to gains in New Hampshire and Minnesota. He said other key states will be the traditional swing state of Florida, as well as North Carolina and Arizona.

“Most states, we know already how they’re going to go, but the election is far from over because of the unpredictability of the Electoral College,” said Johnson.

Also unpredictable is which presidential candidate gains the most from what is certain to be an increase of mail-in ballots in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m not convinced that voting by mail hurts Trump,” said Johnson. “I think just as many Republicans as Democrats will take advantage of that.”

Although either party could cry foul after Nov. 3 that the process wasn’t done properly, Johnson isn’t as concerned with the fairness of mail-in voting as he is with the timing.

“There have been very few cases of voter fraud by mail,” he said. “But what we saw in the recent voting in California is that there can be delays. It was two or three weeks after the polls closed before winners were decided there.”

The state races

The presidential race is just part of the drama that will unfold over the next two months, said Johnson.

“In several states, there will be a battle for control of the state legislature,” he said. “In the last election cycle, Republicans took control in a lot of state legislatures and drew new Congressional lines.”

In U.S. Senate races, the Democrats need to pick up four or five seats to regain control. If they do, and if Trump wins re-election, “we’d have a divided government, which would make for a pretty ugly next four years,” said Johnson.

One of those Senate races is in Iowa, where incumbent Republican Joni Ernst is being challenged by Democrat Theresa Greenfield.

“Those Iowa Senate ads have been running since June,” said Johnson. “People are already tuning out.”

But Johnson hopes voters will tune back in when the debates begin, signifying just over one month remaining before Election Day.

“There are people on both sides who feel the future of our country is at stake,” said Johnson. “That’s how hard the partisan lines have become.”

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