Trump’s poll numbers are actually increasing

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Joe Biden is banking on the fact that Donald Trump’s daily one-liners will be overshadowed by the substance required to sustain a full debate. 

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on May 20, 2024.

OTTAWA—The next American election doesn’t happen until November.

But the first debate will happen on June 27 on CNN.

This historically early showdown was shaped through a social media exchange.

U.S. President Joe Biden launched the debate challenge in a video on X—formerly Twitter—where he accused Donald Trump of avoiding debates against his Republican challengers.

“Donald Trump lost two debates in 2020. Since then he hasn’t shown up for a debate. Now he is acting like he wants to debate me again,” Biden said.

“Well, make my day, pal. I’ll even do it twice. So let’s pick the dates, Donald—I hear you are free on Wednesdays,” Biden said, in a not so-subtle reference to Trump’s daily criminal court appearances, which don’t happen on Wednesdays.

Trump accepted the challenge on his social media platform, Truth Social, with this response. “I am READY and WILLING to Debate Crooked Joe at the two proposed times in June and September.” Trump also said he is strongly recommending more than two debates.

The president’s decision to launch the challenge is more than unusual.

For the past 37 years, all presidential debates have been managed by a non-partisan Commission on Presidential Debates.

That organization has already announced three debates in September and October, in Texas, Pennsylvania, and Utah.

But voters can actually cast their ballots as of Sept. 6 in some states, and both candidates think the debates should be held earlier.

Two years ago, the Republican National Committee agreed unanimously to boycott the commission’s presidential debates, but Democrats did not follow suit until this week.

There has been disagreement with the commission by the Democrats, who felt the organization broke the rules in allowing Trump and supporters to forego the wearing of masks during a COVID debate in 2020.

Democrats also want a debate without an audience, while Trump is seeking more people in more venues. He even suggested a debate in front of the courthouse where he is currently on trial for allegedly falsifying business records for hush money paid to former porn star Stormy Daniels.

Biden’s decision to call for an early debate is not a total surprise, as Democrats have not been happy with the college-based format.

But the fact that he would launch the challenge on social media is surprising.

It signals the importance of social media in the upcoming election race, and also suggests that Trump’s positive polling numbers are causing concern in presidential circles.

If the president were firmly in the lead, he would be minimizing the attention paid to debates. Democrats are also anxious to keep third-party candidate Robert Kennedy Jr. out of the ring.

They obviously don’t think he can win, but in a tight race, the scion of the Kennedy clan could actually deliver the race to Trump.

The early debate on CNN won’t likely include Kennedy, although that decision has not been finalized. That is one big reason why Biden wants to go early.

A second reason is that, notwithstanding Trump’s judicial challenges, his poll numbers are actually increasing.

Biden is banking on the fact that Trump’s daily one-liners will be overshadowed by the substance required to sustain a full debate.

Whatever happens in the United States, a presidential debate involving Trump will have a spillover effect in Canada.

Trump has been travelling the country bragging about his appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court who have thrown out women’s right to control their own reproduction.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre says he won’t touch the abortion issue, but his caucus is rife with those who plan to do just that. He has also promised to use the notwithstanding clause to overturn laws that he doesn’t like.

Trump is also saying that he does not support a national ban on abortion, but says the states should make the decision and, once they do, it should be respected.

Democrats would love to run the election on that issue, because they know that the vast majority of women—especially young women—do not want the clock to be turned back on abortion rights.

Liberals would love to have Canadian voters focused on the same issue.

Poilievre hopes to park the abortion question having promised not to reopen the issue. But more than half his caucus members are actively anti-choice.

Poilievre recently joined them in voting against the provision of free birth control medication as part of the rollout of a modified pharma care program.

The more Trump’s team campaigns against abortion rights, the more Canadians will wonder if that could happen here.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.