Opinions are split about tonight's debate: On one hand, DB's Jim Reid says that it "will be critical, since it represents one of the last set-piece opportunities for either candidate to change the contours of the race." On the other, as Rabobank's Michael Every is dismissive, writing that "neither man has a reputation for eloquence, remaining calm at all times, clearly getting their point across to neutrals, or remaining gaffe free."
In short, while the debate will likely draw huge television numbers, it is unlikely to sway many voters.
Underscoring that point, Poynter writes that the first Trump-Clinton debate in 2016 drew a whopping TV audience of 84 million, making it the most-watched presidential debate ever. That many people could watch tonight’s debate, although not all on TV. Streaming services and views on websites could make up a sizable portion of the audience.
But will it make a difference among voters? The New York Times’ Michael M. Grynbaum points to a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll that shows that 70% of voters say the debates likely would not influence their vote. In that case, many may choose not watch "simply because they are stressed out or just plain tired of divisive politics."
One place where the debate could have an impact is in narrowing Biden's lead. According to Citi, four of the past five "first debates" have seen the trailing candidate close the gap in the polls – at least temporarily.
Meanwhile, Citi claims that market focus will be on the potential for a poor showing from Biden as a turning point in the election; however, according to media reports, the Biden campaign has been preparing for the debate and will likely focus on key issues (economy, pandemic) rather than direct confrontation with Trump.
What about the outcome of the debate and the pronounced winner? Here, as Jim Reid also points out, the reality is that the candidates’ perceived debate success has in the past had a fairly random correlation as to whether they will be elected on not. Mitt Romney "won" the first debate against Obama in 2012 by a huge 52% majority according to Gallup but lost the election. More spectacularly, Trump comfortably "lost" all three 2016 debates to Hillary Clinton (according to the same media that said Hillary had 95% odds of success). A similar fate was bestowed on John Kerry in 2004 when he won all three debates against G.W. Bush but lost the election.
Extending the list, in the last 10 elections with debate reaction data stretching back to 1976, only 2 candidates who were perceived to have won the first debate went on to win the election. Which is why Reid's advice to clients is "enjoy the spectacle but there may not be too much to read into it ahead of November 3rd."