OPINION: What Georgians need to hear from Biden and Trump in Thursday’s debate

President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden debate during the first presidential debate of the 2020 campaign on Sept. 29, 2020, at Case Western University and Cleveland Clinic, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Morry Gash, Pool, File)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden debate during the first presidential debate of the 2020 campaign on Sept. 29, 2020, at Case Western University and Cleveland Clinic, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Morry Gash, Pool, File)

There’s something almost poetic about the first presidential debate of 2024 happening in Atlanta, since it feels like Georgia has been the epicenter of American politics since Joe Biden and Donald Trump ran against each other in 2020.

First there was Election Night four years ago, when Trump claimed he won reelection, including in Georgia, but did not. We were here for the “Stop the Steal” rallies around the state, the Georgia Senate hearings featuring Rudy Giuliani, and Trump’s infamous phone call to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger demanding that Raffensperger “find” 11,780 votes he needed to win the state.

There were the U.S. Senate runoffs in Georgia the following January, which Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock both won to flip control of the U.S. Senate away from Republicans. There was the special grand jury investigation of Trump and his allies for election interference in Fulton County, an indictment, and a mugshot of Trump and his co-defendants at the Fulton County jail.

While all that unfolded, Biden took office and the country tried to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and get back to normal. Inflation spiked. Even used cars cost a bundle. Unrest at home gave way to unrest overseas. A war broke out in the Middle East.

It all runs together, in some ways, but it also brings us back to where we find ourselves today- — with an older and slower Biden in a rematch against an energized and still angry Trump, and a state nearly evenly split about what should happen next.

Our latest AJC poll of likely Georgia voters released earlier this week reveals an uncertain electorate in Georgia to match the uncertain times.

Overall, Trump leads Biden in Georgia 43% to 38%, days before their debate here, with a sizable group, 9%, supporting Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and about 8% still undecided about what they’ll do in November.

The poll’s crosstabs show dangerous weaknesses for Biden among the exact coalition that swept him to victory in Georgia in 2020, especially among young and diverse voters. Just 12% of Georgians between 18 and 29 said they plan to vote for the president, compared to 56% of young voters who supported Biden four years ago. Trump’s share of young voters is at 37%, a bit lower than the 43% he won four years ago, but not much worse. Even allowing for a margin of error, Biden’s support among young people in Georgia has collapsed.

Among Black voters, the news for Biden is better, but not much, with 69% of Black voters saying they’ll vote for the president, compared to 88% who voted for him last time. Trump, meanwhile, is holding steady with roughly 9% of Black voters supporting him, compared to 11% who voted for him in 2020.

About 16% of the Black voters surveyed said they haven’t decided or don’t plan to vote for president. That’s more than any other demographic group.

Georgia Democrats have been urging the Biden campaign to use Thursday’s debate to tell voters about the president’s policies that are benefiting them directly — from student loan forgiveness to a cap on the cost of insulin for seniors to billions in infrastructure dollars that will eventually show up as improvements to Georgia roads, rails and bridges.

Likewise, they want voters to know the unemployment rate is below 4% and that inflation is better, if not solved. But that’s a tough message to deliver to voters who say they’re deeply worried about the economy and pessimistic about the direction of the country under Biden.

Gov. Brian Kemp and many other Republicans in Georgia want Trump to talk about the future during Thursday night’s debate, not the past. They especially want him to avoid talking about the 2020 election, which Trump still wrongly insists he won in Georgia. It’s advice Trump would be wise to follow.

In speechwriting, they say an audience will rarely remember what you said to them, but they’ll always remember how you made them feel.

The same will likely hold true for Trump and Biden Thursday night. For a Georgia electorate that seems full of doubt, the one thing Biden and Trump need to deliver is certainty.

For Biden, the word is ability — showing voters he is still up to the job of president at 81.

Watching Biden on live TV these days sometimes feels like watching an ice skater at the Olympics — squinting your eyes in case somebody falls. He’s exceeded expectations plenty of times, especially at this year’s State of the Union. He has to do it again on Thursday night.

But watching Donald Trump in real-time isn’t always a picnic either. I’d compare it to staring at an undetonated bomb — will it go off while you’re watching? In the same way that Biden must show he is still sharp enough to be president, Trump must show he has the stability to do the job. That means he’ll need to resist his worst instincts to interrupt, insult and otherwise act impulsively.

The winner of the Thursday debate in Atlanta Thursday night will be the one who manages to put voters’ worst fears to rest, at least for 90 minutes, and convince them that whatever the future holds, they’re the best man to lead them through it, one more time.