The big weaknesses Biden and Trump will confront on the debate stage: From the Politics Desk

Welcome to the online version of From the Politics Desk, an evening newsletter that brings you the NBC News Politics team’s latest reporting and analysis from the campaign trail, the White House and Capitol Hill.

In today’s edition, national political correspondent Steve Kornacki breaks down the biggest weaknesses Joe Biden and Donald Trump will look to address on the debate stage. Plus, correspondent Dasha Burns and producer Abigail Brooks travel to Erie, Pennsylvania, to check in on how Nikki Haley’s supporters are viewing the general election.

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The big weaknesses Biden and Trump will confront on the debate stage

By Steve Kornacki

Joe Biden and Donald Trump will each step on stage for Thursday night’s debate with some glaring political liabilities — and the potential to allay or exacerbate them. Numbers from two CBS News/YouGov polls released this month distill the core challenge for each.

The 81-year-old Biden faces concerns about his age and the sharpness of his mind. He may be just three years older than Trump, but voters are more than 10 times as likely to cite Biden’s age as consideration:

That gap is driven by markedly different perceptions of each candidate’s mental acuity:

It’s likely that voters have limited expectations for Biden’s performance on Thursday. So a lucid, nimble and forceful presentation, sustained for 90 minutes, could upend how Americans see him — just as a muddled and faltering one could cement existing concerns and give rise to new ones.

Trump, meanwhile, carries the weight of nearly a decade of controversy and inflammatory antics. And it shows when voters are asked to assess each candidate’s comportment. In the early June CBS News/YouGov poll, 67% of voters said they personally disliked how Trump has handled himself, compared to 51% who said the same for Biden. Among independents, those figures jumped up to 74% for Trump and 55% for Biden.

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This gets to why, despite Americans’ profound doubts about him, Biden remains essentially tied with Trump in polling. Simply put, a large share of the current president’s support is driven by antipathy toward the former president.

When voters were asked their reason for supporting Biden in the mid-June CBS News/YouGov poll, 33% said it was because they liked the president, while 48% said it was to oppose Trump. Among independents who backed Biden, 21% said it was because they liked the president, compared to 67% who said they opposed Trump.

The worst-case scenario for Trump is that this imposes a ceiling on his support, that too many voters are simply too unnerved by him to back him, no matter their view of Biden.

There’s probably no kind of performance Trump can put on Thursday that would bring about a significant change in his image. But in an election likely to be decided on the margins, warming up even a small slice of those unenthusiastic Biden supporters could be all he needs. Then again, if Trump merely succeeds in confirming those reservations about him, it could prove to be all that Biden needs.

Nikki Haley’s supporters are still up for grabs in key states

By Abigail Brooks and Dasha Burns

ERIE, Pa. — Nearly four months after Nikki Haley dropped out of the presidential race, many of her supporters are still without a political home.

That’s how Richard Speicher and Mary Gensheimer are feeling — particularly after a “Republican voters against Trump” sign went missing from their front yard. They both cast protest votes for Haley in April in Pennsylvania’s GOP primary, even though she had already ended her campaign.

“Trump is not a representative candidate of the Republican Party. He might be what they represent now, but as lifelong Republicans, we both come from a much different tradition,” Speicher said. “The only choice available was Nikki Haley.”

The couple represents a critical bloc of voters — in this key county in a battleground state and across the country — who are up for grabs heading into a general election that could once again be determined on the margins. While many of these Haley voters will ultimately come home and support the GOP ticket, others are weighing backing President Joe Biden — or casting another protest vote in November.

Haley garnered almost 20% of the vote in Erie County in the April primary, six weeks after she ended her candidacy. That’s a warning sign for former President Donald Trump, given Erie’s bellwether status: The county voted for the winner of the state, and the presidency overall, in the last four elections. Statewide, Haley captured 16.4% of the vote, almost 159,000 votes in a state that Trump won by 44,000 votes in 2016 and Biden won by 80,000 votes in 2020.

Since then, Haley has said she will vote for Trump in November. But not all of her supporters are ready to go that far.

The Biden campaign in particular has begun to ramp up its outreach to Haley voters, running ads, hiring staff and leaning on volunteer efforts.

For her part, Speicher said he planned to get a Biden sign to replace the one that disappeared.

“The Republican Party I knew is dead,” Speicher said. “I’m just not sure where I go next.”

Read more on what Haley voters are thinking →

That’s all from the Politics Desk for now. If you have feedback — likes or dislikes — email us at

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