2024 presidential debates: Voters' preferences for topics and format

Taylor OrthDirector of Survey Data Journalism
June 20, 2024, 2:46 PM GMT+0

Joe Biden and Donald Trump will face off on a debate stage on June 27, roughly four years after they last debated, during the 2020 election. Among registered voters, 78% have heard about the upcoming debate on CNN, and 62% definitely or probably plan to watch it.

Few Biden and Trump supporters expect their minds to be changed as a result of the debate, but many who support neither candidate aren't dead-set on their plans for November. Three-quarters of registered voters — including 79% of Biden supporters and 80% of Trump supporters — say the debate is "not at all likely" to change who they plan to vote for. Among registered voters who support neither Biden nor Trump — ones who plan to vote for someone else, aren't sure, or don't plan to vote — just 56% say the debate is not at all likely to change their mind.

Most registered voters say they've never had their minds changed because of a debate: Just 17% say they've ever changed their mind about whom to vote for in a presidential election as a result of watching debates between the candidates.

Majorities of voters want the debate to cover inflation and border security, while few say they want discussion of the candidates' ages (Biden is 81 and Trump is 78).

Comparing the debate styles of Biden and Trump

Biden and Trump each are seen as having their own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to debating. Between the two presidential frontrunners, Biden is seen by more registered voters as better at staying calm under pressure, but he also is seen by more of them as likelier to fumble his words.

Trump is likelier to be seen as more persuasive and more physically intimidating — as well as likelier to interrupt, go over his allotted time, and make personal attacks. More say Trump than Biden would lie during a debate, or dodge a question. Slightly more voters say Trump is overall a better debater than say the same about Biden (43% vs. 36%).

Supporters of Biden and Trump have starkly contrasting views on the candidates' debate skills and temperament. Majorities of Biden and Trump supporters characterize their preferred candidate as a better debater, more knowledgeable about policy, better at staying calm under pressure, and more persuasive. Majorities say the opposing candidate is more likely to lie and dodge a question.

But there are some areas that sizable portions of each candidate's supporters recognize as potential weaknesses in them — though it's possible they may not look like weaknesses to supporters. 24% of Biden supporters believe Biden is more likely to fumble over his words, and 38% of Trump supporters say Trump is more likely to interrupt; the same share say he is likelier to go over the allotted time. Biden and Trump supporters are fully aligned on one point, however: Majorities agree Trump is more likely to be physically intimidating than Biden.

Preferences for debate features and formats

When it comes to the format of presidential debates, majorities of registered voters strongly or somewhat favor limiting answers to a fixed time and muting microphones to prevent interruptions — two rules that will be in place for the upcoming CNN debate.

To better understand what Americans desire in a debate, we asked respondents to an earlier survey to tell us in their own words how they would like presidential debates to be formatted. Based on these responses, we came up with a list of rules or formats that could be popular, and asked respondents in this survey the extent to which they favor or oppose them.

Of the 16 ideas we asked about, the most supported policy is already a fixture of debates: limiting answers to a fixed amount of time. The next popular, though, has not yet been implemented: fact-checking candidate statements throughout the debate. Seven in 10 like the idea of questions being selected by a public vote, and nearly as many support questions being asked by citizens rather than a professional moderator.

Voters are more likely to oppose than support focusing on a single topic per debate, or having an informal discussion between candidates without a moderator.

The upcoming debate will not include a live audience. And while 54% of voters favor a live audience, more (61%) support not allowing applause or other audience reactions.

Biden supporters are far more likely than Trump supporters to favor penalizing candidates who interrupt. Such a rule would favor Biden, according to his supporters: the vast majority — and a sizable portion of Trump supporters — think that Trump is more likely than Biden to interrupt during debates. Biden supporters also are more likely to favor fact-checking, banning audience reactions, and limiting the time candidates have to respond to questions.

Trump supporters are more likely than Biden supporters to like having a live audience, as well as letting citizens ask questions. They are also more favorable towards formats without moderators — including candidates having an informal discussion or directly asking each other questions.

Preferences for debate topics

Debates are an opportunity for Americans to better understand where the candidates stand on issues that matter most to them. To find out what those issues are, we asked Americans to tell us in their own words which topics they wanted raised in the upcoming debate. Using these responses as a guide, we developed a list of 20 potential topics, which we asked respondents in our most recent survey to choose from — allowing them to select all that they would like moderators to ask about.

Inflation and border security top the list of topics the biggest shares of registered voters want raised at the debate — bolstered by particularly large shares of Trump supporters who desire their inclusion. Among Biden supporters, more support the inclusion of questions on climate change, abortion, and health care.

Supporters of each candidate prefer several topics that Americans are more likely to believe favor their preferred candidate, such as inflation and immigration for Trump, and health care and abortion for Biden.


— Carl Bialik and David Montgomery contributed to this article

See the results for this YouGov poll

Methodology: This poll was conducted online on June 13 - 17, 2024 among 1,133 U.S. adult citizens. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel using sample matching. A random sample (stratified by gender, age, race, education, geographic region, and voter registration) was selected from the 2019 American Community Survey. The sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, education, 2020 election turnout and presidential vote, baseline party identification, and current voter registration status. Demographic weighting targets come from the 2019 American Community Survey. Baseline party identification is the respondent’s most recent answer given prior to November 1, 2022, and is weighted to the estimated distribution at that time (33% Democratic, 31% Republican). The margin of error for the overall sample is approximately 4%.

Image: Getty