Skip to content
The Cash for Clunkers Debate
Go to my account

The Cash for Clunkers Debate

The low-wattage rematch hasn’t changed the nature of presidential contests—it has expedited it.

Then-President Donald Trump and Joe Biden participate in the final presidential debate at Belmont University on October 22, 2020, in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Then-President Donald Trump and Joe Biden participate in the final presidential debate at Belmont University on October 22, 2020, in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

You have probably heard it already, but if you haven’t, get ready for an avalanche of ennui about the presidential debate scheduled for Thursday.

The conventional wisdom around this election has congealed into a world-weary shrug that, you guessed it, “nothing matters.” This is in keeping with the cynicism of our time, and it is also appealing to pundits, both professional and amateur, because it is easy.  

It is also, of course, wrong.

Yes, this is the first presidential rematch in 68 years. Yes, the candidates are universally known and mostly disliked. Yes, the campaigns are driven by negative partisanship and base motivation far more than persuasion. True, true, true.

But that doesn’t mean that nothing matters. It means that the sliver of the electorate initially up for grabs this year was smaller than the already narrow slice in recent contests. It’s only June, and we’re talking about probably 5 percent of the electorate in the seven swing states. But that’s where every presidential contest ends up anyway. The low-wattage rematch hasn’t changed the nature of presidential contests so much as it has expedited it. Cash for Clunkers, but for campaigns. 

That program, instituted in the recession that followed the Panic of 2008, was intended to stimulate the economy by getting Americans to buy new cars and trucks from a freshly bankrupted domestic auto industry. What it did instead was just move up purchases that might have happened later in the year. That certainly seems to be what’s happening in this year’s campaign. 

The big swings we have typically seen in presidential elections this century have been because one nominee is relatively little known at the start, or, the one time when both were not household names. The past six presidential contests have followed a predictable pattern. In June, public opinion remains volatile, but then the nominees become equally well known through the summer and with the conventions. By the start of the fall, things have firmed up and the battle is on for the handful of late-deciding swing voters.

But this year, that’s where we’re starting, rather than finishing. 

One way to look at the recent improvement for President Joe Biden’s performance with voters is that former President Donald Trump’s criminal convictions pushed undecided voters in the incumbent’s direction. That’s true enough, but we might also think of it like this: The voters moving to Biden weren’t switching from Trump, but rather were probable Biden voters “coming home” in June rather than September.

The most recent Fox News poll, which gives Biden his first lead of the contest, shows Trump basically unchanged since March but Biden increasing his share of the electorate by 5 points in the same period. Many of these were springtime undecideds and notional Robert F. Kennedy Jr. voters who are now ready to suck it up and pull the lever for Biden. Trump’s criminality no doubt helped, if for no reason than having the former president dominate the news for the better part of two weeks was a great way to remind dissident Democrats of the stakes.

There are genuinely persuadable voters, though. Some are known by the already clichéd moniker “double haters,” but we shouldn’t confuse dual dissatisfaction with persuadability. There are lots of folks who strongly disapprove of both candidates who nevertheless are solidly in one camp or another. These voters may be more likely to sit this one out, but if they can be gotten to the polls, will stick with their teams. The campaigns will spend great gobs of money trying to crowbar them into the electorate.

Even so, there are some in this camp of double despair who are likely to vote but might be persuaded as to which candidate is the least bad option, and some of these will actually move from Trump to Biden and Biden to Trump. What’s different from previous cycles is that we’ve reached this stage with 19 weeks to go rather than nine.

The campaigns have scheduled their first debate accordingly. This will be the earliest-ever general election debate in the 64-year history of the institution. No presidential debate has ever been held prior to the fourth week of September, so this is three months ahead of schedule. 

That means there will be lots of time until the next debate—scheduled for the only slightly precocious date of September 10—for whatever happens this Thursday to be forgotten. But what we know about both voters and debates alike tells us that something will happen. It may be small for all of the reasons above, but I have every expectation that, even with an otherwise unremarkable debate, the condition of the race will change.

More purportedly undecided voters will get real about their preferences. More tuned-out voters will tune in because they will be forced to confront the fact that, yes, this is actually happening. And some of that little slice of true persuadables will be persuaded. Remember always that once a voter makes up her or his mind, it’s much harder to get them to change again. Even as the debate is forgotten, its consequences will linger on.

So for reference, here’s a look at the recent history of first debate bounces:


  • Date/location: September 29 in Cleveland
  • Polling average day of debate: Biden +7.1
  • Polling average 10 days after debate: Biden +10.1 (change: Biden +3)
  • Source: FiveThirtyEight
  • Debate Recap
  • Notes: Trump tested positive for COVID on October 2—Biden’s bump is probably (if not mostly) attributable to that fiasco.


  • Date/location: September 26 in New York
  • Polling average day of debate: Clinton +1.4
  • Polling average 10 days after debate: Clinton +4.6 (change: Clinton +3.2)
  • Source: FiveThirtyEight
  • Debate Recap


  • Date/location: October 3 in Denver
  • Polling day of debate: Obama +4
  • Polling 10 days after debate: Tie (change: Romney +4)
  • Source: Gallup Daily Tracking
  • Debate Recap
  • Notes: Considered to be a decisive Romney win. He would pull ahead in polling averages in late October, though the two were neck-and-neck come Election Day.


  • Date/location: September 26 at Ole Miss
  • Polling day of debate: Obama +3
  • Polling 10 days after debate: Obama +9 (change: Obama +6)
  • Source: Gallup Daily Tracking
  • Debate Recap
  • Notes: That pesky financial crisis. There were a series of bank failures the day before the debate (Washington Mutual seized by the FDIC, etc.). The Dow had its worst week of losses in history shortly after the debate. McCain performed well in the foreign policy section, but got killed on the economy via association with George W. Bush. Polls would not show a close race for the rest of the campaign. 

We might be looking at a much smaller debate bounce this cycle. Maybe only 1 point or 2. But in a race this close with candidates universally known, that’s nothing to sneeze at.

Holy croakano! We welcome your feedback, so please email us with your tips, corrections, reactions, amplifications, etc. at STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM. If you’d like to be considered for publication, please include your real name and hometown. If you don’t want your comments to be made public, please specify.


Biden Job Performance
Average approval: 42.2%
Average disapproval: 55.8%
Net score: -13.6 points 

Change from one week ago: ↑ 2.4 points

Change from one month ago: ↑ 3.8 points

[Average includes: Fox News: 45% approve-55% disapprove; NPR/PBS/Marist: 43% approve-53% disapprove; Echelon Insights: 42% approve-58% disapprove; Monmouth 39% approve-57% disapprove; Financial Times: 42% approve-56% disapprove]

General Election

Donald Trump: 41.8% (↓ 0.2 points from one week ago)
Joe Biden: 40.4%  (↑ 1.0)
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: 8.8% (↓ 1.0)

[Average includes: Fox News: Trump 42%-Biden 43%-Kennedy 10%; NPR/PBS/Marist: Trump 42%-Biden 41%-Kennedy 11%; Echelon Insights: Trump 43%-Biden 42%-Kennedy 7%; Emerson: Trump 44%-Biden 38%-Kennedy 6%; TIPP: Trump 38%-Biden 38%-Kennedy 10%]


The New Yorker: “Maine has thirty-five hundred miles of coastline, including coves, inlets, and bays. … Hundreds of millions of glass eels arrive each spring, as the waters warm. Four hundred and twenty-five licensed elvermen are allowed to harvest slightly more than seven thousand five hundred pounds of them. … Maine is the only state with a major elver fishery. … The baby eels are shipped live, mostly to Hong Kong, in clear plastic bags of water and pure oxygen, like a sophisticated twist on pet-store goldfish. … Japan alone annually consumes at least a hundred thousand tons of freshwater eel, unagi, which is widely enjoyed kabayaki style—butterflied, marinated, and grilled. … National Fisherman calls glass eels ‘likely the most valuable fish in the United States on a per-pound basis.’ … During a favorable market and a hard elver run, a Mainer may earn a hundred thousand dollars in a single haul. … This year, more than forty-five hundred Mainers applied for sixteen available licenses.” 


Politico: “President Joe Biden’s campaign had been restrained in its attacks on Donald Trump’s New York criminal conviction for weeks until the campaign said internal polling and focus groups showed the verdict turned off voters. … The result, hitting TV sets across the country on Monday, was the campaign’s unleashing of its sharpest attack ad yet, depicting Trump as a ‘convicted criminal who’s only out for himself.’ … The shift in approach from Biden is significant, coming just ahead of the first debate. … Inside the Biden campaign, officials cast the ad, part of a $50 million June ad buy in battleground states, as part of an ongoing effort to frame the election around a character contrast. … Some Democrats worried opening the door to attacks on Trump’s criminal conviction would also give Republicans reason to attack the president over his son.” 

And pulls $30 million at star-studded fundraiser: Los Angeles Times: “President Biden and former President Obama railed against former President Trump, touted the Democratic incumbent’s policy achievements and slipped in a few jokes at a Saturday night fundraiser in downtown Los Angeles that shattered Democratic fundraising records. … The star-studded fundraiser at the Peacock Theater in downtown L.A. raised more than $30 million — the largest cash haul from a one-night event in Democratic history. Biden, Obama and First Lady Jill Biden repeatedly attacked Trump, a notable escalation of their rhetoric. … Obama, George Clooney and Julia Roberts were the headliners. … Other elected officials and celebrities who attended included Gov. Gavin Newsom [and] Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass. … While the Democrat has outpaced Trump in dollars raised in California and nationally, the former president has seen a burst of donations since being convicted in late May.”

Seniors for Biden? Incumbent holds strong with older voters: Wall Street Journal: “Republican presidential candidates have carried seniors in every election since 2000, and Trump won a majority of voters ages 65 and older in 2016 and 2020. But recent polling has shown Biden in a stronger position this time. Biden has notched about 48% of seniors in The Wall Street Journal’s national and swing-state polls this year, a number that puts him in line with his 2020 performance. The polls have shown Trump getting about 46% of that age group, down from 51% in 2020. … The president has been performing well among Americans who are closely monitoring the election, giving him an advantage with seniors who actively consume cable television and news coverage in their retirement. … Across seven key presidential battleground states, residents ages 65 and older account for more than 10 million people.”

Biden looks to score with Latinos in new ad blitz: NBC News: “President Joe Biden’s campaign is drawing up a new play to reach Latino voters in key battleground states during the Copa América soccer tournament. … The campaign is aiming to reach the millions of viewers expected to tune in through a seven-figure ad blitz and organizing effort. … A 30-second spot — titled ‘Gooaalll!’ — will air in swing states that are hosting matches over the next month, like Nevada, Arizona, Georgia, Florida and North Carolina, according to the campaign. The ads will run in both English and Spanish. … ‘Trump talks and talks. Joe Biden gets s— done,’ it ends, with a superimposed red card over Trump’s face.”

Trump courts black voters in Detroit church visit: Reuters: “Donald Trump ventured on Saturday where few Republican presidential candidates tread—the city of Detroit, attending a community forum as part of a push to peel Black voters from President Joe Biden. … Trump’s appearance at a Black church drew a mix of curious local residents and die-hard supporters, but little in the way of protest. … At the 180 Church on the west side of the city, Trump sat on stage at a table flanked by a panel of members of the local community, including small-business owners and activists. The event was moderated by U.S. Representative Byron Donalds of Florida, a contender to be Trump’s vice-presidential pick. … Trump focused on his core messages, blasting the Biden administration over high inflation, crime and illegal migration, which he said has harmed Black Americans in particular.” 

MAGA world dreams of Old Dominion: Wall Street Journal: “Whether Virginia backs Donald Trump or Joe Biden shouldn’t even be a discussion. The state hasn’t backed a Republican for president since George W. Bush in 2004. But early polls showing Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, cutting into the Democratic president’s lead have served as a wake-up call for Virginia Democrats. … ‘Not only is President Trump dominating in every traditional battleground state, but longtime blue states such as Minnesota, Virginia, and New Jersey are now in play,’ Trump campaign national press secretary Karoline Leavitt said. … Biden won the state in 2020 by a margin of 10.2 percentage points—the widest margin of victory in the state for a Democratic presidential candidate since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944. … [Last] Wednesday, Trump met with Virginia Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin to discuss ground-game strategy for Virginia.” 


Politico: “The National Republican Senatorial Committee is planning to spend more than $100 million on advertising. … Its broad strategy is clear: Rely on wealthy recruits to self-fund and draw big donors, take advantage of Joe Biden’s unpopularity to save money in key battleground states, and use independent expenditures to complement those efforts. … A key aspect of the GOP plan was recruiting wealthy candidates who can inject their own fortunes — and those of their wealthy friends — into their campaigns. … The NRSC has already begun running joint ad buys with Tim Sheehy in Montana, Dave McCormick in Pennsylvania, Larry Hogan in Maryland, Sam Brown in Nevada and Kari Lake in Arizona. It will soon add Bernie Moreno in Ohio, Mike Rogers in Michigan and Eric Hovde in Wisconsin to that list.” 

Poll: Brown outpaces Biden by double-digits: Ohio Capital Journal: “A new Marist poll suggests Ohio voters may split their ticket in this November’s election. Former President Donald Trump holds a seven-point advantage over President Joe Biden in the presidential race, according to the survey. … But in the Senate race, Trump’s favored candidate, Republican Bernie Moreno, trails Ohio Democratic U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown by five points. … Marist pollsters found 50% support Brown or they’re leaning that way. Moreno, an entrepreneur from Cleveland, landed at 45%, which is within the poll’s margin of error. Of those who plan to vote for Brown, 10% are backing Donald Trump for president. … Brown holds a strong advantage among independent voters according to Marist’s survey, with 53% backing the incumbent compared to just 37% supporting Moreno.” 

Jacky Rosen falls back on tried-and-true abortion messaging: Washington Post: “Hours after Sam Brown clinched Nevada’s Republican Senate nomination [last] Tuesday night, his Democratic opponent released an ad highlighting his support of a 20-week abortion ban in Texas a decade ago. … As Democrats navigate difficult political and economic terrain in Nevada, some believe their best hope for victory — both in this Senate race and for President Biden’s reelection — is to boost turnout among disenchanted Democrats and independents by convincing them that abortion rights are at risk. … Brown, a retired Army captain who served in Afghanistan, insists he will not interfere with Nevada’s laws allowing abortion up until 24 weeks. … Polls in Nevada are showing flashing warning signs for Democrats — particularly the softening support of Hispanic voters and younger voters.” 


FiveThirtyEight launches 2024 election forecast—FiveThirtyEight

A huge Dem overperformance in Eastern Ohio special election—Washington Post

All politics is local: Dems drop $10 million on state legislature races—New York Times

GOP Rep. Garret Graves won’t run for reelection after Louisiana redistricting—WAFB


“Well, we’re not going to give away our full path to victory strategy, but we do have  a five-inch-thick strategy document that we’re following. So we can definitely win.”—Nicole Shanahan, RFK Jr.’s vice presidential pick, lays out the campaign’s top secret plan to capture 270 electoral votes in an interview with Fox 11 Los Angeles


“I think your characterization of [the Maryland Senate] race as ‘Likely Democratic’ is wrong. Larry Hogan was a very popular, two-term Republican governor working with a very Democratic legislature. He left office—after 8 years—with an 80% approval rating—in one of the ‘bluest’ states.​ Today, RealClearPolling shows him leading by an average of 46-40. Having been governor, he has higher name recognition than Angela Alsobrooks, who has served as the state’s attorney and county executive in the Washington suburb of Prince George’s County. I think ‘Toss-up’ or at worst, ‘Lean Democratic.’ If the polling holds up into September, then ‘Lean Republican.’”Chip Watkins, Arlington, Virginia

Mr. Watkins,

All the reasons you listed are exactly why the Maryland race stayed “above the fold” as a race to watch, but I would caution you that partisanship is some powerful business. 

In 2020, just one state, Maine, split its Senate and presidential votes, going for President Joe Biden by 9 points and reelecting Republican Sen. Susan Collins by a similar margin. Like Hogan, who is taking abuse from his own party, Collins faced self-defeating Republicans but also like Hogan, she also had the well-earned respect of her constituents for having been independent-minded and avoiding undo partisan hackery.

If anybody could be the Susan Collins of 2024, it’s Hogan. But it may help to remember that Collins’ singular and impressive 18-point spread with Trump’s performance in Maine would have still been short that year in Maryland, where Biden won by more than 33 points. 

So let’s say that Biden does worse this time around. The best performance by any Republican presidential candidate in Maryland this century was George W. Bush in 2004 with 42.9 percent to John Kerry’s 55.9 percent, with GOP numbers declining every cycle since then. But let’s say that things go very well for the GOP and Democrats are extremely dispirited and stay home in droves, and Hogan has to outperform Trump by only 15 points to win. He certainly could pull that off, given his impressive record of success in such a blue state. 

But, lots of states are like Maryland in being more willing to switch sides for the governorship than they are the Senate because of the different implications. Vermont is happy with its Republican governor but keeps reelecting Bernie Sanders. Kentucky last year retained its Democratic governor, but continually crushes the hopes of aspiring blue team Senate candidates. Or consider the case of Steve Bullock, the popular, effective twice-elected Democratic governor of Republican Montana. But when he ran for Senate in 2020, he got smoked by 10 points despite huge financial support from national Democrats. 

Hogan certainly could avoid that fate, but the climb is steep.

And a word about the polls: In the two most recent surveys, the newest one, conducted more than a month ago (and before the primary) had Alsobrooks up by 10 points while the next most recent one, now more than two months old, had Hogan winning by 18 points. So, yes, you could average those two and say that Hogan is up by 4 points, or, more helpfully, you could conclude that there isn’t enough current polling to give us a useful average. Now that Alsobrooks has won the nomination and will be the beneficiary of tens of millions of dollars worth of advertising that will make her famous and seek to make Hogan infamous, we will need to wait for more data to see.

But I promise you that if Hogan is rocking a real 6-point lead in an average of high-quality polls come September, “lean Republican” would be a very easy call to make.

Just as it is for Democrats in Texas and Florida this cycle, it is better for Republicans in Maryland to start with the assumption that bucking the presidential trend in a Senate race will be very tough and then run like they know it.

All best,


You should email us! Write to STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM with your tips, kudos, criticisms, insights, rediscovered words, wonderful names, recipes, and, always, good jokes. Please include your real name—at least first and last—and hometown. Make sure to let us know in the email if you want to keep your submission private. My colleague, the perspicacious Nate Moore, and I will look for your emails and then share the most interesting ones and my responses here. Clickety clack!


Bernie Moreno, Republican candidate for Senate, speaks at the Columbiana County Lincoln Day Dinner in Salem, Ohio, on March 15, 2024. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
Bernie Moreno, Republican candidate for Senate, speaks at the Columbiana County Lincoln Day Dinner in Salem, Ohio, on March 15, 2024. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

I have a strong bias in my cutline favorites for a guffaw or a snort over a “heh.” But sometimes, you have to give it to the smart set. As we do this week with a very literary reference for this photo of Ohio Republican Senate nominee Bernie Moreno giving it the gas at a rally. Our winner tapped one of the best-ever bits of American writing from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, and it was too good for me to default to my usual preference for the sophomoric.

“Over the ashheaps the giant eyes of Donald J. Trump kept their vigil…”—Cannon Alsobrook, Smyrna, Georgia

Winner, Uncle Tonoose Division:

“Trump strong! Like bull!”—Tim Maloney, St. Louis, Missouri

Winner, Spin-ach Division:

“Popeye, tired of sailing the seven seas, goes corporate.  Bluto calls him a globalist.”—Paul Williams, Shaker Heights, Ohio

Winner, Enemy of the State Division:

“As You-Know-Who looks on, Bernie Moreno takes his turn on Emmanuel Goldstein.”—Ben Lewis, Cape Girardeau, Missouri

Winner, Life’s Rich Pageant Division:

“Bernie Moreno completes biceps-vetting segment for Trump endorsement nod.”—Linda McKee, Dubois, Pennsylvania

Winner, Do You Even Lift, Bro Division:

“Moreno disappoints with new ‘Trump pump’ arm flex”—David Porter, Tampa, Florida

Winner, Girlie Men Division:

““JA! Me and the Donald! Vee will pump you up!”—Allan Hardcastle, Lincoln, California

Winner, The Ones You Love Division:

“In display of brotherly love, GOP standard bearer requires the Party’s Senate candidate to punch his own face while down ballot Republican challengers watch.”—Dan Burch, Turlock, California

Winner, Whyiotta Division: 

“One of these days, one of these days, POW, right in the kisser!”—Felicia Warner, Fuquay Varina, North Carolina

Winner, Catskills Division:

“I’ll give him such a zetz in kup, he’ll never be the same.”—Bob Goldman, Gilroy, California


NDTV: “French citizens are planning a controversial protest against the government’s expensive plan to clean up the Seine River in Paris for the 2024 Olympic Games. The protest involves a mass ‘defecation flashmob’ in the river on the day President Emmanuel Macron and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo are scheduled to take a swim there to promote the river’s cleanliness. … This unusual form of protest reflects a long-standing tradition of radical demonstrations in France. The hashtag #JeChieDansLaSeineLe23Juin (I Poop in the Seine on June 23rd) began trending on social media after Mayor Hidalgo announced the planned swim. A website with the same name allows participants to register their locations for the protest. … The 2024 Summer Olympics, also known as Paris 2024, will be held in France from July 26th to August 11th, 2024.”

Nate Moore contributed to this report.

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the politics editor for NewsNation, co-host of the Ink Stained Wretches podcast, and author of Broken News, a book on media and politics.