Debate Day in Atlanta: Biden and Trump face off as Georgia voters could decide the election

Ben Starett, lighting programmer for CNN, sets up lights in the spin room for the presidential debate between President Joe Biden and Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump in Atlanta, Wednesday, June 26, 2024. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

This story was updated on Thursday, June 27 at 7:36 p.m.

Just under 12,000 votes separated Joe Biden and Donald Trump when they last appeared on the ballot in Georgia. Four years later, the rivals are preparing to share a debate stage Thursday night in Atlanta in what could be one of the most significant moments of the presidential campaign. 

Trump and Biden are both expected to arrive in Atlanta this afternoon before heading to CNN studios in Midtown for the debate, which begins at 9 p.m. and will last 90 minutes. No audience will be in the studio as the two men face off, but hundreds of journalists will be stationed down the street at Georgia Tech’s McCamish Pavilion. 

The debate is a capstone on a week jammed with campaign events that previewed the general election season to come. 

The Biden campaign looked to engage Republican voters with a state Capitol event featuring former Republican U.S. House Rep. Adam Kinzinger and former Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn, underlining the stakes for democracy. The campaign also hosted an event focused on reproductive rights.

The Trump campaign held events targeting Black male voters, including small business owners at a barbershop in Buckhead. And the campaign organized around a perennial issue for Trump and his supporters – false claims of widespread election fraud. At a training, the campaign encouraged efforts to challenge the eligibility of voters who they say should not be on the rolls.

Six in 10 say they plan to watch the debate in some form, according to a poll by the Associated Press. Biden and Trump will aim to focus on the choice this November for voters around the country  – and especially the slice of voters in Georgia and other swing states that could swing the election.

Some of them live in Alpharetta, a suburb of Atlanta where new subdivisions keep sprouting and have helped turn this formerly Republican stronghold purple. Reading a novel on a lounge chair in the sun at Alpharetta’s Wills Park Pool, Kerry Webster is the kind of voter Biden and Trump need to persuade.

Webster says she is unhappy with her choices for president. And though she voted for Trump in 2020, he has since been convicted on 34 felony counts and faces more charges, including in Georgia.

A grand jury indicted Trump just a few miles from the debate stage on charges that he attempted to overturn Georgia’s 2020 presidential election result.

“He’s a conniver. He’s not really a good person — he’s really not,” Webster said. “But the economy was better, and Biden, I don’t know if he does a lot for us, hate to say.”

But Webster does not plan to watch Thursday’s debate. Despite living in a state and a suburban community that helped decide the presidency in 2020, she says she feels unmotivated about her options and has wondered whether her vote matters much anyway.

The Wills Park Pool in Alpharetta, Ga., has given families a break from the heat, but with the presidential debate in Georgia on Thursday, voters can’t get a break from politics in this pivotal state. (Sam Gringlas/WABE)

Prasad and Mansi Vichare are keeping an eye on their kids splashing nearby as a DJ bumps Taylor Swift on repeat and older kids leap from a tall diving board for prizes. The Vichares identify as political independents. And though they definitely plan to vote, they think debates are a mostly useless exercise.

“To be honest, they’re a waste, but that’s just my opinion,” Prasad said. “I’m indifferent,” added Mansi, who believes the candidates just tell people what they think they want to hear. “I feel like it’s somewhat fake, and so I don’t know if it’s really that helpful.”

A few lounge chairs away, Madalyn Ford is concerned that some voters have not internalized the stakes.

Ford says she has voted for both Republicans and Democrats, but never Trump. At 73, she worries about the U.S. that her grandkids will inherit and says she will not miss the debate.

“This is really important for Biden,” Ford predicted. “He better get a good night’s rest. I don’t think he’s got dementia, but he’s old and this is super-important.”

Polls suggest that Biden has gained ground with older voters, particularly women. But support from younger voters of color, who have long been Democrats’ bread and butter, appears to be softening.

Millennial Deanna McKay says she has struggled with whether her vote matters. McKay voted for Trump in 2016 and Biden in 2020. She says she will watch this debate with an open mind.

“Socially Biden, but financially Trump, and that’s kind of a tough place to be,” she explained. “But it’s a little frustrating because these aren’t the two candidates I would choose.”

McKay says she cares most about affordable housing and reproductive rights. She says she does not directly fault Trump for the overturn of Roe v. Wade, despite his three appointments that cemented a conservative majority on the Supreme Court.

Field operations take shape as voting nears

This month, the Trump campaign opened its first Georgia field office in a tidy brick building that’s 20 miles south of Atlanta and shared with an insurance agency. On a recent weekday, staffers invited supporters to tour the campaign’s inaugural field office, grab coffee and doughnuts and sign up to volunteer.

Ben Carson wears a suit and holds a microphone as he speaks at a ceremony to open Donald Trump's first Georgia campaign office on June 13. Behind Carson hangs a blue campaign banner.
Former U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson speaks at a ceremony to open Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump’s first Georgia campaign office in Fayetteville, Ga., Thursday, June 13, 2024. (AP Photo/Jeff Amy)

Ben Carson, the secretary of housing and urban development under Trump, traveled to Georgia for the grand opening and described the choice that voters face in November with an analogy.

“Would you rather have the surgeon who has a bad bedside manner but saves everybody, or the one with a very sweet personality who kills everybody?” Carson asked. “Which one would you take?”

The Trump campaign says it now has more than a dozen staffed field offices in the state, though Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, recently raised concerns that the Trump campaign’s ground game in Georgia may be lagging.

“This year it will be clearer than ever that Georgians are ready to help send their state’s sixteen electoral votes to the GOP column this fall,” Henry Scavone, the Republican National Committee’s communications director in Georgia, said in a statement.

After Biden managed to flip Georgia blue in 2020, becoming the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry the state since 1992, Republicans swept nearly every statewide office in the midterm elections that followed. Democratic U.S. Senator Raphael Warnock won reelection that year in a runoff, the one exception.

Democrats still believe Georgia is winnable and see a strong ground game as crucial to notching more wins. Ahead of the debate, the Biden campaign says it will hold 200 events in Georgia, looking to leverage the national spotlight and the side-by-side view of the two candidates.

Jonae Wartel, the Biden campaign’s senior adviser in Georgia, says deploying a presence statewide, not just in the Democratic stronghold of metro Atlanta, is a key feature of the campaign’s Georgia strategy. The campaign says it has 14 Georgia field offices and will hit 100 staffers here by the end of the week.

“Right here in our backyard, the world is going to be watching how President Biden is fit to lead us into another four-year administration and Donald Trump is continuing to be a threat,” Wartel says. “That contrast is going to be on full display. It’s the campaign’s job to take advantage of that.”

‘I’m very nervous, I’ll be honest

People eat food outdoors under blue patio umbrellas at a Juneteenth block party to mark the opening of the Biden campaign's Atlanta office.
The Biden campaign opened an Atlanta campaign office with a Juneteenth block party joined by Vice President Harris. (Sam Gringlas/WABE)

Vice President Harris has traveled to Georgia so often that she says people have started jokingly asking whether she is moving there.

“I said maybe!” she recently joked during a Juneteenth block party to celebrate the opening of a coordinated campaign office in Atlanta.

“We’re never going to let anybody take our power from us — we will never let anybody silence us. That’s what this election is about,” Harris told members of the crowd as they enjoyed barbecue and snow cones. “The people of Georgia are going to make the decision, and the decision will be four more years.”

Wearing sunglasses, a straw hat and a sleeveless white shirt, Val Acree attends a Juneteenth block party. Behind her is an outdoor stage, with many people standing in front of the stage, facing it.
Val Acree attends a Juneteenth block party with Vice President Harris and says she’s excited to vote for Harris and President Biden again in 2024. (Sam Gringlas/WABE)

Voter Val Acree said she is unabashedly supporting Biden and Harris. Even so, she does have some trepidation about the next few months.

“I’m very nervous, I’ll be honest,” Acree said. “There’s a lot of disinformation and disengagement out there, so I’m doing everything on my part that I can to get people engaged.”

That’s why Acree says she will be watching when Biden and Trump meet on the debate stage just a few miles away.