The economy, Covid-19 and racial inequality are voters' top concerns ahead of the first Trump-Biden debate

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Yard signs supporting U.S. President Donald Trump and Democratic U.S. presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden are seen outside of an early voting site at the Fairfax County Government Center in Fairfax, Virginia, September 18, 2020.

Al Drago | Reuters

Voters in swing states want President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden to use their first debate to offer clear answers on how they plan to improve the economy, while battling Covid-19 and racial inequality.

Some of these voters, who spoke to CNBC ahead of Tuesday’s debate, said the coronavirus has affected their lives and livelihood in a variety of ways, from new health-care guidelines to layoffs. The debate on Tuesday will be the first of three between the two men.

The faceoff between Trump and Biden comes as new cases of coronavirus tick higher, the once-rapid economic recovery shows signs of slowing down, and protests over racial injustice intensify following a grand jury decision not to charge Louisville, Kentucky, police officers with the death of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman.

Voters expressed hope that either Trump or Biden, who leads the race in national and several swing-state polling averages, will be able to not only mediate tense relations between the Black community and local police forces, but also work to make more systemic change for people of color.

The debate, set to occur in Cleveland, will run from 9 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. ET on Tuesday and will be streamed live on CNBC.com.

Mikaella Whynter, an independent voter from West Palm Beach, Florida, said the two issues most important to her heading into the first debate are Covid-19 and tenuous relations between the Black community and local police forces.

“On the news we’re seeing a lot of Black people being shot down” and victimized, Whynter, who is Black, said in a telephone interview. “And President Trump is not doing a good job of handling that.”

She clarified, however, that her support for Biden isn’t out of love for the Democrat per se, but more because of her more pronounced dislike for the incumbent. Biden’s lead in Florida has diminished recently, according to polling averages.

“Just seeing how everything has been handled by President Donald Trump. It hasn’t really been handled in a way that a president who controls the entire country should handle the situation,” Whynter said.

Demonstrators march near the White House.

Drew Angerer | Getty Images

She cited mounting racial tensions, as well as Florida’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, as evidence the country needs someone else in charge. Whynter is an 18-year-old who will be voting for the first time.

“Opening back up the schools recently and just seeing how on the news that kids are coming in with corona and they’re getting infected by this thing: These decisions aren’t being made properly because nobody’s taking precautions,” she said. “Nobody wants to wear masks and then they wonder why cases are rising so much.”

The coronavirus economy

Whynter’s concerns over the government’s handling of the pandemic are reflective of nationwide worries over a disease that has infected 7 million in the U.S. and killed more than 200,000, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

In a recent poll of more than 3,000 battleground state voters, CNBC and Change Research found that 44% have “very serious” concerns over Covid-19 while 21% said they have “somewhat” serious concerns.

Fifty-seven percent of battleground voters said they’re worried Trump is pushing to release a coronavirus vaccine too quickly in order to help his reelection odds. The president has more than once predicted a vaccine could be ready by the Nov. 3 election, saying earlier this month that, “We think we can start some time in October.”

But as grim as the overall U.S. death toll is, racial minorities face even more dire outcomes.

Compared to non-Hispanic White people, Black Americans are 2.6 times more likely to contract the coronavirus and 2.1 times more likely to die of the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hispanic or Latino persons are 2.8 times more likely to contract Covid-19 and are 1.1 times more likely to die of the disease.

For Melissa LaBonte of Chandler, Arizona, the pandemic has had a different kind of cost.

“I’ve personally been unemployed since January: It’s the longest break in my employment in years,” she said, adding that the call center jobs she’s used to have all but “dried up.”

But LaBonte, a 46-year-old Republican, said she holds a long list of politicians responsible for the continued economic slump, including members of her own party.

“I think everyone has dropped the ball. Not just the president, but everyone. Congress, the Senate, the president,” she said. “They seem to be wrapped up with choosing a new Supreme Court justice now and the economy seems to have fallen to the back burner.”

A Aug. 6 caravan rally down the Las Vegas Strip in support of extending the $600 unemployment benefit.

BRIDGET BENNETT | AFP | Getty Images

Trump, who with other Republicans often polls better than Biden on matters pertaining to the economy, may have to answer questions related to his landmark 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

That legislation, which lowered the U.S. corporate tax rate to 21% from 35%, was widely seen as benefiting business interests and the wealthy. It also helped inflate the national debt during an otherwise healthy economic environment in a move many economists and fiscally conservative Republicans viewed as an unnecessarily stimulus.

Now, with the U.S. economy struggling to return to normal production amid a global pandemic, some members of the GOP are concerned about relief legislation that would fuel the deficit.

LaBonte said the effects of the recession are clear throughout her Phoenix suburb: The local Nordstrom closed, OfficeMax is going out of business and several small businesses are struggling.

The Arizona resident said she was a big fan of the federal unemployment benefits introduced in March as part of the CARES Act. That benefit, which offered those on state unemployment insurance an additional $600 per week, expired at the end of July in the absence of another stimulus bill.

“The enhanced unemployment helped immeasurably,” she said. “I was a single mother up until this year; my son just joined the Navy. So thankfully we have that income to help.”

“And yet, in Arizona, unemployment has dropped to $200, any stimulus is almost over. I’m on my extension, and after this I don’t know what I’m going to do,” LaBonte added. “And it seems like no one is discussing it.”

Still, the lifelong Republican said she views the president favorably. Despite her current situation, she said she believes Trump is one of the only politicians that “has the people’s back.”

“The president might not be perfect — for sure,” she said. “However, I feel like what’s going on in Washington, maybe he’s the appropriate person to help combat some of it.”

Asked whether she thought there was anything that could help Biden in his first debate, LaBonte said she hoped to find the 77-year-old Biden capable of holding his own against the president, who is 74.

“I mean, I would like to see him debate, I think that would be a No. 1 huge step. Because we really haven’t seen him say very much,” she said.

Biden holds a lead over Trump in Arizona, according to polling averages.

Taxes and health care

The Biden campaign has to date touted a more progressive tax plan, or one that demands high-income individuals contribute even more as a percentage of their earnings with each additional dollar they make.

The campaign proposes raising the corporate tax rate to 28%, increasing the top individual income rate back to 39.6% (from 37%) and taxing those making more than $1 million to pay the same rate on investment income that they do on their wages.

Calculations compiled by The Washington Post show Biden’s plan is expected to raise between $3.5 trillion and $4 trillion over 10 years, with about half of the money coming from the top 0.1% of highest-income households.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks during a briefing on the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic with public health officials during a campaign stop in Wilmington, Delaware, August 13, 2020.

Carlos Barria | Reuters

Joseph McCabe, a 64-year-old Vietnam veteran, said he’s supportive of Biden’s plans to raise taxes on individuals making the most.

“I’d like to hear them talk about the issues that are facing the middle class of this country,” McCabe, a resident of Chester County, Pennsylvania, said on Friday. “He’s going to tax everyone over $400,000 a year: I think it should be everybody over $200,000 a year. I’d like to hear him talk about that.”

Biden leads Trump in polls of Pennsylvania, a once-blue state that voted for Trump in 2016.

McCabe, officially a Democrat as of the 2016 election cycle, added that health care is also at the top of his priority list during the 2020 elections. His health care is covered through the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“I get my health care for free because I’m 100% a disabled vet,” he said. “But my family: My sister, my brother, his family, all my friends. They’re all struggling to pay the high price of health care nowadays. It’s insane.”

McCabe said that while he plans to vote for Biden, he initially backed Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in part because of his support for a “Medicare for All” plan in the United States.

“You know, I’m not a real huge fan of Biden, but he’s far, far better than Trump,” McCabe said. “I hope we go for a more progressive look for the country. Because anything’s got to be progressive — we’ve got to make progress.”

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