Biden, Trump seek to move the ‘political needle’ at highly anticipated first debate

June 20, 2024


Aaron Kall
Aaron Kall

The summer temperatures are rising as political experts and voters prepare for a hotly contested presidential debate next Thursday in Atlanta. University of Michigan director of debate Aaron Kall said this debate is unusual for two reasons: it’s happening in June rather than August, and there won’t be a studio audience.

“We’ve never witnessed a presidential debate so early in June,” said Kall, editor and co-author of “Debating the Donald.” “Both candidates felt it was important to start the debate process before early voting began. They had no issues with jettisoning the Commission on Presidential Debates and directly involving television networks.”

Do debates benefit the candidates since many voters know who they will pick in November?

The impact and influence of political debates have declined in the last several cycles. The country has become more polarized and it’s more likely that viewers will tune in to cheer on their preferred candidates, as opposed to debates informing their voting preferences. There are now an infinite amount of entertainment and social media options for viewers that make it difficult to fully consume a 90-minute debate.

CNN hosting of the first presidential debate may limit the size of the television audience. That being said, tens of millions of Americans are likely to watch the debate. Even a tiny moving of the political needle can make a major difference in a historically close election that could be decided by thousands of votes in a handful of battleground states. The content and narrative of what happens in the debate will likely shape future news cycles and fundraising efforts. No other event in the coming months has the potential to fundamentally shape the election like presidential debates, and that’s why both campaigns strongly felt the need to participate.

Has an early presidential debate ever happened? In addition, has there been one without an audience?

It’s a throwback to the inaugural Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960 that also took place in television studios and lacked an audience. This is the purest form of political debate that should result in a more substantive and issue-focused exchange. It also increases the degree of difficulty for the candidates, who must rely on their political instincts and will largely be in the dark about how they are doing until the conclusion of the event.

What does each candidate need to do to avoid previous debate mistakes?

Neither Trump or Biden has formally debated since October of 2020. Usually, the challenger has an advantage in the opening debate since they’ve likely participated in many recent primary debates. The president is out of practice and busy running the country. Trump famously skipped the primary debates this year and President Biden has recently been on several overseas trips. A much earlier debate means the practice schedules of both campaigns will be accelerated and it will likely take time for both to get properly acclimated and up to speed.

Trump should avoid interrupting President Biden and the moderators throughout the debate. He was ridiculed for doing this during the 2020 debate in Cleveland. While both candidates performed poorly, more viewers felt Biden was a little better.

President Biden must refrain from making a disqualifying gaffe that will shift the focus back to his advanced age and stamina for serving another term in office. He often benefits from low expectations and should harken back to his State of the Union performance in March, which was pretty well-received. Trump eschews traditional debate preparation and will likely spend time fielding questions from campaign aides and political allies. President Biden will likely spend time in Camp David with a trusted group of advisers who must try and extricate him from the presidential bubble.

What issue is most important for each candidate?

There are a plethora of important issues that will come up during the debate, including the Middle East, abortion, the economy/inflation, January 6, Hunter Biden, Trump’s legal issues, immigration, etc. Both campaigns will do their best to predict the questions in advance and devise some strong talking points. Political “zingers” have become more popular in presidential debates recently because of their ability to create viral moments, but the lack of an in-person audience may decrease the utility of these in Atlanta.

What should/shouldn’t the moderators do so that this doesn’t become a sideshow?

CNN moderators Jake Tapper and Dana Bash have complete autonomy over the debate questions. The network has instituted some novel rules for the presidential debate which should improve the quality of the product, including the ability to mute candidate microphones. This actually may help Trump, as viewers were turned off by his continual interruptions of Biden and moderator Chris Wallace in 2020.

Two planned commercial breaks will allow the candidates to compose themselves and regroup, although they will be prohibited from conferring with campaign aides. Though not the ideal matchup for many voters, interest in the first presidential debate should still be quite high for this made-for-television event. If nothing else, people will tune in to see what will happen next, which is always a great unknown in the world of political debates. The unpredictable nature of how things could turn out should be quite the spectacle.