There has rarely been a more dramatic historical backdrop for a U.S. presidential debate: the COVID-19 pandemic, a country economically battered and a reckoning over institutional racism.
The first of three tilts between Donald Trump and Joe Biden also takes place amid a clash between their parties over the rules around mail-in voting, the President’s effort to quickly fill an empty Supreme Court seat and bombshell revelations over his taxes.
Mr. Trump has already signalled that he will employ the same debating style he used in 2016, when he insulted, interrupted and talked over opponents, and once famously stalked around Hillary Clinton as she answered questions.
Without evidence, he made claims this past weekend that Mr. Biden will take “performance-enhancing drugs” for the match-up. The former vice-president, for his part, has tried to project an image of being above Mr. Trump’s taunts in the days leading up to the encounter.
The 90-minute debate starts at 9 p.m. ET on Tuesday at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Here are six things to watch.
TV is Trump’s arena: The debates matter, big-time
What will and won’t be covered
Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, who will moderate the debate, has announced a list of topics: the candidates’ respective records, the Supreme Court, the pandemic, the economy, the integrity of the election and “race and violence in our cities.”
Notably absent is climate change, a policy priority for the Democrats but whose existence Mr. Trump has denied.
Mr. Wallace has also taken flak for his framing of the race issue. Rather than set up the topic as a discussion of police racism, critics say, his wording favours Mr. Trump’s view that the real problem is the incidents of vandalism that have sometimes accompanied anti-racism protests.
“Wallace has the power to set public expectations on how the subjects will be debated by the way he tees them up. And, with regard to the issue of police brutality and public reaction to it, he has done so in a one-sided, intellectually lazy and racist manner,” journalist Steven Holmes wrote in an op-ed for CNN, which was not invited to hold a debate this year.
Mr. Biden was not a strong debater during the Democratic primaries, often becoming irritated when challenged and going on meandering rhetorical tangents. Mr. Trump’s strategy appears to be to provoke the Democratic nominee into similar such moments, including by going after the business dealings of his son, Hunter Biden, in Ukraine.
Shannon Bow O’Brien, a political scientist at the University of Texas and author of Donald Trump and the Kayfabe Presidency, compares Mr. Trump’s approach to professional wrestling, which creates a constructed reality replete with showmanship and trash talk.
“In 2016, that worked well for him, it energized his base, people who were tired of watching stuffy politicians doing stuffy politician stuff. He dominated by being rude and he dominated by being outlandish,” she said.
The key for Mr. Biden, Prof. Bow O’Brien said, will be staying focused and avoiding getting into a shouting match.
Mr. Biden, who has consistently led in the polls, has so far run a textbook front-runner’s campaign, trying to limit his exposure and mostly cast himself as above the fray. He is likely to take a similar approach in the debate, trying to sidestep Mr. Trump’s attacks by portraying himself as the adult in the room.
But Tammy Vigil, an expert in political communications at Boston University, says Mr. Biden must do more than simply define himself as not being Mr. Trump.
“He hasn’t been doing as good a job of really delineating a clear vision of what a Biden-led America looks like,” she said. “Developing that would do him some good in motivating people to actually vote.”
Keeping them honest, or not
Mr. Wallace is not planning to correct Mr. Trump or Mr. Biden if they lie or try to mislead viewers. On Fox News Sunday, he said “my job is to be as invisible as possible” during the debate. While such an approach will ensure a smoother flow, it is certain to aggravate Mr. Trump’s critics. The Washington Post has tallied more than 20,000 false statements by him since the start of his presidency.
Still, Mr. Wallace is not expected to go easy. In 2016, he earned plaudits for running a strong third debate between Mr. Trump and Ms. Clinton, grilling both and steering the conversation toward substantive policy.
“We have a moderator here who is very good, and is going to try to pin down both candidates very hard,” said David Lublin, chair of the department of government at American University in Washington.
The September surprise
The New York Times revealed Sunday that Mr. Trump paid just US$750 in taxes in 2016 and 2017, and paid no taxes at all in 10 of the previous 15 years. He did this by claiming catastrophic losses across his business empire.
Mr. Trump has dismissed the report as “fake news,” but has refused to release his tax returns. The debate will be an opportunity for Mr. Wallace or Mr. Biden to press the President on it. It could also prove a distraction to Mr. Trump that throws him off his game.
“It’s very easy to get under his skin,” Prof. Bow O’Brien said. “I suspect he’s going to go to that debate a very angry person. He has a tendency to get agitated, and fixate.”
Will it matter
Recent Monmouth and Quinnipiac polls found just 3 to 5 per cent of likely voters are undecided. The candidates’ relative polling positions have not changed in months. This suggests it’s unlikely Tuesday night will move many people from one camp to another.
“The significance is likely rather small, given that we’ve had major events happen and they’ve had remarkably little impact – we’ve had this pandemic that has killed 200,000 Americans,” Prof. Lublin said.
Still, the clash could go some way toward encouraging voters to turn out – if Mr. Trump, for instance, puts on the sort of bombastic performance his base has come to expect from him.
“What these debates end up doing is solidifying people who are leaning,” Prof. Vigil said. “You need to worry about getting people excited – to request their mail-in ballots, to send in their ballots. The debates are a time when it’s important to really energize the base.”
The margin of error on the Monmouth poll is plus or minus 3.6 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. For the Quinnipiac poll, the margin of error is plus or minus 2.7 percentage points.
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