Political US/World

What to Expect from Tonight’s First Presidential Debate

The first of 3 scheduled presidential debates takes center stage on Tuesday evening, as President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden will go head-to-head in Cleveland.  The debates will be a bit different from previous years due to coronavirus restrictions.

KOAA News 5 reported that the debate will take place at Samson Pavilion on the campus of Case Western Reserve University.  The University is co-sponsoring the debate with the Cleveland Clinic.  The debate will begin at 9 pm EST and will last for 90 minutes without commercial breaks.

The 90-minute length will be broken up into 6 15-minute segments.  Each segment will focus on a different topic chosen by the moderator, Chris Wallace, son of veteran newsman Mike Wallace and a Fox News anchor.  According to KTIV.com, the topics chosen are: The Trump and Biden Records, The Supreme Court, COVID-19, The Economy, Race and Violence in our Cities, and The Integrity of the Election.  Of course, if any important news breaks before the debate, the topics are subject to change.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the candidates will not begin the debate with a handshake, nor will either candidate shake hands with moderator Wallace.  The live audience will be limited and will observe social distancing guidelines.  Critically, there will not be a “spin room” for the debate.  The spin room is a long debate tradition where representatives from both campaigns meet with the press after the debate to give their side’s take on the event.

The presidential debates between then-candidate Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton 4 years ago set viewing records and this year’s contests are expected to be as closely watched.  That makes these debates both high-risk and potentially high-reward for both candidates.

Incumbent presidents have historically had difficulty in the first debate of the fall campaign.  Beginning with Jimmy Carter in 1980, incumbent presidents have struggled during their first confrontation with their opponents.  Ronald Reagan in 1984 looked tentative and stumbled out of the gate in his first debate with Democratic challenger Walter Mondale.  This reinforced the popular image of Reagan at the time as perhaps too old for the rigors of the presidency.  It wasn’t until Reagan’s famous joke about age during the second debate of 1984 that he was able to project the image of a strong, vigorous president.

Alan Schroeder, author of Presidential Debates: Fifty Years of High-Risk TV, explained some of the reasons the incumbent often stumbles early on. “What happens with an incumbent president is they spend four years in office being deferred to and agreed with,” he said. “It’s difficult for staff to challenge a sitting president directly, so by the time they get up on the debate stage, they’re not used to being spoken to forcefully and directly and being criticized. They’re also by definition out of practice.”

Biden’s performance will be closely scrutinized as well.  He is 77 years old and at times, both during the Democratic primaries and the general election campaign, appeared to be confused.  His propensity for gaffes, while amusing for a man in his forties or fifties, is concerning in a man pushing eighty years old.  At least since June Biden has almost completely avoided public appearances and press interviews and stayed to campaigning from his home.  How he handles a real back-and-forth interaction with both his opponent and a moderator will be a point of interest to many viewers.

The moderator himself could be a factor in the debate’s outcome.  Wallace is a serious newsman with many years of experience.  One of the Democratic primary debates earlier this year got completely out of the control of the moderators and broke down into a verbal free-for-all.  Wallace is extremely unlikely to allow anything of the sort to happen Tuesday evening.  He is also known as a tough questioner and excels at keeping interview subjects on point.

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