What to expect from the first Presidential Debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden?

What to expect from the first Presidential Debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden?
Donald Trump, Joe Biden. Design: Onmanorama
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The stage has been set for what can be called one of the most exciting shows in a US election year: the Presidential Debate.

With the incumbent President Donald Trump calling out for a drug test on his rival Joe Biden and the latter refusing, meticulous preparation is being done by the two warring camps.

Donald Trump, adamant on grabbing another four years in the White House, has got a few things done in time to defend himself if Joe Biden outwits him on Tuesday night's debate.

The Republican President can allege that his Democrat foe 'Sleepy' Joe indeed used some performance-enhancing drugs before coming on stage at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.

That is in case Trump's counter-arguments fall flat and he is caught off guard by the well experienced Biden or the tough Chris Wallace, the debate moderator.

Chances of the famous Fox News Sunday anchor grilling him hard is the constant worry plaguing Trump for the past couple of days.

He believes Wallace, a registered Democrat, is influenced by the Radical Left. Wallace moderated the third debate of 2016 as well, where Hillary emerged the winner while Trump resorted to nasty name calling and taunting.

The moderator recently announced in a Fox News segment that his job on Tuesday night is to be ''as invisible as possible''.

To a certain extent, Trump's visible worries are dubious, so to say.

In addition to Trump, 74, demanding a drug test, the President's faithful following is clamouring for the 77-year-old Biden's ears to be checked for secret devices planted by his concerned prompters. So, drug test and body screening!

In fact, what all voters - irrespective of party politics - should be demanding is fact-checking.

What to expect from the first Presidential Debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden?
The stage of the first US Presidential debate is seen from backstage as workers complete the final touches. Photo: AFP

Debates matter

Why should a candidate pay such meticulous attention to ensure everything is in his favour as he walks into the first debate battleground?

Because debates do matter. They matter a lot.

Historically they have nourished the political climate of the US. The debates of 1858 were instrumental in Abraham Lincoln's subsequent run for the presidency.

They also provided an opportunity for the public to know about their leaders' viewpoints on slavery and the Union, the two most important topics of discussion those days.

This election year, the candidates are discussing a range of topics and racial violence in cities is one of them.

Even after 162 years, race and violence get the top slot in US presidential debates and it shows how appalling the situation still is.

As Dr Mitchell S. McKinney, Professor at Department of Communications, University of Missouri points out, we are currently in Act II of the 2020 first Presidential Debate drama.

According to him, Act I was debating the debates while Act II is devoted to setting the expectations and Act III will be the manifold ways of spinning the debate.

Expectations on how each candidate will perform and how they will look into issues are the prime concerns right now.

Dr McKinney who has been closely studying the debates since the late 1980s has also served as an advisor to the US Commission on Presidential Debates.

What to expect from the first Presidential Debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden?
The site of the first US Presidential debate is seen at the Samson Pavilion of the Health Education Campus. Photo: AFP

Let the voter decide

Dr McKinney says that though little change in voting intentions are typically recorded following a voter's exposure to debates, there are certain conditions that can play major roles in magnifying the importance of the debates.

One of those situations is when the race appears pretty close. With a significant number of swing states at hand, the current race is pretty much an unpredictable one.

Another factor that can make the debates important is the huge number of persuadable voters.

When there are too many voters remaining undecided on who to vote for, the debate performance of the candidate could be influencing their choice.

''As high as 90-95 % of debate viewers record no change in candidate choice after debate viewing; but, of the approximately 5% who come to the debate undecided, more than half (3-4%) of these individuals will report a candidate preference following debate viewing'' - explains Prof McKinney, based on extensive research.

He also says that there is plenty of evidence to suggest that debates had an influence on the outcome of elections in 1960, 1976, 1980, 1992 and 2000.

Debate viewers are more likely to vote is another interesting finding common to many studies.

But, is not there a chance of another outcome, unfavourable to all political parties? A disappointed viewer can suddenly decide to abstain from voting if the debates turn out to be nasty political mudslinging. Or if both candidates fail to convince her/him while they exchange views on the debate stage.

And a whole lot of interesting new developments are taking place prior to the first Presidential Debate.

The presidential transition team set up by Biden can now boast of two registered Republicans. Cindy McCain, the wife of the late Republican Senator John McCain, has joined the team, giving the Democrats some more confidence after they got Bob McDonald on board. McDonald is the former Veterans Affairs Secretary.

Donald Trump
Donald Trump

Trump's tax evasion

Meanwhile, Trump's $750 tax return documents leaked by the New York Times just before the debates have sparked outrage in the country.

Though Trump retaliated with fresh Hunter Biden allegations, framing Joe Biden to answer a few pressing questions about his son's income, it is not difficult to see which topic weighs more.

At the White House press meet the other day, Trump tried to project himself as the persevering type of guy saying that he had absolutely no experience at all in debating when he ran for the presidency in 2016.

He said that over the past four years he was into many debates and won them all, simply because of his hard work.

He is very much aware that he is just a molehill when placed next to the mountain of Biden in the matter of political and administrative experience. And he wants to tell these things in advance, just in case they become handy explainers afterwards.

But most of the debate experts say that there is no reason as of now to consider the event of Trump losing this debate.

Trump has already set the expectations, calling Biden frail and in need of performance-enhancing drugs.

So, if Biden stumbles or looks weak, it will perfectly fit into Trump's narrative.

According to Dr McKinney, the debates will be a tightrope walk for Biden, not Trump.

Most of the viewers don't actually care for well prepared, academically brilliant presentations from candidates; they look at how fiercely competent the leaders are in handling a situation. And then there is the age-old maxim one has to keep in mind: the winner of the debate may not be the winner of the election!

Donald Trump
Donald Trump

Debates in the time of COVID

The presidential debate is 'a stand-up, sit down or walk around affair' when it comes to the structure of the big show.

This is the only moment when the two candidates share a stage to exchange views and fight with each other to win the voter's heart.

This time, with Covid-19 in town, there are a couple of changes in the way the venue is arranged.

The candidates will have to keep the distance. The traditional handshake will not be happening this time. The town meeting is usually made up of around 100 citizens who are undecided voters from the metropolitan area of the debate site. There will be restrictions on the number of participants.

'Game' of 90 Minutes

The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) holds general election debates among the leading candidates for the offices of President and Vice President of the United States. The CPD is an independent organization established in 1987. There are 3 presidential debates and one Vice Presidential debate (between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris, scheduled for October 7).

The second and third presidential debates will be taking place on October 15 (Miami, Florida) and October 22 (Nashville, Tennessee) respectively.

The debates have a 90-minute format without commercial interruption. The first presidential debate of the season will be divided into 6 segments, each 15 minutes long.

All these segments are neatly arranged so as to facilitate active discussion on a particular topic at a time.

Debate Moderator Chris Wallace has announced 6 topics in advance: 1) The Trump and Biden Records; 2) The Supreme Court; 3) Covid-19; 4) The Economy; 5) Race and Violence in Cities; 6) The Integrity of the Election.

Topics 2,3 and 5 are going to give a tough time for Trump given the enormous level of controversies of late, while he is expected to do well on topic 6 in particular, an issue he raises every day if not every hour.

The CPD has clarified that topics can change because of news developments. So the moderator can bring in any fresh topic in current news if he considers it worth a segment.

The First Presidential Debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden

When: Tuesday 9 pm EDT (Wednesday 6.30 am IST)

Where: Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.

Moderator: Chris Wallace

Duration: 90 minutes.

How to watch: Major US networks and streaming services. Can also be accessed online via C-Span's YouTube channel.

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