Analysis: What to watch for during the first Trump-Biden debate

One candidate who plays by the rules, another who does not. One candidate who has spent weeks preparing, another who has not. One candidate with fresh debate experience, another whose most recent debate took place four years ago.

These are some of the contrasts viewers can watch for when they tune in to the first of three presidential debates between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. With a potential audience of close to 100 million viewers on television and online, the candidates will make their pitch to the American people, each attempting to close the deal with voters. Although the outcome of a live debate can never be predicted, here’s what we can reasonably expect when the two contenders for the highest office in the land face off.

Joe Biden

There is little question that Biden underperformed in the Democratic primary debates of 2019-2020. In a crowded field of rivals, Biden found himself with a target on his back, yet he never quite mounted an effective defence. Instead, he came across as uncomfortable, out of his element. Only the last of the eleven encounters – a post-pandemic one-on-one with Bernie Sanders – allowed Biden to relax and hit his stride.

Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders speak during a Democratic presidential primary debate, December 19, 2019, in Los Angeles [AP Photo/Chris Carlson]In his upcoming debate with Trump, of course, no other candidates will share the spotlight. And in a two-person setting, Biden has shown himself more than capable of handling his opponents. Against Sarah Palin in 2008, Biden was the model of restraint, making sure not to come across as patronising or to give Palin cause for grievance. Against Paul Ryan four years later, Biden took the opposite tack, casting his challenger as too immature and inexperienced to be taken seriously. Biden’s barely concealed disdain caught Ryan off-guard and left him floundering.

Joe Biden and Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan participate in the vice presidential debate, October 11, 2012, at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky [File: AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall]Biden also benefits from low expectations, especially the drumbeat of the “Sleepy Joe won’t leave the basement” spin that the Trump campaign has been blasting for months now. Normal presidential campaigns do everything in their power to paint their opponents as super-debaters, and their own candidates as inferior, in order to claim afterwards that they exceeded expectations. Not the Trump folks, who have set the stage for Biden to look like a winner just for showing up and speaking coherent English.

But the debate will not be a cake-walk for Biden. Of all the presidential debaters in history, Trump is the least predictable and, therefore, the most dangerous.

In the words of a rival Republican adviser from 2016, preparing for a debate with Trump is like getting ready for an automobile race knowing one of the other racers will be driving drunk. Furthermore, Trump’s casual relationship with truth means that Biden will be tempted to spend his time fact-checking, instead of making a proactive case for himself.

The famous Biden temper must also be factored into the equation. “I hope I don’t get baited into getting into a brawl with this guy,” Biden said recently at a campaign fund-raiser. For Biden, a man whose emotions go unconcealed, keeping his cool could pose a particularly tricky challenge.

Donald Trump

By all accounts, Trump is doing little of the rigorous preparations that candidates usually undertake before a high-profile debate. As Trump put it on the Fox and Friends programme, “I sort of prepare every day by just doing what I’m doing.” Yet a television debate, it goes without saying, is not the same as running a country.

To some extent, Trump’s cavalier attitude towards debating reflects his overall approach to the presidency. Unlike traditional politicians, Trump never modulates his presentation, never varies his tone, and never really addresses anyone but the people who already support him. In the debate, as in his day-to-day performance, he will rely heavily on self-pity, conspiracy theories, and bluster. Trump’s very unpredictability thus becomes something of a predictable commodity.

Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speak during the second presidential debate, October 9, 2016, at Washington University in St Louis [File: AP Photo/John Locher]In refusing to approach the debate as an event with its own customs and demands, Trump is repeating a mistake that previous incumbents have lived to regret. Debate history is full of cautionary examples of sitting presidents who suffered from damaging performances in opening debates:

  • Jimmy Carter getting shown up by Ronald Reagan in 1980.
  • Reagan seemingly lost against Walter Mondale in 1984.
  • The two George Bushes, outmatched by hungry opponents in 1992 and 2004.
  • Barack Obama, unready for a fired-up Mitt Romney in 2012.

Because incumbent presidents have spent a full term in office being deferred to and agreed with, they can find it rattling to be personally attacked on live television. A candidate like Trump, naturally thin-skinned and underprepared to begin with, may be in for a rude awakening.

A final factor bears mention, and it is something that applies to both Biden and Trump. At ages 77 and 74, respectively, these are the two oldest candidates ever to engage with each other in an American presidential debate. For any human being, the prospect of staying focused and articulate during 90 minutes of live television would be daunting. For Biden and Trump, both of whom have faced scepticism about their mental and physical sharpness, the debates will be an especially gruelling test of endurance.

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