Biden vs. Trump: The High-Stakes First Debate in Race to White House
Biden vs. Trump: The High-Stakes First Debate in Race to White House

By Emel Akan and Lawrence Wilson

President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump will square off in their first debate of 2024 on June 27, aiming to present different visions for the future of the United States.

The high-stakes debate will be a crucial platform for the two oldest candidates in U.S. history to demonstrate their energy, appearance, coherence, and responsiveness, making it a pivotal event that could shape the presidential race, according to political analysts.

CNN will host the debate at its Atlanta studios. The 81-year-old incumbent and his 78-year-old opponent will be standing throughout the debate, which will last 90 minutes. There will be two commercial breaks, according to the network.

This year’s debate is taking place earlier than usual. The debate is so early that neither candidate has received an official nomination yet. Presidential debates typically occur in September or early October.

“The first debate offers both candidates a chance to change the race’s momentum,” Democrat strategist Christy Setzer told The Epoch Times.

“Currently, we believe President Biden has benefited, albeit in a small way, from Trump’s felony convictions, but it’s still a toss-up,” she said. “The debate offers him an opportunity to pull ahead for real, or to reignite voters’ worries about him.”

On June 20, President Biden headed to the presidential retreat Camp David, where he will stay until the debate date for intense preparation. Candidates often engage in mock debates, during which they can practice their responses by facing off against someone playing the role of their opponent.

This year, it’s uncertain who will play former President Trump during the president’s debate practice sessions. There’s speculation that Bob Bauer, his personal lawyer, might reprise the role he played four years ago.

Regarding preparation, Jason Miller, a senior adviser to the Trump campaign, indicated that the former president is ready.

“President Trump takes on numerous tough interviews every single week and delivers lengthy rally speeches while standing, demonstrating elite stamina,” he said in a statement.

The former president has reportedly opted to not use mock debates or role-playing in preparation for this debate.

In 2020, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie helped prepare former President Trump by standing in for then-candidate Biden in closed-door debate practice sessions.

A banner is hung outside the CNN studios ahead of the first presidential debate, in Atlanta, on June 24, 2024. (Christian Monterrosa/AFP via Getty Images)

Debate Style

There’s no single best approach for debate preparation, according to Karen Hult, a political science professor at Virginia Tech.

“I think it’s important for Mr. Biden to get his thoughts in order, do enough studying and preparation on how to frame issues, respond to questions, especially difficult ones, and probably also keep his temper and reactions under control,” she told The Epoch Times.

“If there’s one thing that Mr. Trump is quite good at, it’s getting under Mr. Biden’s skin.”

Former President Trump could err by being too hostile or bombastic, according to Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

“He needs to avoid being the over-aggressive person that he was in the first debate in 2020, and he needs to avoid over-emphasis or excessive rhetoric that becomes the story of the debate,” he said.

Some observers say the former president has adopted a less bombastic style in some recent interviews and even campaign events, relying more on factual information to prove his points and less on hyperbole.

“I think he might surprise in the debate for people who expect the more rambunctious Trump,” Mr. Olsen said.

Debate Strategy

Although many details about how each candidate is preparing for the debate remain unclear, their previous speeches and campaign statements may indicate what each candidate will focus on during the event.

President Biden’s campaign recently announced a $50 million ad campaign, stressing the former president’s felony conviction.

The ad, titled “Character Matters,” targets voters in battleground states and signals that the Democrat incumbent wants to focus heavily on the former president’s legal woes.

Ahead of the debate, the Biden campaign has also increased its attacks on former President Trump for “abortion bans” and has portrayed him as “the architect of the decision that overturned Roe v. Wade.”

In addition, Cabinet members and senior White House officials began traveling across the country to highlight the administration’s agenda aimed at lowering costs, including costs of housing, health care, electricity, and groceries.

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris acknowledge the crowd after speaking at a campaign rally in Philadelphia on May 29, 2024. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

A number of polls have shown that Americans prefer former President Trump to President Biden when it comes to the handling of the economy.

Hence, the Democrat incumbent will likely face questions during the debate regarding the economy and inflation. However, he’s anticipated to defend his economic policies, notably by highlighting his cost-cutting measures and explaining how former President Trump’s plan is benefiting the rich.

On the other hand, former President Trump is expected to focus on illegal immigration, inflation, and the rise of conflicts in Europe and the Middle East over the past two years. He is likely to repeat his campaign attacks on President Biden, depicting him as responsible for all three.

The Republican candidate presents himself as the solution, saying that he will stop the war in Ukraine as president-elect even before taking office, reinvigorate the economy by boosting U.S. oil production, and end illegal immigration by closing the southern border and deporting millions of people who entered the country illegally.

Rep. Dan Meuser (R-Pa.), whose swing state is almost evenly split between the two candidates in an average of national polls compiled by FiveThirtyEight, said the former president can do well in the debate by projecting strength.

“Trump’s got strength, energy, smarts, and patriotism,” Mr. Meuser told The Epoch Times on June 22. “I think he just needs to be himself, be presidential.”

President Biden recently issued an executive order to clamp down on asylum-seeking by illegal immigrants. During the debate, he’s expected to blame President Trump for exacerbating the current border crisis by opposing the Senate border deal that President Biden backed a few months ago.

Early this month, President Biden attended the 80th anniversary of D-Day in France and later participated in the G7 leaders’ summit, where the United States and its allies announced robust measures targeting Russia and China. Appearing alongside other world leaders on the global stage is expected to give President Biden an advantage during the upcoming debate.

“This needs to be a contrast Biden paints as well—that he’s respected by global leaders,” Ms. Setzer said.

“President Biden will offer a narrative of the world he inherited from Trump and contrast it with where we are today: an economy that is the envy of the world, Americans vaccinated and our health restored, a sense of normalcy back.”

The First Debate

There will be no live audience during this debate, just like the first televised presidential debate, which took place between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon on Sept. 26, 1960.

Presidential candidates Sen. John F. Kennedy (R) and Vice President Richard M. Nixon at the fourth and final of their televised presidential debates at ABC Studios in New York City on Oct. 21, 1960. (Pictorial Parade/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

The first Kennedy–Nixon debate drew more than 65 million viewers and was believed to have a significant effect on the election’s outcome.

Irwin Gellman, a presidential historian, points out a notable contrast between this year’s debate and the 1960 debate, highlighting the decline of civility over the years.

“The debates that they had were more like question-and-answer sessions. They weren’t really confrontational, and I expect the debates in 2024 will be very confrontational,” he told The Epoch Times.

Mr. Gellman, author of “Campaign of the Century: Kennedy, Nixon, and the Election of 1960,” said he believes that the U.S. political landscape has transformed dramatically since the 1960s.

Today, TV networks and commentators are more focused on capturing a larger audience share, he noted.

Unlike in 1960, when the idea was to watch a civil debate, the goal in 2024 appears to be creating a “circus to raise TV ratings.”

Debate Context: Who Will Benefit Most?

Former President Trump has often commented on the context of the debate as unfavorable to himself. In particular, he has said the host network, CNN, and the moderators, Dana Bash and Jake Tapper, are biased against him.

Yet the former president has indicated that he chose to accept these unfavorable terms because he was eager to debate his opponent.

“They gave me an offer I couldn’t accept—and I said, ‘I’ll do it,’” he told a rally audience on June 22.

Mr. Olsen said he believes the setting favors neither candidate.

“That’s the sort of thing that’s not really picked up on by individuals who are actually going to decide the election,” Mr. Olsen said. “I think much more important is how a person appears, how a person presents themselves, the arguments that they make.”

Each candidate will get a pen, a pad of paper, and a bottle of water. However, props and prewritten notes are not permitted onstage.

In addition, no interaction with campaign staff is allowed during the entire event, including the breaks.

This year, the debate has a unique rule in that the microphones will be muted when it’s not the candidate’s turn to speak.

“President Biden’s campaign asked for those stipulations, so they must believe it helps,” Ms. Setzer said.

“And it‘ll certainly help him get out his message. But Trump lost the debate in 2020 because he couldn’t stop interrupting. He lost on ‘style’ as much as anything. So I’m not sure who it’ll help.”

After winning the coin toss, President Biden chose his position on the stage, CNN announced on June 20. He picked the podium on the right side of the TV viewers’ screens.

In return, President Trump will have the final word in the debate, delivering his closing statements after President Biden.

“If I had been advising President Biden, I would have suggested that he speak last,” Ms. Hult said, adding that the candidate who speaks last gets to respond to his opponent’s final words.

Rhonda Marquardt watches the final presidential debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden in San Antonio on Oct. 22, 2020. (Sergio Flores/Getty Images)

Debate’s Effect on Voters

The effect of the debate may largely depend on who chooses to watch. Pollsters estimate the number of true undecided voters sits at 5 to 10 percent of the electorate, which may be a small percentage of debate watchers.

And poll numbers are unlikely to shift significantly unless one of these candidates does something extremely outlandish, experts say.

Yet the first debate is usually the most-watched, according to Mr. Olsen, and incumbent presidents usually perform worse on their first outing and depend on later debates to recover.

“What we don’t know is how this will be received in the middle of the summer,” Mr. Olsen said. “Will 65 million people tune in?”

Ms. Hult agreed and predicts the debate would have little effect on the polls.

In the short term, there may be some movement in the polls; however, the long-term effect on voting behavior is less clear, she said.


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