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  • Writer's pictureJennifer N. Victor

What to expect in the first presidential debate of 2020: fireworks

Joe Biden, 2012, Merrimack, NH
Photo credit: Marc Nozell, flickr

The first debate of 2020 general election will occur Tuesday, September 29 and it is likely that millions of Americans will tune-in to watch fireworks fly between Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, and Republican incumbent, Donald Trump. But do the debates really affect the election, or has everyone who watches them already decided whom to support? And what are Biden and Trump’s best strategies?

The candidate debates are the first high-profile, public events for the candidates since the party nominating conventions in August. While most viewers will be strong partisans who tune-in for its entertainment value rather than voters seeking information to help them make up their mind, the debates serve as a mobilization opportunity for the campaigns. Both campaigns are likely to claim victory, and strong partisans on both sides are likely to believe their candidate did well, or “won.”

For the most part, the debates do not have a strong impact on the election outcome, but they can affect the campaign narrative in the days following the events. Debates often include memorable lines or interactions between the candidates that become memes, taglines, or short-clip evidence to support a particular narrative about a candidate.

In the first debate in the 2016 campaign between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, Clinton attacked Trump’s treatment of women in his public speeches, especially the vulgar and objectifying language he was known to use. A few days after the debate, the infamous “Access Hollywood” video went viral—you know, the one with the infamous phrase about women’s anatomy. The debate attacks, in combination with the “Access Hollywood” tape, resulted in a sharp, but temporary, drop in Trump’s favorability ratings.

However, media analysis showed that media headlines focused much more on Trump, his outrageous, norm-violating behavior, and less on the substance of the debate or Clinton’s intellectual triumphs. While much of the media attention was negative and critical, ultimately, Trump’s favorability ratings rebounded, suggesting that he used the experience to inoculate himself against unfavorable media. Trump has a history of using outrage to train the media’s focus on him, robbing his opponent of positive attention. Trump’s goal then, and perhaps also now, was to be the focus of media attention, even in the face of criticism.

Expect fireworks.

So, what should the candidates do?

Biden’s strategy is clear: focus on the pandemic, and the economic downturn that has resulted. Back in 1992, Bill Clinton’s chief strategist, James Carville, coined the phrase that neatly summarized the core premise of Clinton‘s campaign, “It’s the economy stupid.” Carville meant to say that Americans’ chief concern was the state of the economy and that all campaign conversations should be re-navigated to come back to this core concern, so that Americans would feel comfortable ousting the incumbent. Biden is in a near identical position. A plurality of Americans say the economy is their main concern, with a majority of Republicans expressing concern about the economy, and a plurality of Democrats saying the pandemic is their main concern. Biden’s best strategy at the debate is to speak to all Americans with sincerity about how he will handle the pandemic better and help get the economy back on track. For Biden, “It’s the pandemic, stupid.”

President Trump’s strategy is all about keeping the spotlight on him at all costs. To the extent that Biden will attack him about his administration’s pandemic response, we can look at Trump’s previous responses to such attacks for a preview of what to expect at the debate. The Trump campaign strategy has been: deny, deflect, distract. Watch the language the president uses to describe the pandemic. Nearly all of it can be placed into one of these three categories.

Deny: He may deny that the pandemic is as bad as it is, as he did last week when he publicly suggested that the disease affects “virtually nobody,” despite that more than 200,000 Americans have already died from it.

Deflect: He deflects responsibility for the virus when he casts blame on China, or Democratic governors, for the virus’s spread in the US. And he takes the focus off of the pandemic by drawing attention to nearly any other topic.

Distract: Trump may even prefer to talk about the bombshell New York Times reporting about his personal financial situation, than he would the pandemic. For the president, any focus on him that is not about the pandemic is good press.

The debate should make for good television. There will be barbs, attacks, and defensiveness. Biden and Trump have contradictory best strategies—one wants to talk about nothing but the pandemic, and one wants to do anything but.

Both of these men have considerable experience in situations like this and a masterful at connecting to an audience through media. The only question is what narratives will take hold in the wake of the first debate, and how might that shape the media attention to these candidates as the campaign enters its final stretch in October.


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