Now that the U.S. presidential nominating conventions have ended, the next key date on the campaign calendar is Tuesday, September 29 — the race’s first presidential debate.
Republican President Donald Trump and his Democratic Party rival, former vice president Joe Biden, spent the week after the conventions making their opening arguments in some of the U.S. States critical to winning the election, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, North Carolina.
“I think that we can expect to see a rowdy debate between the two presidential candidates,” said Jennifer Mercieca, assistant professor of Communications at Texas A&M University. “Both of these candidates are fighters.”
Mercieca says indications of Trump’s debating style can be found in how he described his 2016 campaign as a “counterpunch.”
“He regularly uses ad hominem attacks, which is attacking the person instead of their argument. And he isn’t shy to do that, to mock people and bully them during a debate. He did that in 2016,” she said, adding that Biden’s debating history shows he will stand his ground.
“We saw in 2012 that his vice-presidential debate was similar, I think, to Trump in style and that he [Biden] sort of mocked his opposition a little bit. He laughed at him [Paul Ryan], you know, sort of right in his face,” Mercieca said. “I don’t think that he [Biden] goes to the extremes that Donald Trump does in terms of mocking his opposition or threatening them. But, you know, he’s definitely capable of standing his ground and not allowing himself to be intimidated.”
Since the first presidential debate in 1960 and since their resumption in 1976, the format has generally been the same: candidates answering questions from a moderator.
“What they basically are, are joint press conferences where they share, you know, press conference soundbites back and forth and they stay on their own message,” says John Koch, director of Debate at Vanderbilt University.
Koch proposes different formats, including taking questions from experts instead of a moderator and watching the candidates tackle the issues.
“The debate would start with: Here’s the issue or the situation. You have 30 minutes or whatever it is to meet with your consultants and advisers and then we want you to come back with a position, explain your position. The other candidates will explain their position. And then we’ll have a debate about how you arrived at that decision and then the quality of those decisions, because what we really want out of a president is somebody who can, in a crisis or when an issue presents itself to meet with their consultants or advisers, make a decision and then be able to defend it,” Koch explained.
“It is actually informative to see both candidates in contrast to one another. So, to hear how they speak, the tone they use, but also to hear about their policies,” Mercieca said. “It allows them to directly accuse one another of doing things. And it also allows them to make rebuttals so that they can defend themselves.”
Do debates change minds?
In 2016, an estimated 84 million Americans watched the first debate between then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. The high interest in the 2020 election may set a new record, but whether it sways voters is questionable.
“A lot of the research on presidential debates have shown that it kind of lets people identify with the candidate that they kind of already identify with and it just kind of lets them see who shares their positions,” said Koch. “There’s not a lot of evidence per se that changes presidential debates changed minds.”
According to Pew Research, 10% of 2016 voters said they decided their vote during or just after the debates. Mercieca says it is “a shame” that America’s political polarization has gotten this bad.
“I really think that, you know for these debates to have any kind of effect like they should, that the audience itself has a responsibility to listen with an open mind.”