The debate about debates: Will they matter?

On June 27, President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump will debate on CNN before the Republicans and Democrats formally accept each party’s nomination.

Why so early and will the debate matter?

This November’s election differs from recent contests because both candidates are known commodities, having run against each other in 2020. Voters know each candidate’s strengths and weaknesses. No one’s impression of the candidate will change. Despite claims to the contrary, very few voters remain undecided about for whom they’ll vote later this year.

Based on the above, why debate? American voters expect to see their presidential candidates square off. Were either Biden or Trump to spurn general election debates, doing so would show weakness.

Trump, who skipped GOP primary debates because of his massive lead, challenged Joe Biden to debate at any time and place…a challenge to which the Biden campaign had to respond. The Biden campaign accepted the challenge but then shaped the debate in a manner that it believes benefits its candidate.

The Biden camp rationalized that if it had to debate, get them over early. Committing to one debate in June and a second in September – before any ballots are sent to voters – is a priority.

The Biden campaign wanted early debates for two reasons. First, concerns about Biden’s age make this televised appearance a final “test” to hopefully put issues of his age and declining mental state to rest. Second, if Biden performs admirably (like he did at the recent State of the Union) but still makes policy mistakes or comes across as a screamer, any damage will be short-lived and quickly forgotten.

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Joe Biden has the most to lose from the debates. If history is a guide, incumbent presidents do not fare well in first debates. They live in a bubble, surrounded by security and staffers who don’t challenge the chief executive. Debating is like muscle memory – it takes a while for the skill to return. Just ask Ronald Reagan, who lost his first encounter with Walter Mondale; George W. Bush performed poorly in his first encounter with John Kerry; GOP candidate Mitt Romney trounced Barack Obama in their first 2012 debate. And Donald Trump lost his first 2016 debate with then-candidate Joe Biden.

CNN will host the first debate because they are perceived as close enough to the center to touch it (still to the left) but not polarizing politically like MSNBC and Fox News. The debate’s rules are designed to minimize Trump’s aggressive, chaotic demeanor – primarily yelling over his opponent and disagreeing with the debate moderators. Microphones will be turned off when a candidate isn’t speaking. The debate will feature two commercial breaks, during which the candidates cannot talk with staff. Most importantly, there will be no live studio audience – so neither candidate can “play to” and “play off” the crowd.

The challenge facing CNN’s moderators, Jake Tapper and Dana Bash, is simple: Do they focus on “gotcha” questions or do they ask questions focused on public policy?

Will the moderators focus primarily on Donald Trump’s legal troubles, January 6th or claims that the 2020 election was stolen? Certainly, they will ask one question about each of these topics. But, if most of Donald Trump’s questions focus on here, consider the debate a win for Joe Biden.

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Will Tapper and Bash force Biden to talk about his past claims that he was not involved in Hunter Biden’s business dealings and now infamous comments about Hunter’s laptop? Recall that Biden referenced in a debate with Trump the 51 high-ranking intelligence officials who claimed that the laptop was classic Russian disinformation. Or will they focus on public policy questions like the 8 to 10 million people who have illegally crossed the southern border? High inflation? Violent crime? Global instability?  If so, it’s likely to be a good night for President Trump.

Barring a major flub by either candidate, presidential debates won’t change voters’ minds before November. However, given both candidates’ records, disdain for the other, and personality quirks, the debates should make for great television. Don’t miss it.

Matthew Klink is owner and president of Los Angeles-based Klink Campaigns, a public affairs and political consulting firm.

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