In the three weeks since Donald Trump last met Joe Biden in the debate phase, word has got around in the campaign that there is another type of debate: one about the conditions under which the two presidential candidates would come together for a rematch. Virtual format or an old-fashioned face-to-face conversation? Open microphones for both debaters or just the one who speaks? A moderator who strictly enforces the rules, or one who allows the candidate – especially a candidate – to go wild?
It’s a wonder the debate is taking place in Nashville, Tennessee on Thursday – and with Trump being Trump, there’s always the option of a last minute cancellation before the camera light flashes red. After his disastrous start to Biden followed by a hospital stay for COVID-19, Trump canceled the second scheduled debate, a city hall that should have been held in Miami. Trump’s Reason: He didn’t approve of the removed format proposed as a precaution against his illness.
But with the incumbent president lagging behind in the polls and enthusiasm for democratic candidates growing across the board, Trump needs another debate. When the candidates meet again on Thursday, they repeat the same format as in their first debate, with one notable difference: each candidate is given two minutes at the beginning of each segment (there are six segments in total) during which the opponent’s microphone is muted.
Will Trump’s interruptions be minimized by a new microphone rule for the final debate? [File: Brian Snyder/Reuters]The Presidential Debate Commission, which has sponsored every presidential and vice-presidential debate in the US since 1988, imposed this unusual change after recognizing that the first Trump-Biden duel deprived voters of the ability to “inform about the candidates to become ‘Positions on the Subjects’. That’s a nice way to say that they’re hoping for a more civilized second round, with contestants engaging in substantive dialogue rather than a screaming match.
It is unlikely that this modest production optimization would lead to anything significantly different. With both microphones open during the 13-minute “discussion periods” that round off each segment, a repetition of the last month’s episode seems not only possible but inevitable.
That brings us to the candidates and how things stand as they head off to the final showdown.
In the opening encounter with Biden, Trump displayed all of his worst qualities. He was rude, tearful, loud, and uncomfortable. And, according to polls after the debate, voters didn’t like it.
Two flaws from this initial debate stand out: The most important was Trump’s personal attack on Hunter Biden, the son of Joe Biden, as a drug addict. Second, the president’s refusal to reject white supremacists – actually telling such a group to “step back and stand by” – struck most observers as being out of bounds.
Trump fared no better at a later NBC News Town Hall when the network replaced the canceled second debate with Biden. Amid sharp questions from Anker Savannah Guthrie, Trump again botched his answers, particularly regarding his relationship with QAnon conspiracy theorists. In addition, it promoted false information about the effectiveness of wearing masks during the coronavirus pandemic.
As these examples show, Trump fails when forced to operate outside the friendly confines of the right-wing media. The final debate with Biden in front of possibly the biggest audience any candidate will ever face is Trump’s last chance to counter the barrage of bad news he has suffered and will likely continue to suffer through election day. History shows that the task will not be easy.
Biden did not win the first match with Trump as the best debater in the world. It didn’t have to be, not against a competitor whose obnoxiousness made Biden holy. Nobody remembers much of what Biden said in that debate. They just remember that he wasn’t Trump, and that was enough.
Biden’s own network town hall, which aired on ABC at the same time Trump was performing on NBC, gave the former vice president another battle of personalities victory. While Trump’s appearance was filmed around the clock, Biden drew comparisons to Mister Rogers, the friendly, calming children’s television host who has become a national symbol of decency for generations.
Biden’s talent for empathy served him well in the town hall, as he personally connected with the socially distant voters who asked questions from the gallery. Even after the end of the program, Biden stayed on site for half an hour and talked to the audience.
Given Trump’s misconduct in the initial debate, some observers have wondered whether Biden is unnecessarily submitting to another round of mud wrestling with a runaway opponent. Given Biden’s current status in the polls and Trump’s COVID diagnosis as an excuse, he could probably have wriggled his way out.
On the flip side, Biden comes into this debate in a position of strength after setting a solid record against Trump in recent TV encounters – the Democratic challenger even beat Trump in ratings for their dueling town halls. It is Biden who has benefited when voters judge the two candidates side by side like goods in a shop window.
Biden has every reason to play it safe in this final debate and not do anything to shake a boat about to hit the shore. Needless to say, any encounter with a loose cannon like Trump carries a high level of risk.
Moving into the 2020 final debate, however, Biden is the easier candidate to hold the course while his opponent needs a U-turn.