In the three weeks since Donald Trump last met Joe Biden on the debate stage, another kind of debate has been swirling on the campaign trail: one over the conditions under which the two presidential candidates would convene for a rematch. Virtual format, or an old-fashioned in-person face to face? Open microphones for both debaters, or only for the one who is speaking? A moderator who tightly enforces the rules, or one who allows the candidates – one candidate in particular – to run wild?
It is something of a miracle that Thursday’s debate in Nashville, Tennessee, is happening at all – and Trump being Trump, there is always the chance of a last-minute cancellation at any point before the camera’s light blinks red. After his disastrous opener against Biden, followed days later by a hospital stay for COVID-19, Trump dropped out of the second scheduled debate, a town hall that was to have taken place in Miami. Trump’s reason: he did not approve of the remote format that was being proposed as a precautionary measure against his illness.
But with the incumbent president lagging in the polls, amid a surge in enthusiasm for Democratic candidates across the board, Trump finds himself in need of a follow-up debate. When the candidates meet again on Thursday, they will repeat the same format as in their first debate, with one notable difference: each candidate will be allotted two minutes at the beginning of every segment (there are six segments in total), during which the opposing candidate’s microphone will be silenced.
The Commission on Presidential Debates, which has sponsored every general election presidential and vice presidential debate in the US since 1988, imposed this unusual change after acknowledging that the first Trump-Biden face-off deprived voters of “the opportunity to be informed of the candidates’ positions on the issues”. That is a nice way of saying that they hope for a more civilised round two, with the candidates engaging in a substantive dialogue rather than a shouting match.
This modest production tweak seems unlikely to produce a markedly different event. Since both microphones will remain open during the 11-minute “discussion periods” that round out each segment, a rerun of last month’s episode seems not only possible but inevitable.
Which brings us to the candidates, and the state of play as they head into their final showdown.
In the opening encounter with Biden, Trump manifested all of his worst characteristics. He was rude, whiny, loud and unpleasant. And, according to post-debate polling, voters did not like it.
Two mistakes from that first debate stand out: the most cringeworthy was Trump’s personal attack on Hunter Biden, the son of Joe Biden, for being a recovering drug addict. Second, the president’s refusal to disavow white supremacists – in fact, to tell one such group to “stand down and stand by” – struck most observers as out of bounds.
Trump fared no better in a subsequent NBC News town hall that the network substituted for the cancelled second debate with Biden. Under sharp questioning from anchor Savannah Guthrie, Trump again bungled his responses, especially regarding his relationship to QAnon conspiracy theorists. Furthermore, he promoted false information about the efficacy of mask-wearing during the coronavirus pandemic.
As these examples show, Trump flounders when he is forced to operate outside the friendly confines of right-wing media. The final debate with Biden, in front of what could be the largest audience either candidate will ever face, stands as Trump’s last chance to counteract the barrage of bad news he has been suffering, and will probably continue to suffer until election day. History suggests the task will not be easy.
Biden did not win the first match with Trump by being the world’s best debater. He did not need to be, not against a competitor whose obnoxiousness rendered Biden saintly by contrast. Nobody remembers much of what Biden said in that debate. All they remember is that he was not Trump, and that was enough.
Biden’s own network town hall, which aired on ABC at the same time Trump was appearing on NBC, handed the former vice president another victory in the battle of personalities. While Trump’s performance was roundly panned, Biden drew comparisons to Mister Rogers, the kindly, soothing children’s television host who over generations has become a national symbol of decency.
Biden’s talent for empathy served him well in the town hall, as he bonded personally with the socially distanced voters who posed questions from the gallery. Even after the programme ended, Biden remained on-site for another half-hour, chatting with people in the audience.
In view of Trump’s misbehaviour in the first debate, some observers have wondered whether Biden is needlessly subjecting himself to another round of mud-wrestling with an out-of-control opponent. Given Biden’s current standing in the polls, and with Trump’s COVID diagnosis as a pretext, he could probably have wriggled out of it.
On the other hand, Biden comes to this debate in a position of strength, having notched a solid record against Trump in recent TV encounters – the Democratic challenger even beat Trump in the ratings for their duelling town halls. It is Biden who has benefitted when voters judge the two candidates side-by-side like merchandise in a shop window.
Biden has every reason to play it safe in this last debate, to do nothing that will rock a boat that is about to reach the shore. Needless to say, any encounter with a loose cannon like Trump carries a high degree of risk.
But heading into the final debate of 2020, Biden is the candidate with the easier challenge, that of staying the course, while his opponent needs a U-turn.