Debates offer candidates large, risky platform for contrast: ANALYSIS

Speculation mounted for months over whether Trump and Biden would debate at all.

May 15, 2024, 5:47 PM

The decision by President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump to debate twice before November's election offers both contenders their best opportunity yet to burnish what they view as advantageous contrasts -- with risks for each.

The two agreed Wednesday to a June 27 debate hosted by CNN and a Sept. 10 debate hosted by ABC News, the most definitive sign that they will participate in a head-to-head forum after months of speculation that the setting would be yet another political tradition to fall by the wayside.

To be certain, agreeing to appear at a debate is not the same as standing on the stage itself, and the two sides could still disagree over the logistics. But strategists from both parties said the arrangement indicated each campaign sees advantages from a public scuffle.

"This is an important opportunity to both consolidate your base, but particularly for those swing voters, for those independent and undecided voters, it's an opportunity to remind them, to get people to focus in June on the campaign for those who may have not really been paying as close attention," said Democratic strategist Karen Finney, who worked on Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign.

PHOTO: Joe Biden, 2020 Democratic presidential nominee, right, and U.S. President Donald Trump speak during the U.S. presidential debate at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., Oct. 22, 2020.
Joe Biden, 2020 Democratic presidential nominee, right, and U.S. President Donald Trump speak during the U.S. presidential debate at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., Oct. 22, 2020.
Chip Somodevilla/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The agreement to the two debates, which came rapidly after Biden proposed the forums, comes ahead of a six-month sprint to Election Day. Significantly, they would take place before early voting starts and earlier than past debates in late September and October.

Trump has rallied his base by railing against the dozens of criminal charges he faces, while nodding to swing voters by highlighting frustrations with the economy, which polling suggests remains a top concern for voters. Biden, meanwhile, is casting himself as a steady hand at the wheel and a defender of reproductive rights while touting accomplishments like his administration's extensive infrastructure investments.

Trump has led most early state and national polls thus far, while Biden in certain surveys has narrowed his deficit -- though never by enough to actually take any consistent leads.

Democrats told ABC News they were heartened by the Biden campaign's move Wednesday to initiate the two debates, saying it gives Biden a chance to portray himself as the adult in the race while hoping the prominent platform could alter the stubborn dynamics of the race.

What's more, the Biden campaign proposed terms that would eliminate a live audience and ensure that only he and Trump would qualify -- trying to lock in a setting that would deprive Trump of an opportunity to play to the crowd and prevent a multi-candidate melee. The Biden campaign is also declining to partner with the Commission on Presidential Debates, claiming it's ill-equipped to handle Trump on stage.

"It just demonstrates that the campaign is recognizing that they need to change the dynamic and that the debates are hopefully an effective way to do that," said one source familiar with the Biden campaign's strategy, who like other spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the debates.

"I think the main goal of the Biden campaign is to show the nation how unhinged Trump not only is but how much he's lost off his fastball in the last four years," added one Democratic pollster. "And this type of a showcase, I think, will draw that contrast. I think the other very tactically smart thing to do was to have eliminated the third-party candidates because it puts the choice that Biden wants on the ballot, which is him or Trump for all the marbles."

The Biden camp is already trying to go on the offense on the issue, with campaign chair Jen O'Malley Dillon declaring in a statement, "No more games. No more chaos, no more debate about debates. We’ll see Donald Trump on June 27th in Atlanta – if he shows up."

Still, pitfalls lurk for Biden.

Democrats say the president effectively batted down speculation about his age (81 years old) with a forceful State of the Union address earlier this year, but strategists conceded that a slip up at one of the debates could reignite the worries.

PHOTO: Vice President Kamala Harris, from left, President Joe Biden, and House Speaker Mike Johnson, a Republican from Louisiana, during a State of the Union address at the Capitol, March 7, 2024.
Vice President Kamala Harris, from left, President Joe Biden, and House Speaker Mike Johnson, a Republican from Louisiana, during a State of the Union address at the Capitol, March 7, 2024.
Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

"It would be a problem in that it could, I think, confirm a lot of concerns that voters have about him and make it even more difficult for him to shed those concerns," the source familiar with the campaign's strategy said of a bad Biden gaffe.

Republicans, for their part, appeared eager for the two candidates to face off.

Polls show voters trust Trump more than Biden on several policy issues, including on topics of top concerns to voters like the economy and immigration, leading GOP strategists to tell ABC News that the contrast on stage actually serves to benefit the former president, not his successor, and that even a sensational performance from Biden can only go so far.

"Do [voters] feel like the economy's better or worse? Do they feel like the world is at peace? Do they feel like the border's secure? Do they feel safe in their homes? Do they feel like they've got more money in their pocket? Biden can't answer yes on any of those. So, a great debate gets him to stop the bleeding. That's it," said Chip Saltsman, a GOP strategist who worked on former Vice President Mike Pence's now-defunct 2024 campaign.

Republicans also swatted away speculation that an audience-less debate where moderators have the power to cut off microphones would inhibit Trump.

The former president in his past campaigns demonstrated an aggressive campaign style, shouting over both his opponents and moderators and disrupting any strategy Democrats had coming into the forum, a tact he's anticipated to continue this year regardless of the rules.

"It's certainly one of his talents," said one former Trump administration official. "The rules will be decided, we'll figure out exactly what that looks like, but more or less, he brings you with him. Whatever direction he wants to go, you kind of have to go there, as we've seen from the debates in the past."

Democrats warn that strategy is a double-edged sword, however.

Trump has shown a penchant for derailing debates, at times muddling them to the point that viewers could barely hear who's talking. But if Biden is able to break through, he could appear to be a more serious candidate if Trump is "ranting and raving," as Finney put it.

"That's not the same thing as two hours of serious conversation about what the country is facing and what you would do about it," she said.

Barring any major slip up or knockout blow, though, the debates could barely nudge the electoral needle.

Both Biden and Trump have virtually universal name recognition, and many voters, polls show, have opinions of them based on years of observation, leaving few minds left to be changed about this year's race.

"Barring the worst-case scenario, not much," the former Trump administration official said when asked how much of an impact the debate could have. "Universal name recognition, pretty hardened images. So, you're really talking about is there a moment where somebody says something that everybody can capture onto."

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