President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden will face off Tuesday amid the coronavirus pandemic, a racial justice movement and a rush to confirm a new Supreme Court justice.
Tuesday’s event marks the first of three presidential debates.
“Fox News Sunday” anchor Chris Wallace will moderate the debate, which is hosted by Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Clinic. It begins at 8 p.m.
“I think that Joe Biden set up to have a really good night,” said Ed Lee, senior director of the Alben W. Barkley Forum for Debate, Deliberation, and Dialogue at Emory University of Atlanta. “One of the things that I’m looking for is to show up with a good bit of energy — someone who is excited to be there, that counters the narrative that he’s sleepy and can’t stay awake and that ability to just enjoy the moment.”
Mari Maseng Will, principal at Maseng Communications, expects Trump to be on the offensive as much as he can.
“And I expect him to also enjoy the experience. He’s a TV guy or thinks of himself as a TV guy,” Will said. “Whenever I’m coaching people I tell them at the beginning that this is going to be fun. It’s a game, it’s gonna be fun. They never believe me, but then when they finally get on stage and they are prepared, they do have a good time.”
Viewers at home will pick up on body language, tone and facial expressions, she said.
Due to concerns over the spread of COVID-19, the audience will be limited to about 75-80 people and masks will be required.
“One of the pitfalls for President Trump is that he gets a tremendous amount of energy from the crowd. He’s a TV guy, he’s an entertainer, and the ability for him to show up in a sparse audience and maintain a level of energy,” Lee said. “President Trump is brilliant at understanding what the audience needs at the particular moment and adjusting to that. The lack of a crowd is something that I hope his campaign advisors are prepping him to deal with.”
Will is concerned that Biden hasn’t spent enough time campaigning. Typically, the more a candidate campaigns, the better they get at campaigning and debating.
Lee agreed. “One of my fears for Joe Biden is that he has spent a significant amount of time preparing for the debate instead of preparing to have a spontaneous and impromptu conversation with Chris Wallace and the audience,” he said.
The debate will focus on six topics: the records of Trump and Biden, the Supreme Court, COVID-19, the economy, race and violence in U.S. cities, and the integrity of the election.
Critics have raised concerns over the framing of “race and violence in U.S. cities,” saying it conflates the two issues. Meanwhile, 36 Democrats signed a letter to the Commission on Presidential Debates to focus more attention on climate change, which was left out of the topic list.
“It might favor Trump,” Will said, noting that the economy is one of Trump’s strengths. “Voters don’t really care about what you did for them yesterday. They care about what are you going to do for them tomorrow,” she said.
That’s what the swing voters are wondering, Will said. She expects Biden to focus on the coronavirus, which is a top issue for Democrats but not necessarily for the swing voters that he needs to win over.