What to Watch for in Biden and Trump’s First 2024 Debate


Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

The first 2024 presidential debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump is taking place at a very odd time in the election cycle, but it’s still attracting a lot of attention. Polls show six in ten American adults intend to tune in amid heavy speculation that the matchup could become a key moment in a very consequential election.

Biden and Trump will both almost certainly use this oddly early debate to set up their general-election campaigns and gain momentum. Both of them must avoid the kind of major gaffes that sometimes haunt campaigns long after the microphones have fallen silent. But each debater has a distinct set of goals and likely tactics. Here’s a preview of what we can expect on Thursday night.

The 45th president has an uneven record in debates, dodging all of them during the 2024 Republican nomination battle and not distinguishing himself much at all in three debates with Hillary Clinton in 2016 and two with Joe Biden in 2020. It’s telling that he nonetheless defeated Clinton in 2016, came close to beating Biden in 2020, and easily won the 2024 GOP nomination. He doesn’t need to “win” the Atlanta debate. And in fact he’s done everything possible to cast the event as a “rigged” encounter heavily slanted to favor his opponent — from attacking sponsor CNN (long a MAGA target) to reigniting an old feud with co-moderator Jake Tapper to suggesting Biden will be jacked up on stimulants. Aside from lowering expectations for his performance to a manageable level, this tactic reinforces Trump’s larger argument that he’s fighting powerful elites who stole the 2020 election from him and are engaged in outrageous schemes (most notably the “lawfare” of his federal and state criminal prosecutions) to keep him from returning to the White House.

“Winning” or “losing” aside, the rules for the CNN debate may inadvertently help Trump by limiting opportunities for him to appear as a raging bully since his microphone will go silent when his time has expired and/or when Biden is speaking. Anything other than wild incoherence may be adjudged as a successful effort by Trump to appear less terrifying and more “presidential.”

From a more tactical point of view, expect Trump to hammer away at Biden’s record on the very issues where polls consistently show the incumbent as vulnerable, particularly inflation, immigration, and alleged “crime and disorder” in American cities. The New Republic’s Greg Sargent predicts that Trump will combine two of these lines of attack by focusing on lurid (if atypical) examples of “migrant killings.” Expect him to argue that Biden has directly threatened the safety of law-abiding citizens all over the country by allowing a huge influx of violence-prone asylum seekers who really just want to come to America to do crimes, soak up government benefits, and vote Democratic. It’s a preposterous argument but one that Biden will have trouble completely refuting without looking dangerously defensive or ceding too much ground.

The Atlanta debate will include questions on foreign policy as well as domestic issues, and on this front Trump will almost certainly depict the world as a hellscape of war and threats to American interests to which Biden’s weak presidency regularly contributes. This tactic will allow Trump to highlight all sorts of reasons for unhappiness with Biden’s foreign-policy record — from his support for (and/or ineffective efforts to moderate) Israel in Gaza to his support for perennially unpopular major expenditures on foreign aid — without talking much about his own policies, other than making the impossible-to-rebut claim that his own “strength” will make peace break out everywhere.

The incumbent’s grand strategy is to make the election “comparative” rather than a “referendum” on his presidency, reflecting the fact that both candidates are quite unpopular by historical standards. Normally, the kind of sour electorate we seem to have this year would likely turn against the unpopular president currently in office. But Trump has unique vulnerabilities that Team Biden wants both persuadable and core Democratic voters to think about deeply before deciding whether and how to vote.

The debate can contribute to this shift of focus if Biden can overcome threshold concerns about his focus and vigor — in a word, his age — that Republicans, mainstream media outlets, and some fretful Democrats have been fanning all year. So it’s crucial that he begin and end the debate appearing relatively sharp and (better yet) in command.

If he can win this “style point,” Biden will be in a position to focus substantively on Trump’s weakest points, which include his adjudicated and still-to-be-adjudicated criminal conduct, his unpopular record and positioning on key issues like abortion, and a record of chaotic and ineffective presidential leadership that persuadable voters seem to be misremembering. The questions and Trump’s responses may dictate the extent to which Biden can focus on any of these themes in particular. But whatever else he does, he must clearly and consistently consign to his predecessor responsibility for the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade, and the subsequent abortion bans imposed by Republican-controlled state governments, as well as for the traumatic developments of 2020, when Trump presided poorly over the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the horrific economic and social conditions that ensued — for which Biden has unjustly taken the blame. Biden must correct negative perceptions of his own record, but wherever possible he needs to draw a contrast to Trump’s failures.

One tricky issue will be how often Biden can bring up Trump’s legal problems and convicted-felon status while maintaining his own hands-off posture toward federal and state-level Democratic prosecutors. He needs to leave the impression that Trump is so inveterately corrupt and reckless that being hauled into court regularly is business as usual, not the product of prosecutorial discretion.

There have been some rumors that Trump might try to overshadow the debate itself with intense speculation over his choice of a running mate, possibly even by announcing his vice-president pick in Atlanta. Turning his VP into a debate prop (otherwise banned by CNN) would be characteristic of Trump’s self-centered approach to this fateful decision. But unless the choice is a surprise of some sort, or a symbol of some point he wants to make at the debate, it’s unclear why he would sacrifice the opportunity for dominating a later news cycle of his choosing (say, on the day he receives his criminal sentence in Manhattan). Announcing a Trump-Burgum ticket in Atlanta is something he probably shouldn’t undertake unless it’s an emergency gambit to distract from a terrible debate performance.

A less controllable wild card is the strong possibility of a major Supreme Court decision dropping on the morning of the debate. If, for example, the Supreme Court rejects or partially confirms Trump’s criminal-immunity claims for his conduct as president, it will definitely come up in debate questions. This means some speedy briefing of both debaters after the Court’s June 27 session.

It’s doubtful that many debate viewers will stay tuned for the ritual of analysis and campaign spin that follows every presidential debate. But on most outlets, you can expect a menu of “expert commentary” by pundits and the odd debate coach, shameless spin from campaign operatives, and perhaps some “undecided voter” focus-group reaction. Unless one debater or the other had a remarkably good or bad night, the commentary will be predictably divided; those representing an underperforming candidate may write off the whole event as unimportant (and they may be right).

Usually one or two “snap polls” of debate viewers will appear in the debate aftermath; they are often skewed according to the pre-debate views of those polled and can shift very quickly with the prevailing interpretations of the chattering classes. Significant post-debate polling will take a while, maybe several days (particularly with the weekend coming on, a time when few pollsters are in the field). And even if there is a clear “winner” who gets an immediate polling “bounce,” it often subsides quite soon. The real winner will probably be whichever candidate most successfully uses the event to frame future messaging and cause problems for his opponent.

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