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Election 2024

Thursday's U.S. presidential debate will be unprecedented and unpredictable, experts say

Panelists from the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University offer insights into the first-ever debate between an incumbent president and a former president

On Thursday night, President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump will face off in the first presidential debate of 2024. In anticipation of this event, the Johns Hopkins Briefing Series hosted a virtual panel of experts to discuss the history and significance of presidential debates.

The panel was moderated by SNF Agora Institute Associate Professor of Political Science Lilliana Mason, whose research focuses on partisan identity, partisan bias, and American social polarization. The briefing series is hosted by the Office of Interdisciplinary Initiatives.

Panelists included:

  • Peter Pomerantsev, a senior fellow at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University, where he co-directs the Arena Initiative. His research focuses on overcoming the challenges of digital era disinformation and polarization.
  • Andrew Perrin, an SNF Agora professor of sociology and a cultural and political sociologist, his current research is focused on public opinion and democratic citizenship.
  • Leah Wright Rigueur, an SNF Agora Institute associate professor of history who studies 20th century U.S. political and social history. Her research focuses on race and political ideology, the American presidency, and presidential elections.

Key takeaways:

We're headed for an unprecedented debate.

When Biden and Trump square off on Thursday night, they'll be achieving a number of firsts, not all of them positive, the panelists say. Never has an incumbent president faced a former president in a debate. Never have the two candidates been as old—Trump is 78, and Biden, at 81, will be the first octogenarian to take the presidential debate stage. And never has a convicted felon participated in a debate for president, let alone run for the highest office in the country.

This showdown, says Rigueur, "is completely unique in the history of televised media debate."

Even the structure and rules will be different. Historically, debates have been held well into the election season, normally in September and October, a stark contrast to this year's June start date. To keep this debate from veering off course, there will be no audience, and moderators will have the power to mute candidates' microphones.

Style matters.

Maybe voters don't care who designed Biden's suit or Trump's tie, but how a candidate presents himself—from his cadence of speech to the American flag pinned on his lapel—is vitally important, according to the panelists.

Rigueur recalls the first televised presidential debate in 1960, where Richard Nixon infamously lost to John F. Kennedy due to his lack of makeup and sweaty forehead. "The real deal breaker was that Kennedy was used to doing television," she says. "He had an aesthetic and knew what it meant to talk to the American people."

Rigeuer notes that when viewers discuss who won the debate afterwards, style is often just as important as substance: "We don't always remember candidates' talking points, but we do remember the way they presented themselves."

"Think about that infamous Hillary Clinton versus Donald Trump debate [in 2020] where [the moderators] allowed the candidates to walk around the stage," she continues. "One of the things that really stuck out for a lot of people was how Donald Trump followed Hillary Clinton as she was talking."

Ultimately, according to Perrin, what matters is how a candidate makes voters feel, and in a year where many voters already feel uninspired by both candidates, broadcasting a particular image is especially important. According to Rigueur, Biden will have to assure voters he's still sharp despite his age, while Trump will have to convince them that he is morally equipped for the job.

While picking the next leader of the free world based on feelings might seem impractical, Perrin gives another perspective: "Much of what happens in any presidential term is unpredictable," he says, citing incidents like 9/11 and the mortgage crisis of 2008. "And so what you're trying to do [by watching a debate] is not get a sense of just what their agenda is, but actually what kind of leader we're trying to elect."

He continues, "it's a question of feeling what makes you trust or mistrust a candidate. Who do you imagine they might ask for advice in the context of something really new happening? What kinds of expertise do they have access to, or do they consider [consulting experts at all]? To what extent do you have faith that the candidate is serious about considering the evidence when something happens?"

Moderators set the tone.

Moderators have always played a key role in presidential debates, but in such a polarized political climate, they're crucial to maintaining a debate based on facts.

Pomerantsev explains, "If you label the other person a liar and dismiss anything that comes out of their mouth, that destroys the ground for a debate where evidence matters. It's really going to be up to moderators to steer the debate in a way where facts can happen."

This year, moderators have a new tool for reining in debaters: mute buttons. While Pomerantsev hopes they're used with impartiality and only to penalize candidates for breaking debate rules, he also predicts the mute buttons will prove controversial with viewers. He compared their dilemma to that faced by soccer referees:

"Even though the referee might be trying to be fair, [their choices] are always reinterpreted" through viewers' various biases.

Presidential debates aren't really debates, at least in the traditional sense.

The debate stage gives candidates opportunities that extend beyond simply sparring with their opponent. It provides a mouthpiece for carefully honed soundbites, which will inevitably make the rounds on social media channels.

Pomerantsev says debates are now "raw material that will be chopped and changed, … a rough cut … used in completely other ways." He's noticed candidates adapting to this new trend, often trading cohesive narratives for quotable one-liners. These quips aren't meant to sway undecided voters, but to shore up one's base.

"Social media is for … preaching to your tribe," explains Pomerantsev. "So if Trump says something particularly incendiary around abortion, I'm pretty sure the Democrats will leap on that. And the other way around, if Biden stumbles in some way, that will definitely be used by Republicans."

When asked if these events are true debates or opportunities for candidates to recite memorized talking points, Perrin insists it's more complex than that:

"The point of the debate is to allow both candidates to get themselves out there more directly … than they do through advertisements and social media, and to allow the public to better understand who they are, what they stand for, and why. Are they true debates in some sort of dialectic or philosophical society sense? No, they're not. But they provide a real and true distinction on the same stage between two starkly different choices for the most powerful office of the land. I think it's much less important whether it's a 'true' debate and much more important whether that contrast [between the two candidates] is faithfully and appropriately drawn for the public so they can learn from it."