Two days before the big media event, US President Donald Trump showed calm. On Sunday, like almost every weekend, he played a few hours of golf at his Virginia golf course – the temperatures in the capital are still summery. Some experts would advise him to prepare intensively for the next first of three TV duels with his challenger Joe Biden.
After all, the incumbent party lags behind in the polls and, unlike the Democratic presidential candidate, did not have to lead a controversial primary campaign with numerous debates. But Trump rarely listens to experts, especially those who think they know something better than himself.
He told Fox News broadcaster, “I actually prepare every day to do what I do.”
When the two men first meet in this election campaign Tuesday in Cleveland, Ohio, tens of millions of Americans will be watching them. Even in a normal US election campaign, the TV debates draw large numbers of viewers in the final, decisive weeks before the election.
But in this Corona year, when there is much less distraction than usual at night, nothing is normal.
An election campaign like it has not been for 100 years
“The TV duels are extremely important in any election campaign,” said Philip Harold, a professor of political science at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “Those are the moments when a race can really run.” All attention was drawn to the election campaign at once. And this year it is more than usual again: “This year’s debates will probably be the most memorable in the history of TV duels.”
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This is, of course, because of the way the election campaign is conducted in times of pandemic – “as it hasn’t been for 100 years,” says Harold. The candidate of a major party is trying to lead a “Front Porch Campaign,” an election campaign from the front porch at home – in the case of Biden, his home in Wilmington / Delaware. “Biden only does a few very controlled events and hardly gives interviews – very unlike when candidates try to get as much local coverage as possible.” Meanwhile, Trump has nearly reached the frequency of 2016 in his meetings.
Biden argued in the primary campaign
In return, Biden took part in several internal party TV debates in the primary campaign, in which he did sometimes better, sometimes worse. In the end, he also had a duel with his last remaining rival, the much farther politically left-wing Vermont senator, Bernie Sanders, most observers of whom saw him as the winner. That was already during the pandemic and therefore already without an audience. Shortly afterwards, Sanders dropped out of the race.
Tuesday (from 9 p.m. local time) will also be much quieter than the Americans are used to from previous election campaigns. Few viewers get to watch the 90-minute debate live at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. The group is chaired by “Fox News Sunday” presenter Chris Wallace, who is considered the most critical of Trump’s otherwise weighted broadcaster.
Each 15 minutes long, there should be a total of six thematic complexes: the Supreme Court, most notably the successor to Liberal Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died a week ago, and Covid-19, the urban economy, racism and violence. Trump and Biden’s earlier political record and the integrity of the election itself. As in 2016, the American secret services fear that other countries will exert influence. Trump claims that an election by mail is unsafe and manipulable.
Moderator Wallace asks the questions and each candidate has two minutes to answer. Then they can react to each other again. A fact check by the moderator during the broadcast is not provided.
The president is hoping for Biden’s mistake
With Americans currently seeing their president almost every day, the main focus and probably most pressure will be on his challenger. Trump, himself 74, always calls his rival, three years his senior, “Sleepy Joe” and accuses him of being mentally disturbed. “He’s just waiting for the former vice president to make a faux pas that could then exploit his campaign,” said political scientist Harold. Biden, who stuttered as a child and often failed to complete sentences, is known for sometimes hasty things.
Trump, who had no doubts about provocation, again called on Biden to undergo a doping test on Sunday – either before or after the game. Because Biden’s performances in debates are “ record-breaking unbalanced, ” he tweeted. “Only drugs could have caused this discrepancy.”
Biden has already indicated that he is prepared for such attacks. The president does not know how to discuss facts, he said in an interview with the MSNBC broadcaster on Saturday. “He doesn’t know much about foreign policy, he doesn’t know much about domestic policy. He doesn’t know much about the details.” Therefore “it will be mostly personal attacks and lies”, a “single frontal attack”. The US president is “a bit like Goebbels,” said Biden. “You tell a lie long enough, repeat it over and over, repeat it, repeat it, and it’s common knowledge.” But people knew the president was a liar.
“Trump has everything to lose”
Experts assume a violent exchange of blows between the two rivals. Philippe Reines, who played Trump in preparing Hillary Clinton for a duel four years ago, writes in the Washington Post: Trump is both a very bad and a very difficult discussant. In 2016 he had nothing to lose, now he has everything to lose. When attacked, the president usually doesn’t defend himself. Instead, he praises himself, counterattacks, and then changes the subject. For Trump, the debate in the Corona period represents the first real opportunity to turn the race around, Reines continues. He is isolated and frustrated in his Oval Office – and therefore very aggressive.
Political scientist Robert Speel of Pennsylvania State University in Erie says, “I assume Trump will be very aggressive because that’s his style.” Speel expects Biden to be aggressive from time to time, such as when he talks about Trump’s lies or his mistakes in dealing with the pandemic. He should do that to counteract the impression that he is too old for the White House. But you’ll often see Biden just shake his head. A good performance, in which Biden showed that he was immediately ready to become president, can help him enormously. In return, serious mistakes can seriously hurt his campaign, Speel says.
Who is more enthusiastic?
It is open how great the effect of the debates will be. “It’s less about voters making it clear whether they will vote for Trump or Biden,” Harold said. Very few voters are tied. The point is which candidate can best mobilize his voters to actually vote on November 3. “The choice is made on the level of enthusiasm.” That makes it a bit more difficult for Biden, who has to calm various currents in the party, says Harold. “Trump already knows what his party wants and has united them behind him.”
All major US news outlets will broadcast the debates live. In Germany, Phoenix secured the broadcast rights for the entire game on Wednesday-evening and will be broadcast live from 2:45 PM. The second meeting is scheduled for October 15 in Miami / Florida. The third debate will take place October 22 in Nashville, Tennessee.
There is also a debate on the agenda among the candidates for the Vice-Presidency. Vice President Mike Pence and California Senator Kamala Harris will meet in Salt Lake City, Utah on Oct. 7. According to the media, Harris is training for this together with her former primary campaign competitor Pete Buttigieg, who plays pennies.