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Trump, Biden Will Debate Twice

Last week, of course, Joe Biden and Donald Trump agreed to hold two presidential debates, one in June and one in September. There will also be a vice-presidential debate in July, which Kamala Harris has agreed to attend. Presumably, her Republican counterpart will agree as well, once that person's identity is known.

To start, be clear that Biden absolutely rolled Trump on this one. Trump has been calling loudly for debates, while Biden has been cautious. When the President finally announced the terms on which he was willing to debate, Trump quickly pounced, and in so doing, gave away the store to Biden. Specifically, the Biden campaign required that the debate host be an outlet that has hosted a Democratic and a Republican candidates' debate in the last two cycles (a list that actually only includes four outlets—ABC, CBS, CNN and Telemundo). In addition, Trump had to agree that there will be a kill switch on the microphones and no audience. These are all perfectly reasonable requirements for a presidential debate, but they also take away major Trump advantages.

Note also the scheduling for the first debate: June 27. When Biden first threw down the gauntlet, he included a little trolling, suggesting that he and Trump meet up on a Wednesday because "I hear you have Wednesdays free." Ouch. Of course, Trump's New York trial will be over by then, but he could well be just weeks removed from having been declared a felon. Not great timing for him, to say the least. (And in case you're wondering, June 27 is actually a Thursday).

You can tell that the Trump campaign knows they got rolled because they commenced all sorts of shenanigans trying to even the score. Daughter-in-law and RNC Vice-Chair Lara Trump has been on any outlet that will have her, complaining the debates are rigged. Both Trump, and members of his campaign, have proposed that Biden should have to take a drug test before debating (presumably to prove Biden's taking Adderall). Trump also promptly agreed to a third debate, on Fox on October 10. Don't expect Biden to RSVP for, or show up for, that one.

There is some talk that Biden finally accepted the debate invitation because he's doing poorly in polls, and he's desperate. That's certainly possible, but we really don't buy it. When you are still almost 6 months from the election, and the polls are close, it really isn't time for Hail Mary passes. We are inclined to think that, unless Biden was WAY ahead (a condition that is nearly impossible in presidential politics these days), he was going to debate, because the debates are more likely to help him than hurt him (keep reading for why we think so).

In any case, the June 27 debate will be the earliest presidential debate ever held (keeping in mind that presidential debates are a relatively new phenomenon). We suspect this will set a new template for the presidential debate schedule; holding three of them in close proximity to each other and to the election doesn't make a lot of sense. Having one in June, and then having the conventions in July and August, and then having another in September is a lot kinder to the public's attention span, and also allows the candidates to show change over time.

The host of the first debate, incidentally, will be CNN, which has already picked Jake Tapper and Dana Bash as moderators. That same duo moderated the Republican candidates' debate in Iowa in January of this year (Trump was not present, of course). Here is our assessment of their performance:

Speaking of the moderators, Dana Bash and Jake Tapper were a little better than what we've seen in the past four debates, but not by much. They, like their predecessors, often struggled to maintain order, with the result that there were many occasions when the two candidates were shouting over each other. On top of that, some of the questions were good, but some were very, very poor. For example, the moderators asked DeSantis if he believes Haley is sufficiently pro-life, and [Nikki] Haley if she believes that [Gov. Ron] DeSantis [(R-FL)] is sufficiently pro-life. What value do such questions have? There is NO WAY either of them is going to say: "Yes, my opponent is very strongly pro-life; I really admire them for that." And so, the question might just as well be: Please spend 90 seconds attacking your opponent on the issue of abortion. What does that have to do with "debating" or "journalism" or anything other than egging the candidates on?

Because of the rules used to winnow down the field, there were only two people on stage that night, Haley and DeSantis. We hope that the benefit of that experience, plus the mics with kill switches, plus the lack of audience, will allow Tapper and Bash to do better this time. The second debate will be hosted by ABC, incidentally, and moderated by David Muir and Linsey Davis. They're rookies, so they better take lots of notes on June 27.

And now, let's address the questions about the debates we asked of readers:

Which debate(s) do you expect to watch?

Among the readers 66.8% said they expected to watch both, while an additional 8.1% expected to watch at least one of them.

Obviously, the readers of this site are particularly interested in, and attuned to, politics, and the general public's interest will be nowhere near that high. That said, we think the debates will draw very good ratings, even if they involve two of the best-known presidential candidates in history. There are some pretty big storylines involved (e.g., "Is Biden senile?" and maybe "How will Trump deal with being a felon?"). Plus, the fact that there are only two debates, and they are months apart, will reduce the weariness factor by a bunch.

Which debate(s) do you expect to actually happen?

Only 25.4% of readers think that both debates will happen, while 27.6% think only the June one will happen, and 6.4% think only the September one will happen. Nearly 40% think that neither will take place.

Our thinking is that Trump has boxed himself in here, and it will be very difficult for him to weasel his way out of the June debate. However, when and if the June debate happens, and when and if Trump does poorly, he could absolutely claim that he was treated unfairly and that he won't be at any future debates. So, we're with the 27.6% who think June only is the likeliest outcome.

Do you think the debates will affect the election?

Among the readers, 20.4% said "yes, and maybe a lot," while 42% said "yes, but only a little," and 17.9% said "maybe yes, maybe no. That means that roughly 80% of readers allow for the possibility that the debates will affect the election.

We think that is absolutely right, in part because we think interest will be high, and in part for reasons we will address in the next answer. Had we been answering the survey, we would have been in the 20.4% who allowed for the possibility of a major effect. That said, when a race is very close, even a small effect is de facto a big effect.

Which candidate is more likely to benefit from the debates?

The great majority of readers (74%) think that the debates are more likely to help Biden. Only 4.4% think they are more likely to help Trump. The rest don't know or don't think the debates will move the needle.

We recognize that the readership of this site skews pretty Democratic, but we think that this is not really a partisan question, and that the readers are right that this is more likely to help Biden than Trump. We've thought a fair bit about this, and we have four reasons we believe that is the case.

First, both Trump and Biden have age/loss of mental acuity as a liability. However, our observation has been that, in reality, Trump has a more serious problem than Biden does. Meanwhile, thanks to the right-wing (and even, sometimes, the non-right-wing) media machine, Biden has a worse reputation on this front than Trump does. Add it up, and it will be easier for Biden to impress, and easier for Trump to disappoint, we think.

Second, Biden is considerably more disciplined than Trump. The President may stutter, and he may even misspeak, but he is unlikely to say anything truly awful or stupid. Trump, on the other hand, often issues forth with really problematic stuff (see below for an example from yesterday). Put succinctly, Trump is much more likely to have a "macaca" moment than Biden.

Third, and on a somewhat related point, there are obviously going to be questions from the moderators (and possibly from the general public). We went through the questions that readers suggested for each candidate, and picked out 10 toughies that each of them might actually get (sorry, we don't believe a debate moderator would ask Biden "Why are you such a coward?" or Trump "Why are you such a poopoo-faced doody head?"). Anyhow, here is the list for Biden:

There are some VERY difficult questions there. But they are foreseeable, we think, and are manageable. There aren't too many where Biden is at risk of really shooting himself in the foot.

And now, the list of Trump questions:

We think there are a LOT more landmines there. And that would be true even if the candidate was someone fairly disciplined and fairly intelligent, like Ron DeSantis or Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). Trump does not like to prepare for debates, and he also tends to lose his temper. We see a much greater chance of a disastrous answer, or non-answer. For example, even if he dodges a 2020 election winner question, it still reminds voters of his (very unpopular) position on the subject.

Finally, we think that it's a problem for Trump that the debates will remind people about who he really is. There appears to be some rose-colored-glasses when it comes to looking back at his presidency, with some people apparently forgetting some of the most unpleasant parts of it. And since he left office, he really hasn't had a megaphone. He was kicked off the big social media platforms, and a great many Americans don't follow his boutique platform OR the breathless reporting of the latest outrageous thing he said on there, or the latest outrageous thing he said after his trial. Since Biden, by virtue of the bully pulpit, does have a megaphone, this dynamic is much less likely to apply to him.

In short, we are not saying it's a certainty that the debates will work for Biden or against Trump. But we were also not the slightest bit surprised that readers were nearly 17 times more likely to think the debates will work in Biden's favor than in Trump's favor.

Would you like to see Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on stage?

There was more consensus on this question than any other. Only 5.9% of readers want to hear from RFK Jr., while 85.6% do not, and the rest don't care or don't know.

A new poll yesterday from Harvard CAPS/Harris gives the impression that most Americans want RFK Jr. there. However, note that is with the caveat that he, and any other third-party candidates who get an invite, should "clear a viable threshold." Exactly what that means to each respondent is not clear. However, CNN actually has established a threshold, and it's that a candidate has to be on enough state ballots that they are mathematically able to win the presidency. In other words, 270 EVs' worth of state ballots. Kennedy is not likely to clear that hurdle by June, but he probably will by September. So, if the September debate goes forward, the people who would like to hear from the son of Bobby will probably get their wish.

We share the readers' overwhelming sentiment that he brings nothing useful to the table. His only interest is in getting attention for his kooky ideas and trying to boost his fundraising take.

And there you have it. T-minus-36 days and counting. (Z)

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