Face off: mutual disdain will be on show as Biden and Trump debate on Thursday

Will many people watch – and will it make a difference to the outcome of the election?

A drive-up presidential debate watch party at Fort Mason in San Francisco, October 2020. Photograph: Jim Wilson/The New York Times

In September 2020 Roger Angell, the distinguished New Yorker essayist who was then 101 years old, sat down to compose a short, terse piece in the aftermath of the presidential debate between then president Donald Trump and his rival, Joe Biden. His mind turned to the evening of Monday, September 26th, 1960, when he and his wife allowed Callie, their 12-year-old daughter, to stay up late so she could watch the TV debate between John F Kennedy and Richard Nixon.

“She listened raptly, of course, and her mother and I tried to imagine her feelings as she sensed that she was now a participant in something complex, historic, and profoundly American. I can’t remember any conversation from that occasion but almost feel our silent collective emotions.”

That beautiful observation surely got to the heart of the now defunct phenomenon of the collective live television experience. Only a national or international sports occasion has the power to draw families to the television screen, or to make the barroom television the collective focus, at the same hour, with millions sharing in the same event. And even then, it is refracted through the endless permutations and carve-ups of social media.

But dismay was at the heart of Angell’s words. The 2020 spectacle was, he said, “grotesquely shattered” by the actions of Trump during the debate. “None of us can be sure now that the precious rite and process will ever be restored.”


Angell died in May 2022, back when the possibility of a presidential rematch seemed remote. But on Thursday, 81-year-old Biden and 78-year-old Trump will be reunited for another televised debate, to be held in the CNN studios in Atlanta. The ground rules are strict to the point of joyless: no live audience, no interruptions, the microphones controlled by the moderators. Oh, and no Robert Kennedy Jr: his furious spate of lobbying to meet the qualifying criteria fell short so, for the main challengers, that wild card has been removed.

But a host of questions remain over whether or not the concept of the presidential debate has become distorted: an unpleasant charade. The endless stream of polls has made it clear the American audience is exhausted, not energised, by the political landscape and by the prospect of having to decide between these two senior political forces who share, if nothing else, an indefatigable belief in their ability to continue.

What has either man left to say that anybody who cares has not already heard a hundred times? Who will watch? Can it and will it make a difference to the outcome of the election? And, perhaps most importantly, will those Americans who tune in do so with the strange, specific intent of verifying for themselves the physical and mental robustness of each candidate?

“That is a very good question,” says Audrey Haynes, associate professor of political science at the University of Georgia and renowned for her research work on presidential elections. “People who are non-biased in any particular manner would probably tell you that both men are older and often forget names, mispronounce or stumble in their words. There is ample evidence that neither is able to run a marathon, but the Trump campaign, as well as others, will often discuss Biden within that framework of age.

“One of our best presidents [Franklin Roosevelt] was older and had a debilitating disease that kept him from walking. At that time, people kept FDR’s condition as quiet as possible, particularly when the world was at war. He worked very hard and at times people close to him would talk about the incredible pain he suffered. Neither Trump or Biden is in the same category, but the notion that because someone is older that they are less qualified or not energetic enough to be president is simply a tool to undermine support.”

At a rally in Wisconsin this week, Trump elaborated on his campaign-stump riff of Biden as aged and bewildered. Biden has responded to the age issue by veering between self-deprecating jokes and – in the instance of the classified documents report in February – angry indignation. This week a neatly edited social media package appearing to show the president caught in moments of distraction or uncertainty in official situations has been condemned as manipulated by Democratic voices. The viciousness of the attacks may be more extreme. But Haynes points out that the age issue is nothing new: it predates the civil war.

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“This is not the first time someone has been attacked about their age,” she says. “William Henry Harrison was the first American candidate that was ‘marketed’ to the public – he was presented as a war hero, born in a log cabin, a man of the people. In truth, he was a rich kid, raised on a plantation, and the only battle he was near was Tippecanoe, and they turned that into a major win and made ‘Ol Tip’ and ‘Tippecanoe’ Harrison’s nicknames. His opponent in the election of 1840 was Martin Van Buren, who was the incumbent president, and they called him Martin Van Ruin, because he ‘ruined’ the economy. They also called him an old man repeatedly.

“So, these themes are not new, but AI and our phones and computers make it so campaign propagandists can send targeted messages about either candidate straight to your phone – pictures of Trump in an orange jumpsuit, or sitting on a stoop with young men of colour, or pictures of a crypt-keeper-like Biden, stumbling and falling or framing something to make him look like he is wandering away.

“Recently at the G7 meeting there was a moment he walked away, turned his back and was giving a thumbs up to some of the military people there. That video was edited and framed to make it look like he wandered away from the rest of the leaders and he had to be brought back, when actually, someone came up for a group picture and they did have to go and get him because he was still talking to someone. So rather than talk about his respect for the military personnel there and his friendliness, they create a story about his age and hint at dementia.”

One of the useful aspects of Thursday’s debate (Friday morning, Irish time) is that it will place both men in a neutral setting, without a public gallery to play to and potential voters will see them in real time. Joseph Watson, now professor of public affairs communications at the University of Georgia, served in the George W Bush administration where he led national telecommunications domestic policy office. He remembers the weeks ahead of the 2004 debate as fraught.

Analysts expect that Joe Biden and Donald Trump's presidential debate this week will have mental fitness be the central focal point of the evening. (Reuters)

“What people forget about President Bush’s re-election campaign against John Kerry is that it was not a forgone conclusion. We were very worried about that race. Every campaign, no matter what they will tell you, will take debates seriously.”

One of the most famous and enduring of the “Bushisms” during his two four-year terms was the phrase “misunderestimated”. When it came to the debates, Bush always found the intended meaning behind the phrase useful. Going into a debate under low expectations can have its advantages. And it is arguable that 2024 contenders are in that place.

“The risk in particular for Biden is having a bad moment – freezing or having a non sequitur. But these two have debated before and at that time it was Trump who was regarded to have lost the debate. Before that first debate, all the talk was of Sleepy Joe in the basement, out of touch. And then he showed up. It was Trump who came out second best in the analysis. So, there is a lesson in what my old boss said: it is good to be misunderestimated.”

Will he lose his temper? Former president Donald Trump during a campaign rally. Photograph: Doug Mills/The New York Times

Watson believes that the Democratic strategists are quietly confident that Biden has both the discipline and fortitude to perform competently and authoritatively, as he did throughout the state of the union address in early March, which quelled much of the talk about his suitability for office. Merely getting through and avoiding a physical or verbal gaffe, Waston believes, is not the summit for Democratic ambitions.

“Well, I actually don’t think that is their main aim. That is a risk. But I think they know him well enough to know they can get him on stage for an hour and he will perform well. If you look at their strategy: it is quite unorthodox. They have done a big advert spend ahead of this debate. That is highly unusual – before we have even had the convention. Part of it is that there is a cash advantage. But it is also that they have a strategy that they are trying to niggle Trump: to get under his skin and make him lose his temper, have him go off message. He has been very disciplined in this campaign so far. But their aim is to get him to go off script. If they can get him to spend the debate dwelling on the plight of his prosecution or other negatives, that will be a huge win for them.”

But even the lasting value of a win is difficult to measure. The famous night of the Kennedy-Nixon debate has become a salutary lesson in optics. Kennedy’s Hyannis perma-tan seemed discernible even through the grainy black-and-white footage, while Nixon was perceived as queasy and perspiring, even though radio listeners believed he had been the better performer. Gallup Poll stats show that in 1980, the third-party candidate John Anderson dropped from 15 per cent to 8 per cent after his debate with Ronald Reagan.In 1992 Independent candidate Ross Perot leapt from 10 per cent to 17 per cent after his debate performances.

Lyndon Johnson, the incumbent president in 1964, and Nixon, the Republican nominee in 1968 and incumbent in 1972, simply declined to debate their opponents. The George W Bush-Al Gore debates in 2000 were closely watched and the verdict varied dramatically between debates: figures for the third debate showed that 46 per cent felt Gore had won to 44 per cent for Bush; 57 per cent felt Gore had expressed his ideas more clearly but in the intangible factor of “likability”, Bush was the overwhelming choice at 60 to 31 per cent for Gore.

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A quick glance at the highlights of those decades’ old debates reveals at least a surface of decorum between the rivals. Watson instances a famous moment from the vice-presidential debate of 1988, when Dan Quayle likened his youthfulness to that of JFK, allowing his opponent, the Democratic Texan senator Lloyd Bentsen to unforgettably retort: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”

It was withering in its simple eloquence and restraint. None of these qualities can be attributed to more recent debates: for all of Obama’s charismatic oratorical skills, there was something indelibly churlish about his “You’re likable enough, Hillary” reply to Hillary Clinton during the primary debate in 2008. On Thursday night the mutual disdain and contempt will be on show. As Watson says, the fact that both candidates will be on the offensive means it has the potential to be riveting television.

President Joe Biden: Democratic strategists are quietly confident that he has the discipline and fortitude to perform competently and authoritatively. Photograph: Evan Vucci

However, it is summertime in the United States. The nation is outdoors, distracted and the election seems like winter worry. Watson points out that it is no coincidence that the debate is taking place in Atlanta, given that Georgia is one of the critical battlegrounds of an election that is shaping up to be a neck and neck finish.

“This is a Red state that has gone for Democratic senators and Biden in the last race. Georgia favours Republicans, but they have to run competent campaigns: if you don’t you will lose here,” he says.

CNN programmes are displaying a countdown clock to the day of the debates, perhaps overestimating public anticipation. But come the hour, out of habit, the people will tune in.

“Whether or not either of them can present the alternative viewpoint effectively is doubtful,” Haynes says. “We have seen this debate before, and neither of them were pretty.

“One thing about this debate is that the mics will be controlled by the debate moderators so technically the audience, particularly the viewing audience, will not be able to hear wild accusations or fighting words while the other candidate is speaking. So, we are less likely to hear Biden say: “Will you shut up, man.”

The debate will take place on Thursday, June 27th, at 9pm Eastern Time in the US, which will be 2am Friday Irish time. CNN international will replay the broadcast between 7am and 7pm Irish time on Friday, June 28th, with reports on irishtimes.com