The dispiriting fact is the future of US democracy may hinge on TV debates

This week’s set-piece clash between Biden and Trump will turn less on policies than on each candidate’s manner and appearance

This week Joe Biden and Donald Trump will clash in the first of at least two debates in advance of the US presidential election. Photograph: AP Photo

How do you run a debate between two men whose combined age is two-thirds that of the US republic? The answer is to have no audience, mute the one not talking and schedule bathroom breaks (calling them commercials). It would be an overstatement to say that next week’s clash between Joe Biden and Donald Trump will be definitive. But in a close election in which each candidate’s mental capacity is under scrutiny, it will matter a lot.

Only three times in US history has a presidential debate arguably changed the outcome. In each case, however, they took place within weeks or days of the election. Biden pushed for a historically early date because so many Americans mail in their votes nowadays. In reality, his team wanted the earliest chance to break a polling deadlock that they assumed would have evaporated by now. The sooner Biden can quell doubts about his age and remind people of Trump’s character the better. That is the theory.

The past offers mixed messages. The first televised debates were between John F Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960. These would augur well for Trump. People who tuned in on their radios thought that Nixon had won. Those who watched it on TV went for Kennedy. The contrast between Nixon’s so-called five o’clock shadow and JFK’s radiant youthfulness mattered. Today’s equivalent would be to watch with the sound off. On that measure, Trump comes across as more vigorous. Kennedy won 34.2 million votes. Nixon won 34.1 million.

The other two election-deciding debates both involved Jimmy Carter. In 1976, a month before the election, Carter lured the sitting president, Gerald Ford, into a trap. He got Ford to deny there was Soviet domination of eastern Europe. This alienated swing state voters of Polish and Czech origin in a tight election where the electoral college margin boiled down to a few thousand votes in Ohio and Wisconsin. George Gallup called it “the most decisive moment in the campaign”. The actor Chevy Chase picked up on the gaffe in his Saturday Night Live impersonation of Ford. “Last year I visited the capital of Poland, and let me say from the outset that Milwaukee is a beautiful city,” said Chase’s Ford.


In 1980 Ronald Reagan’s genial presence quelled doubts that he was a fanatic on trigger alert with the USSR. Until that moment – a week before the election – Carter and Reagan’s numbers were neck and neck. All Reagan needed to do was to come across as sane. He won by a landslide. Examples two and three augur badly for Trump. He has no equal in his capacity to demean large groups of people. Past targets include women, people who serve in uniform, and those with close family suffering from addiction or disability. Though Trump can be funny, his character is decidedly un-reassuring.

On past performance, Biden ought to beat Trump. He was judged the winner in both their 2020 encounters. This was partly because Trump came across as obnoxious, notably about the waywardness of Biden’s son, Hunter. People liked it when Biden said, “Will you shut up, man?” Trump was heading for defeat anyway. He also lost to Hillary Clinton in 2016 on both the content and his predatory body language. He defeated Clinton in spite of that. The former FBI director James Comey can help explain why.

Yet Democrats would be lying if they said they will not have their hearts in their mouths when Biden takes the podium next Thursday. The mute test is probably outdated. A better one would be TikTok, or Instagram Reels, on which many Americans will get their exposure. In March, Biden gave an energetic state of the union speech. Millions only saw the 15-second clip where he mangled the name of a murder victim. The perception gap between Americans who watched the speech and those who saw tiny snippets was vast. Biden is certain to produce a few clippable Bidenisms next week.

State of the union: ‘Sleepy Joe’ nowhere in evidence as canny, well-versed Biden outlines vision in blistering speechOpens in new window ]

Are these the impressions on which the future of US democracy hinges? The dispiriting answer is maybe. The good news for Biden is that the rules mostly favour him. Trump feeds off live audiences and will have to adapt to silence. He will be inaudible when Biden is speaking. Biden would be negligent if he did not remind viewers that his opponent is a convicted felon.

It would be nice to think policy clashes will decide the debate. Even more than usual, however, what the candidates say will matter less than how each seems. Biden’s goal will be to ensure his age will be less of a talking point than Trump’s character. On paper his task is simple. In practice it is anything but. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024