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A high-risk first televised debate for Joe Biden and Donald Trump

Photo: Jim Bourg Archives Associated Press The final debate of the last American presidential election, October 22, 2020 in Nashville.

Fabien Deglise

Published at 0:00

  • United States

It is a pivotal moment in the American presidential campaign which will play out on Thursday evening with the very first televised debate of the 2024 electoral season pitting the outgoing president, Joe Biden, against the populist former president Donald Trump.

In an uncertain race which, five months before the election, still places Democrats and Republicans neck and neck, these 90 minutes should be crucial for both men. From the CNN studios in Atlanta, they will have to find the right tone, the exact posture and the key statement to try to change fixed perceptions and to convince undecided voters of the value of their respective political project. A risky game, for both, placed in unknown territory, both by the singular character of the participants – two aging politicians, one of whom has just been convicted of concealing a bribe and remains hounded by the courts for attempted coup d'état – only by the hasty setting of this meeting: it is the first time since 1960, the beginning of the history of American televised debates, that such a face-to-face face is presented to voters this early in the electoral season, before the end of September.

“Both candidates have a lot to lose, the political scientist remarked in an interview Patrick Stewart, presidential debate specialist at the University of Arkansas. Donald Trump [78] and Joe Biden [81] are both mature and advanced in age, and their performance in this meeting will be closely scrutinized, both for content and non-verbal behavior.”

In recent weeks, the Republican camp has decided to attack Joe Biden by exacerbating moments in video montages broadcast online that appear to show him lost and confused. There was one, according to them, at the G7 meeting in Italy. There was another during a fundraising event held on June 16 in California with Barack Obama. The president gives the impression of freezing for several seconds on stage, before walking rigidly towards the exit accompanied by the former Democratic president. The president's entourage accuses Donald Trump's team of editing malicious images to harm the image of their opponent.

“By constantly attacking Joe Biden's age and mental health, the Republican Party and Donald Trump have set a very low bar for the president going into this debate,” Stewart said. And it could backfire on them. »

Undermining perceptions

« Joe Biden must try to project an image robust, and this, by offering clear and precise answers to the questions that the moderators will ask it, comments W. Joseph Campbell, professor emeritus of communication at the American University, joined last week in Washington. If he hesitates during the debate or offers confusing answers, it certainly won't help his campaign. »

But conversely, in this climate, “if he demonstrates even passable cognitive acuity, this could allow him to shine and thus confirming his ability to lead a second term,” adds Mr. Stewart.

By constantly attacking Joe Biden's age and mental health, the Republican Party and Donald Trump have set the bar very low for the president for this debate. And it could backfire on them.

—Patrick Stewart

In the last few days, Donald Trump has also begun to prepare the ground to plant his next criticisms and above all to germinate his predictable rewriting of reality, in the event that Thursday's debate brings out such a scenario. For several days, he and his entourage have been suggesting that a good performance by Joe Biden could not be achieved without the Democrat's use of “performance drugs”, they assert. The same story of cheating through doping had been carried by the Republican camp in order to minimize the good performance and especially the positive reception of the State of the Union speech, given earlier this year by the president in Washington.

Last week, during a political rally in Racine, Wisconsin, the former Republican president also asked his supporters to “be wary” of this debate, suggesting that he would find himself in an unfair framework and biased in favor of Joe Biden. A refrain known for the populist since his defeat in 2020 and his eternal questioning of the results of the polls. “I'm going to debate with three people instead of half of one,” he said, mocking his Democratic opponent and talking about the two moderators, Jake Tapper and Dana Bash, of CNN, to whom he will make face.

Remember that the details of this debate were carefully negotiated by the teams of the two parties present.

The specter of the misstep

Even though Donald Trump has politically and against all odds survived a series of legal proceedings and several setbacks since his crushing 2020 electoral defeat – which he has never acknowledged – the man is preparing to play big during the debate on Thursday. “Any misstep or lack of stamina, which would contradict the image he has built, could be damaging,” warns Patrick Stewart, speaking of an atypical debate, where the two candidates have a past and a political present at the White House to defend. “Donald Trump comes with his policies and actions as the 45th president of the United States behind him, and it could also put him in some uncomfortable situations. »

Last Thursday, a Fox News poll muddyed the waters in the run-up to the debate by also revealing for the first time in recent monthly opinion measurements from the ultraconservative network a two-point lead for Joe Biden over Donald Trump. This hasn't happened since last October.

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More worrying, the day after the populist's conviction by the citizen jury of a New York court in a case of paying a bribe to a former porn actress, 21% of voters independents, according to Ipsos, now say they are less inclined to support the candidacy of the Republican found criminally responsible for his actions, a proportion which could tilt the result of the November vote, particularly in the context of a close election.

“Donald Trump must seek to broaden his support through this debate,” said Alan Schroeder, a specialist in political communications at the School of Journalism at Northeastern University in Boston, in an interview. But if he spends the 90 minutes of the debate complaining about witch hunts and talking about stolen elections, that shouldn't help him achieve that goal. Complaints which are part of his narrative arsenal to galvanize his troops and which it is unlikely that they will not reach the CNN studio on Thursday evening, believes for his part W. Joseph Campbell. “I suspect it's going to be difficult for him [not to mention it],” he said.

The effect of televised debates on the change in behavior and perception of voters is an inexact science which, for years, has provided random and sometimes contradictory portraits, depending on the times and the candidates involved in these meetings. Thus, in 1960, the young John F. Kennedy paved the way for his victory against Richard Nixon, by handily winning the image war during the first American televised debate. Conversely, even though he turned out to be the big winner of the first debate against President Barack Obama in 2012, Republican Mitt Romney did not gain the necessary advantages to enter the White House.

Teilor Stone

By Teilor Stone

Teilor Stone has been a reporter on the news desk since 2013. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining Thesaxon , Teilor Stone worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my teilor@nizhtimes.com 1-800-268-7116