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US Election 2020: TV Debates and a possible watershed moment?

24 Sept 2020
While the challenger is hoping not to blunder, and to keep the limelight off himself, President Trump is keen to ensure they don’t turn into a referendum on his tenure.

Perhaps the glamour and impact are over-egged, but this election’s presidential TV debates may just add to this surreal year. Now just around the corner, Trump and Biden are set to square off for the first time on stage next week in a series of four election discussions. All of these events are scheduled to take place from 02.00-03.30 GMT (21.00-22.30 Eastern time).


29 September – First presidential debate in Cleveland, Ohio moderated by a Fox News anchor who has selected a broad range of topics including Covid-19, the economy and ‘race and violence in our cities’.

7 October – Vice Presidential debate in Salt Lake City, Utah moderated by a USA Today anchor in the form of nine segments of 10 minutes.

15 October – Second presidential debate in Miami, Florida moderated by a C-SPAN anchor to take the form of a townhall meeting with questions posed by local citizens.

22 October – Last Presidential debate in Nashville, Tennessee moderated by an anchor from NBC News, using the same format as the first Presidential debate.

How important are these debates?

Although viewing numbers have fallen in recent years, millions of voters still watch these debates and find that the performances of the participants do influence how the electorate choose their preferred candidate. A record 84 million viewers tuned in for the first debate in 2016 between Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton and 72 million watched the third televised one, so it will be fascinating to see how the figures for the 29 September debate especially match up.

Since the first presidential debate televised in 1960, predicting the outcomes have always been difficult but it does seem clear that any dramatic exchange can change the voter’s perception of the candidates and therefore ultimately affect the result of the election. Conventional wisdom would say that some form of preparation is key as incumbents who don’t prepare properly have more of a mixed record, but quick thinking and personality can work in the candidate’s favour too. Just for the record, Biden has apparently been prepping hard while Trump has reportedly said that “it isn’t something you have to practice.”

Regarding how useful the televised debates are, post-election surveys have found that three-fifths or more of voters say they were beneficial in deciding which candidate to vote for. However, it should be noted that this doesn’t necessarily mean that a large proportion of voters are using the debates to make up their mind, which proves that the TV performances of the candidates are useful, but not decisive in the viewers final decision.

“I feel your pain” moment

Whether we get a blockbuster line, gaffe or mopping of the brow while the whole world watches could be instrumental in this narrowing race for the White House. The 1992 debate between the Republican incumbent George HW Bush, Arkansas Democrat governor Bill Clinton and independent Ross Perot had a few memorable incidents, including the current President impatiently looking at his watch. While he waffled and performed poorly, losing at the polls a few weeks later, Clinton’s victory is sometimes put down to the charismatic challenger winning the hearts and minds of the public in his response to a national debt question.

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