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Trump vs. Biden: Key points to know about US presidential debates

Trump vs. Biden: Key points to know about US presidential debates Photo: Donald Trump and Joe Biden (Collage by RBC-Ukraine)

The first round of debates between presidential candidates Joe Biden and Donald Trump will take place on June 27.

How both candidates are preparing for this match, what they will be focusing on, and the role presidential debates play in American elections – read more in the article by RBC-Ukraine.


Presidential debates in the USA are not mandatory but highly desirable, especially when the gap between candidates is small and when one candidate persistently questions the physical fitness of the other.

Presidential debates in the United States are held at the end of the election cycle after political parties have nominated their candidates. The audience gathers in large venues, such as universities, with a live audience. The formats of the debates vary. Sometimes questions are asked by one or several journalist moderators, while in other cases, the audience members in the hall ask the questions.

Historical context and debates evolution with television

Presidential debates in the USA began in the mid-19th century but became significantly important with the advent of mass media, particularly television.

The first-ever televised debates were indeed iconic. They took place between Vice President Richard Nixon and his opponent John Kennedy. For the first time, appearance played a decisive role. Before the debates, Nixon injured his knee, so he spent some time in the hospital and lost weight, making it seem like his suit was hanging off him. Additionally, Nixon refused the services of a studio makeup artist, so his stubble and beads of sweat were visible on his face. Overall, he looked tired and gloomy, unsure of what to do with his hands or how to position his legs.

Трамп проти Байдена. Що потрібно знати про президентські дебати у СШАPhoto: Joe Biden, President of the USA (Getty Images)

In contrast, Kennedy appeared confident. He wore a well-fitted black suit. After the first round of debates, Kennedy's ratings soared, and ultimately, he won the election. However, there's an interesting detail. Both candidates had relatively similar platforms. They both talked about national security and the threat of communism. Therefore, some voters awarded the victory to Nixon - those who listened to the debates on the radio and didn't see the picture.

Apart from image-related moments, the candidates' specific messages remain important. For example, in 1976, Jimmy Carter took advantage of a careless statement by the incumbent President Gerald Ford, who claimed that there was no Soviet domination in Eastern Europe. This alienated voters of Polish and Czech descent in the so-called swing states of Ohio and Wisconsin, and Jimmy Carter became the new President of the USA.

Unique features of this year's debates and expectations

On June 27, Biden and Trump will take the stage, and the host will determine their positions at the podium by flipping a coin. One candidate’s microphone will be turned off while the other is speaking. This is a lesson from the 2020 Biden-Trump debates, during which Trump frequently interrupted his opponent. At one point, Biden even shouted, "Will you shut up, man?"

The debate will last for an hour and a half. There will be no opening statements, but there will be two-minute closing statements. Candidates are not allowed to bring prepared notes. On the candidates' tables, there will only be a pen, a notepad, and a bottle of water. The debate will be interrupted twice for commercial breaks. During the breaks, candidates will not be allowed to communicate with their accompanying team. However, there will be a place where a candidate can talk to one accompanying person after the debate.

How Biden is preparing for the debates

To prepare for the debate, Biden's campaign team is effectively isolating him from the public for "structured preparation."

The entire preparation process is being led by former chief of staff Ron Klain. Biden's aides are reluctant to share details but indicate that he is preparing to be aggressive and is not hesitant to use the term "convicted criminal" to describe Trump.

Трамп проти Байдена. Що потрібно знати про президентські дебати у СШАPhoto: The presidential candidates will hold their first debate (RBC-Ukraine collage)

In a recent interview with ABC, Biden outlined his debate strategy: "All I have to do is hear what he says -- remind people what he says and what I believe, and what he believes. He's about him. I'm about the country."

Earlier, Biden's campaign strategist Jen O'Malley Dillon stated that the president would criticize Trump over abortion rights, threats to democracy, and his plans for tax cuts for billionaires.

How Trump is preparing for the debates

Trump has a slightly different approach. He sees the debates as an opportunity to demonstrate a clear contrast with Biden. Therefore, Trump has refused traditional rehearsals.

Instead, he has surrounded himself with influential senators and vice-presidential candidates to discuss issues that may arise, from foreign policy to immigration.

Trump's debate strategy was described by his spokesperson Brian Hughes in a recent comment to the AP: "President Trump is always prepared to present to Americans his record of success and Biden's weakness and failures."

He also plans to pay special attention during the debates to the scandal surrounding Biden's son, Hunter. Recently, Hunter Biden was convicted on three charges related to purchasing a firearm while allegedly addicted to drugs.

Role of candidate psychology in debates

During debates, viewers evaluate not only the candidates' platforms but also their behavior and ability to handle themselves in public.

During the 1992 elections, this played a cruel joke on incumbent President George H.W. Bush, who was running for a second term. He had substantial political experience: serving as CIA director, US Ambassador to the UN, and envoy to China. However, during the debates, it became apparent that Bush Sr. was unfamiliar with many everyday aspects of ordinary American life. Polls after the debates showed that a significant portion of viewers were shocked by the sitting president's manners and perceived them as disrespectful.

Трамп проти Байдена. Що потрібно знати про президентські дебати у США

Photo: Former US President Donald Trump (Getty Images)

His younger opponent, Bill Clinton, successfully leveraged his image as being closer to ordinary Americans, having served as governor of the small state of Arkansas for 12 years before the presidency. However, it's worth noting that independent candidate Ross Perot played a significant role in Bush's defeat in those elections by drawing away some of Bush's voters.

Debates as a test of physical endurance

According to surveys, this year voters will find the physical fitness of candidates important, as Joe Biden is 82 years old and Donald Trump is 78. At least both candidates will need to endure more hours under stressful debate conditions.

In US history, attempts have been made to use this factor in debates before. However, it often ended unexpectedly. During the 1984 televised debates, Henry Hewitt, a correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, reminded 73-year-old President Ronald Reagan that he was "the oldest president in American history" at that time, hinting that this might impair decision-making in crises. Reagan responded, "I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience," Reagan remarked.

At least in the studio footage, the audience visibly appreciated Reagan's wit. Ultimately, he was re-elected president.

Sources: CNN, BBC, Reuters, Politico, and recordings of US presidential debates from 1960, 1976, and 1984.