Election

You're Not In A Time Machine, Biden and Trump Are Going Head-To-Head Again

President Joe Biden and former president Donald Trump at a past presidential debate in September 2020.
President Joe Biden and former president Donald Trump at a past presidential debate in September 2020. Screenshot
Those tuning into Thursday night’s presidential debate may feel a sense of deja vu as President Joe Biden and former president Donald Trump take the stage in similar positions they did four years ago.

The event, hosted by CNN—not the Commission on Presidential Debates—will not occur in front of a live audience, and the network will have the ability to mute either opponent’s mics if needed to avoid potential cross-talk.

“I think the public has had such a build-up towards this debate that if it turns out to be a normal, boring debate, where they really exchange issues, it’ll disappoint people, " said Nancy Sims, political science lecturer at the University of Houston. “It’s almost like the hype around the debate has led some people to expect a train wreck.

Tensions between the two opponents ran high in 2020 when Biden asked Trump to shut up during a presidential debate in late September after the former president and convicted felon continuously interrupted him.

There is some voter fatigue with this Groundhog's Day-esque race. Biden and Trump flip-flop in the polls, usually leading over the other by a single percentage point or otherwise slim margin.

Sims says uncertainty has been brewing amongst voters throughout the 2024 campaign trials regarding whether either candidate can serve as the next sitting president.

“I don't think it will move the needle much in either direction. One of them makes a faux pas or something,” she said. “It’s almost as if everybody’s tuning in to watch it to see if that happens.”

According to Sims, this would likely look like either Biden or Trump confusing a world leader’s name or misstating a fact they are referring to during Thursday night’s 90-minute discourse.

“The real vulnerability is if either of them has a momentary memory lapse or misstates a fact,” Sims said. “That will be your viral video if one exhibits a misstep of that nature.”

“That’s the thing about debates today, it’s not just watching the debate,” she added. “I question how many Americans will tune in to watch it or will they rely on the clips they see following the debate.”

Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston, said Trump would likely weaponize the ongoing narrative that Biden is too old or mentally unfit for office. Biden would use Trump's wildcard tendencies to his advantage.

"Biden's biggest liability is perceptions that he's too old to be president, but this debate can either confirm that or reorient that for voters," Rottinghaus asserted. "For former President Trump, he's politically unpredictable, that can be attractive for some people, but it makes other people nervous. He has to use this debate to settle people's nerves regarding his second-term priorities."

Rottinghaus noted that it would be interesting to see how each of the opponents handles respective scandals that they are either directly or indirectly involved in if they are brought up. In late May, Trump was found guilty on 34 felony counts in a case involving falsified business records.

Earlier this month, Hunter Biden, the president's son, was convicted on all three felony charges he faced regarding a gun he purchased under the pretense that he was not illegally using or addicted to drugs at the time of the sale.

"The way that these get brought up and discussed is important because these are elements that each partisan base cares a lot about. The strategy for both candidates is to make sure the base is happy and that they understand that there's grievance involved in this event," Rottinghaus said. "But they can't go too far because they may make people who otherwise don't pay that much attention to tune out of their message.

Topics expected to be discussed between Biden and Trump include the economy, immigration, crime, democracy and abortion. Sims noted that they may fall into the culture war debate—or hot-button sociopolitical issues—which could make things dicey.

“If abortion is Biden’s strength, then immigration is Trump’s strength. Trump has been consistent in his position, and Biden has been a little bit all over the board with it,” Sims said. “ If I were Trump, I was asked a question on abortion, I would quickly answer it and then move back to immigration. Focus on what you know.”

Sims acknowledged that foreign affairs seem less of a priority for both opponents, particularly in comparison to past candidates in other presidential campaigns. However, she said she was sure Israel-Hamas War would be addressed.

“Foreign affairs is something they should both be well versed in and willing to discuss,” she said. “It doesn't seem to be high in polling data. It's not high on the voters' minds, and it's a little bit interesting to see that.”

The debate will start at 9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. CT on CNN. It will be the first televised debate between a current and former president in U.S. history.
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Faith Bugenhagen is on staff as a news reporter for The Houston Press, assigned to cover the Greater-Houston area.