Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

From the Center

It’s pretty clear why Joe Biden is so eager to debate.

First of all, he’s behind. Despite his public protestations that polls showing Donald Trump with a small but persistent lead are inaccurate, Biden’s brain trust appears to recognize the need to shake up the overall dynamic of the race. One of the president’s greatest challenges to date is that many voters still have not grasped the impending repeat of the binary choice they faced in 2020. Biden’s team believes that the sight of him and Trump together on a debate stage will help voters understand the options available to them, and therefore motivate the Democratic base to a higher level of enthusiasm.

Plus, he’s old. Presidential campaigns are notoriously exhausting ordeals, no matter the age of the contestant. Biden’s handlers devote great attention to making sure their boss is sufficiently rested, and carving out enough time to protect against pre-debate fatigue will be much easier in June than in October. If Biden falters in the first debate, there will be much more time and opportunity to erase the voters’ memories of a senior moment than if it had occurred just a few weeks before the election.

But in addition to age and poll standing, debating at such an early date also allows Biden the opportunity to target his party’s progressive base in a much more pronounced way than would be possible in the fall. When Biden and Trump face off in Atlanta on June 27, most voters’ attention will be far from presidential politics. The audience that will be watching will be comprised predominantly of those who devote far more time to the most committed political activists on both sides of the aisle. Biden badly needs to convince the most liberal Democrats to come back to his camp; a side-by-side with Trump should help accomplish that goal, but a more full-throated appeal to the political left will bring considerable benefits too.

Because both debates are being hosted by a single network (CNN in June, ABC in September), neither will draw an audience nearly as large as in past elections. But media viewing habits are rapidly changing, and in a social media age, most news consumers will see video snippets of the debate rather than the event in its entirety. Both campaigns will aggressively market their candidates’ best moments and their opponent’s worst. Since true believers are most likely to watch these videos, the debate will become a contest to see which candidate can most effectively cater to their parties’ most ideologically intense loyalists.

Since the dawn of the television era, campaigns have prepared for debates with the knowledge that the secondary audience—those who learn of the event through news coverage—is much larger than the relatively smaller numbers who actually watch the debate itself. As a result, the truism “win the headline, win the debate” represented a reliable strategy for politicians hoping to use the in-person encounters to build support for their candidacies.

But the second-generation manner in which voters learn about the debates is much different when the information is conveyed by a campaign’s social media platform rather than a mainstream news organization. The audience is far more likely to receive sound bytes that reinforce their existing allegiances than the evenhanded coverage for which legacy media strives. The result is that the debates became high-profile exercises in base motivation and polarization for committed partisans more than opportunities for undecided voters to learn more about the candidates.

The fact that the Biden and Trump campaigns were both so eager to abandon the Commission on Presidential Debates, the bipartisan entity that has overseen these events for several decades, probably means that general election debates will become a less certain part of the campaign cycle in the future. This year presents an unusual situation in which the race is extremely close and in which both campaigns are supremely confident of their candidates’ ability to succeed in a head-to-head encounter. Absent either of those two factors, the likelihood of the two sides agreeing to a set of ground rules shrinks considerably. Which means that presidential debates will soon be a possibility rather than a presumption.

But for now, the campaign will be frozen in place for the month between the end of Trump’s trial and the debate. At which point we’ll see if Biden’s gamble paid off, and he can reframe the race to his advantage. If not, the president will face a long and unpleasant summer.

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Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, Pepperdine University, and the University of Southern California, where he teaches courses in politics, communications and leadership. Dan is a No Party Preference voter, but previously worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns, serving as the national Director of Communications for the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Senator John McCain and the chief media spokesman for California Governor Pete Wilson. He has a Center bias.

This piece was reviewed and edited by Isaiah Anthony, Deputy Blog Editor (Center bias).

Photo Credit: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images