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From the Center

When candidates prepare for a debate, their campaigns work furiously to lower viewer expectations, so even a mediocre performance might be judged as a success. As Joe Biden and Donald Trump prepare for their Thursday night faceoff, we can safely say that this particular goal has been accomplished. Expectations for this debate could not possibly be lower.

Even the two men’s most loyal supporters will be watching with their fingers crossed, hoping that their champion does not stumble in an overly embarrassing way. And the angry, disillusioned and resentful “double haters” who now represent a full quarter of the electorate will be watching to see if Biden can make it through the 90 minutes without an overly excruciating senior moment and Trump can avoid the type of verbal self-immolation for which he is known.

That is, if they are watching at all. The audiences for presidential debates has become progressively smaller over time, and that decline has accelerated in the digital era as the number of entertainment options available to low-information voters has grown exponentially. The audience that actually watch the debate itself has always been dwarfed by the much larger numbers who learn of the highlights through news coverage. As a result, generations of candidates and consultants have understood that the best way to “win” a debate is to offer the most memorable one-liner that will be repeated in television news coverage in subsequent days.

As social media becomes the preferred source of political news for many voters, this “win the soundbite, win the debate” trend has greatly intensified. Both Biden and Trump’s campaigns have armies of online warriors who will be waiting to disseminate the most inspiring video snippets of their candidate and even more eagerly to spread the most damaging moments of their opponent’s performance. Trump has a much larger assemblage of digital combatants at his disposal, while Biden’s organizational infrastructure gives his campaign an advantage with paid digital media. The two sides’ efforts to embarrass each other could break the Internet.

Magical debate moments, in which a candidate captivates the audience with a few words, are far and few between. Gifted 20th-century communicators such as Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton could occasionally rise to such an occasion, but in recent years, the audience’s yearning for authenticity has made them suspicious of any declaration that seems overly-prepared or poll-tested. (Quick: name a game-changing declaration in the last quarter-century of presidential debates.)

The more reliable way to win a debate, therefore, is to not be the candidate who loses it. That’s why Biden’s sentience and Trump’s self-control will be most relevant variables for most viewers. The bar is not set particularly high for either man, so a gaffe from one that reinforces the existing conventional wisdom about his most glaring weakness will define this debate.

The consequences of such a slip-up are much more significant than in previous election years. Not only is the race a virtual toss-up at this point, but the unusually early timing of this debate will make it far more difficult for a candidate to recover from a poorly-received performance. These encounters have always taken place in September and October of an election year, in the closing weeks of a campaign when voter interest is presumed to be at its highest. Such a compressed schedule means that a candidate will have the chance to erase the memory of a slip-up within a week or two. But since the only other scheduled faceoff between Trump and Biden will not happen until mid-September (if it happens at all), the opportunity for redemption will be months away. By then, any unflattering moment will have been recirculated so many times that it will become an indelible part of the electorate’s thinking.

Biden’s team pushed for this early debate because of their need to frame the campaign as a binary decision for voters, and their belief that seeing the two men on stage together will reinforce that impression for voters. Trump’s campaign was enthusiastic to sign on, given their conviction that their candidate’s energy and combativeness will give him a great advantage in that face-to-face comparison. 

But aside from an egregious pratfall from one of the two combatants, the prospects for anything memorable occurring on Thursday night are slim. Neither man is given to high-flying rhetoric, and both are among the most familiar and least-liked candidates in American history. Both will be motivated to make the other look bad. Odds are that both will succeed.

Want to talk about this topic more? Join Dan for his webinar, “The Dan Schnur Political Report." And read more of Dan’s writing at www.danschnurpolitics.com.

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 Clare Ashcraft, Bridging & Bias Specialist (Center bias).