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University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV)

Presidential Debates in a Highly Polarized America: UNLV Expert Available

UNLV debate expert Jacob Thompson examines the impact a Trump-Biden matchup will have on the final election result.

The COVID-19 pandemic. Race relations. The Supreme Court. The economy.

When President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden meet for the first of three presidential debates on Tuesday night, millions of viewers are expected to tune in. But will America really be listening?

Given the country’s all-time high partisanship and the extremely tiny pool of voters who have yet to make up their minds five weeks out from the 2020 general election, analysts are putting in their bets on the influence of televised debates and the chances of actually swaying voters.

For our own inside scoop, we turned to Jacob Thompson — a UNLV communication studies professor who coaches the university's award-winning debate team and was actively engaged when UNLV hosted the final presidential debate during the 2016 election cycle — to get his take on the three Trump-Biden mashups scheduled for Sept. 29, Oct. 15, and Oct. 22, as well as the vice presidential debate set for Oct. 7.

Here, Thompson weighs in on the history of televised presidential debates and the logistical complications caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and offers his predictions on debate content, styles, and performance regarding the contests between Trump and Biden and their respective running mates, Mike Pence and Kamala Harris.

When and why did televised presidential debates begin?

The first televised presidential debate was held in 1960. It coincided with the explosion of television ownership in America and the temporary suspension of a law that required equal time coverage for every candidate — even minor party ones — running for office. Televised debates would have been a free-for-all had that law still been in place. Instead, the suspension of that law allowed for the two main party candidates — Democrat John F. Kennedy and Republican Richard Nixon — to debate each other in a series of four televised events. Because the law was only temporarily suspended, debates were not held again until 1976 between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. Since then, there’s become an expectation among the American public that candidates for president will debate, although there’s no law or rule requiring it. By and large, the American public feels like we deserve debates and to hear from the candidates for the highest office in the land.

What logistical complications have arisen because of the coronavirus pandemic this election cycle?

Several sites that submitted bids and were selected by the Commission on Presidential Debates to host have backed out. For instance, the University of Michigan was selected as a host site and has since declined to hold a debate because of public health concerns. For those that choose to proceed, there will be challenges with the normal structure of hosting a debate, such as having an audience in the venue. One of the debates will be a town hall, which obviously requires a live audience to ask the bulk of the questions of the two presidential candidates. In the modern era, televised debates have always included a studio or venue audience – and that seems like it will be an incredible hurdle this year.

With that said, foregoing live spectators helps reduce the costs associated with security concerns and reduces possible disruptions caused by audience members during the event. So, the pandemic might help usher in a new era of presidential debates in which televised debates don’t include a studio or venue audience. It’s also important to note that the first set of debates between Nixon and Kennedy in 1960 were conducted in television studios without a studio audience, so spectators are not a necessary part of the presidential debate process. In fact, presidential debates are largely produced and designed with a television-at-home audience in mind.

Given this odd year and the seeming hyper-focus on coronavirus, U.S. race relations, and related topics, do you expect that the topics addressed during the debates will be different than in previous years?

All the debate moderators have been decided and they usually select the topics (unless it’s a town hall debate; though, in some cases, town hall questions are vetted by the moderator and then asked by audience members).

Either way, I expect the candidates to focus on topics that benefit them. In many cases, candidates are asked questions and they don’t directly respond to the topic or thesis of that question. Instead, they give it lip service and do what’s referred to as a “pivot,” and turn the focus to something that’s important to them. So, I believe that: A) there will be many questions about race relations in America, and about disease and pandemic prevention. But B) I think the candidates will focus on the issues they think will give most traction to their base and/or potentially persuade the very few undecided voters left.

I believe that you’ll hear President Trump focus on issues related to law and order, what he believes have been the successes in the American economy, and other issues that appeal to his base. By the way, Trump’s entire election strategy seems to be — and I expect his debate strategy will be — centered around appeals to his base. I believe that former Vice President Biden will focus on issues generally referred to as “kitchen table issues” — topics that concern average American families. So, I think you’ll hear him focus on the economy, health care and, more broadly, moral presidential leadership.

I believe that both candidates will focus on a Supreme Court nominee. The topic has proven popular for Trump’s base. And I think there’s a lot of outrage in the Democratic base over the possibility of a Trump nominee being appointed this year, as well as an opportunity for that side to potentially pick up a few of the undecided voters by talking about fair process.

Do you anticipate that Trump and Biden, having participated in such debates before and having had time to study one another, will change their debate styles/tactics? How are Harris and Pence expected to perform?

Donald Trump had a unique style of preparation for his 2016 debates, which was quite limited in scope. Based on everything that I’ve read, his preparations for this year are likewise limited. He is a more off-the-cuff debater and, given everything that we’ve seen over the past four years, I doubt he will change the style, content, or delivery in any way, shape, or form. He’s a candidate that does what he likes to do and sticks to what he thinks is successful.

The Biden campaign, based on everything that I’ve read, is spending a lot of time prepping for these debates. They have a template for what Trump will attempt to do based on 2016, and they have no reason to expect that he will change his approach. So, I’m interested to see the approach that Biden takes in dealing with claims that have a questionable factual basis made by the president and in dealing with the president’s attempts to frame the economy as strong, our pandemic response as the best in the world, and other social issues as great or improving.

One other component of the dynamic: Trump has on record questioned Joe Biden’s intellectual capabilities and mental competence on many occasions. So, I think one important aspect of Biden’s preparation is to be able to put out coherent and clear answers to questions that are simple and well-worded and that negate that claim made by the president. Therefore, I think that you’re likely to see a very well-prepared Biden in this debate.

Kamala Harris is known as an aggressive debater and has taken on the role of a prosecutorial attacker in many Senate hearings that she’s participated in. So, I expect Harris to go on the attack against Pence, in much the same way that [Hilary Clinton’s running mate, Virginia Sen.] Tim Kaine did against Pence in 2016. Traditionally, the real purpose of a vice presidential debate is not to outline who would be the best vice president, but rather for the vice presidents, as surrogates, to attack the candidate of the opposing party. So, I think Harris will be very successful in that role.

Pence did a decent job in the 2016 debates, and came across as a reasonable conservative who would be a relatively safe pick and steady hand at the rudder. I assume that he will attempt to put on that same persona again and reflect some of those same values. I’d call Pence a measured and fairly successful debater so the vice presidential debate will be very interesting, I think.

Every cycle, we seem to think of that year's debates as the most important ever: What's the argument for the importance of the 2020 debates?

I’ll give the argument then I’ll tell you why I think it’s not true.

The argument is this: “If the polls are off by 3 to 4 points, which is possible, then the race is a 3- to 4-point race. And in a 3- to 4-point race, it’s entirely possible that if Trump can convince late deciders and the few undecideds, he would win the electoral college while likely still losing the popular vote — but win the presidency. If that is the case and Trump can come off as a coherent, calm, strong leader who’s put America in a better position than it previously was, he could potentially swing those few undecided voters who are remaining and few remaining late deciders in swing states – specifically, we’re talking Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan (three states that were critical in 2016) – to swing his way. In some ways, if the polls are off in a systemic way — 3 to 4 points — then this debate really matters because it’s Trump’s last best chance to win a second term.” 

Now, I think that it’s best to probably believe the polls. I also think the analyses which said that the polls were massively wrong in 2016 essentially misunderstand probabilities. Because, the best polling said that Trump had about a 30% chance of winning the 2016 election. When you think about it, a 30% chance – 1 in 3 times – of something happening is actually very high. So, it’s not an anomaly that he won the presidency in 2016. It also was an incredibly close election from an electoral college standpoint. If 40,000 voters collectively in Ohio, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania had not voted for Trump, then we would have a different president right now.

For this election cycle, I believe that the best polling data indicates that Biden is ahead in several swing states by about 7 ½ points. The polling data also indicates that very, very few Americans are undecided at this point. I think everyone knows partisanship is at an all-time high. I don’t think it’s controversial to say that President Trump is a polarizing leader – by that I mean he’s a very love-hate candidate; you’re either strongly in favor of or very strongly against him. And the polling also demonstrates that: For instance, Trump’s approval rating among Republicans is at sky-high levels and his approval rating among rich Democrats is at an all-time low.

With very few undecideds and the partisan environment as strong as it’s ever been in America, I think that these debates will actually matter less than they have in the past. One way that they could matter for either candidate, however, is if that candidate stumbles or falters in a major way that makes their supporters question their support for them. I personally think that would be very hard for Trump to do. But for Biden, the bar for a huge gaffe or stumble that might sway voters is lower.

Given the polarized environment, where everyone seems to have their mind made up already, do you think there’s a chance either ticket will decide against going through with debating?

The most likely outcome is they all occur as scheduled, but I think there’s a non-zero chance that one campaign or another decides that the debates are not worth it or do not help them and they use an external factor as an excuse to cancel or avoid debate two, three, or four.  

And it’s not without precedent that candidates have refused to debate. There were no debates in 1964, 1968, or 1972. In 1980, there was only one presidential debate, despite three being scheduled. In more recent times, no debates have been canceled. But in 2008, in the midst of the Great Recession, U.S. Senator John McCain proposed that the first debate be delayed while he and then-Senator Barack Obama headed back to Washington, D.C. to work with the Senate on economic recovery.

So, it’s not without precedent that debates are postponed or canceled. And given the pandemic and everything going on in the country right now plus the pretty clear animosity between the two presidential candidates, I don’t think it’s impossible that a debate is canceled. It’s 2020, so basically anything can happen at this point.

Given that UNLV hosted the final presidential debate in 2016, what's your advice for host schools, adding this to the list on top of COVID-19 preparation and everything else?

Wash your hands? Wear a mask? *laughs*

Be prepared for costs that you are currently unaware of. Security costs of hosting a debate are always the biggest challenge. And the security environment will be even more strict and important in a pandemic environment. Planning for the unexpected, I think, is the most important thing.

Another piece of advice would be to enjoy the moment. Presidential debates are historic and, for me personally, being able to play some small part in hosting one was one of the highlights of my professional career and I think a lot of people here at UNLV would say the same thing about their experience in 2016. So, enjoy the moment, take a lot of pictures and, yeah, wash your hands and wear a mask!

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