First presidential debate in the United States: 90 minutes worth a country

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Donald Trump and Joe Biden face the cameras this Tuesday with very little room for undecided to convince and an agenda that has been blown up in the last week

The themes of this electoral campaign were clear. An economy struck down in just a few months and with no prospect of recovering. A management of the covid-19 pandemic that already has 200,000 deaths, a world record. And above all, a plebiscite on a president who has made real efforts for four years to confront and tighten the United States even more, without concealing every hour of his mandate his contempt for the solemnity of office. Donald Trump and Joe Biden, the two candidates for the presidency of the United States in the elections on November 3, already had a full plate to debate this Tuesday. And yet, in just one week the campaign is already another.

The death on September 18 of feminist magistrate Ruth Bader Ginsburg has opened a vacancy on the Supreme Court. She will be replaced by conservative and strongly religious Judge Amy Coney Barrett. Republicans have a majority to confirm it in the Senate whenever they want. Issues such as public aid to health (Obamacare) or abortion are seriously in danger. This perspective has buried all other campaign themes. Until Sunday when The New York Times published 20 years of Trump tax returns that make him look like a failed, debt-ridden businessman that has nothing to do with the character he’s selling.

This Tuesday’s questions are known only to the moderator, journalist Chris Wallace. They are one of the most respected voices in Fox News, that he has been able to navigate the sectarian drift of the chain and keep his personal reputation more or less intact. Wallace is responsible for all-out interviews with Donald Trump. Wallace’s chosen topics, in six 15-minute segments, are: Trump and Biden’s background; the Supreme Court; the covid-19 pandemic; the economy; racial tensions and violence in cities; the integrity of the electoral process. At least the latest issue is entirely due to probe balloons launched by Trump. It is assumed that the information in the Times will modify this agenda.

It is going to be difficult for Donald Trump, a character that Americans have seen more than any other president in history on their televisions, to surprise anyone on Tuesday. The same is true of Joe Biden, one of America’s most famous politicians with a half-century career, who has run for president three times and served eight years as vice president. Either one will be the oldest person ever to sit in the Oval Office (Trump, 74, Biden, 78 in January).

Despite being the president and having to defend his tenure these years, Trump has managed to put the pressure on Biden. Trump is not a politician, but he has proven to be a master of marketing. By sowing doubts about Biden’s senility (he has said that, if Biden is doing well, it must be because he has taken stimulants, which is why they should do an anti-doping test), he has managed to make one of the most interesting points of the debate is see if the former vice president hesitates or forgets something, which is not uncommon for Biden. Nobody really expects anything from Trump, in terms of conviction. Even if he managed to get past his 2016 performance (when he called Hillary Clinton a “bad woman” in a debate, or said that not paying taxes was proof that he was “smart”), the average American’s capacity for scandal is already exhausted.

The presidential debates will mark the agenda for the entire month of October, which will end up divided into periods of a week before and after each one. There are four debates (three of the candidates for president and one of the candidates for vice president) that will be broadcast on all national networks from 9 to 10:30 at night, New York time, without advertising cuts. This Sunday is held at Case Western University in Cleveland, Ohio. The debate had to move to this location after the original location, the University of Notre Dame, alleged logistical problems due to the covid-19 pandemic. Candidates will not shake hands and will not wear a mask. The following debates are held on October 7 (vice-chairs), October 15 and 22, moderated by journalists from USA Today, C-SPAN and NBC, respectively.

The most important question, in the end, is whether the debates are worth anything. Studies show that more than 90% of the viewers of a debate have already made the decision and are not susceptible to change, explained Mitchell S. McKinney, a professor of communication at the University of Missouri and an expert in presidential debates. There is only 3% or 4% who could change their mind. McKinney believes that debates have a real impact on a campaign when the polls are very close and there is a high percentage of undecided.

At the national level, this is not that kind of campaign. Polls have been surprisingly consistent for five months now, showing Biden around 10 points ahead of Trump and, albeit with less of a margin, ahead in all key states as well. But the debate can tip the balance just enough in some of these, such as Florida or North Carolina, where polls are very tight, McKinney points out. In other words, although the 2020 debates do not seem to be important in general in changing the image of the candidates that the majority of Americans have, they may end up being fundamental to move decisive margins in counties and states that later decide the election.

Will we see a decisive moment this Tuesday that goes down in the history of electoral debates? It is difficult for either of them to surprise the public, but it will be the first time that the United States has seen the face-to-face dynamics of two characters so different and so experienced in their own way. The great moments that have gone down in debate history are well documented, and they are great because they moved the electorate. These are basically the 1960, 1980, 1992 and 2000 campaigns.

The first case study of electoral debates was left by John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960. Nixon came with the experience of being Eisenhower’s vice president and was the favorite candidate. Kennedy was 43 years old and had to compensate for his image of little experienced (besides coming from a money dynasty). It was the first televised presidential debate in history. Nixon refused to wear makeup and did not seem ready for the medium, because at times he did not know where to look. The most famous images are those of the minutes in which he began to sweat from the heat of the spotlights and to dry himself with a handkerchief. Kennedy managed to present himself as a viable and attractive candidate. The choice was decided by the smallest margin up to that point.

In 1980, the Republican Party bet on a Hollywood star who had been governor of California. It wasn’t Arnold Schwarzenegger, it was Ronald Reagan. A campaign was mounted around the actor with the main idea that the moral majority The US was going to take back the reins of a country in decline. The president was Jimmy Carter, who suffered a series of consecutive crises. Carter accused Reagan of wanting to intensify nuclear tension with the communist bloc of the USSR. Reagan jokingly dismissed it, made the audience laugh, and at the end left a sentence for the story: “Are you better than four years ago?”

Reagan was the oldest president up to that time (69 years old at his inauguration) and that issue always overshadowed his image. His age was often the subject of jokes in the press and he was considered clueless. His 1984 reelection campaign was against former Vice President Walter Mondale, and age was one of the issues with which Democrats sought to attack the president, something similar to what Trump is trying to cast doubt on Biden’s ability to exercise power. presidency.

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