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New debate format sets a ‘low bar’ for the first 2024 Trump-Biden clash

A political scientist says the revamped format reflects the diminished expectations for a meaningful debate, as both candidates face myriad concerns about their fitness for the job.

Trump at a presidential debate (left) and Biden at a presidential debate (right).
“The media has set the bar low for both candidates” ahead of June 27 debate, says Nick Beauchamp, an associate professor of political science. AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump are gearing up for June 27, the first of their two debates.

The proposed format for the debate, which will be hosted by CNN, calls for muted microphones, no studio audience, no opening statements and two commercial breaks, among other particulars — a departure from debates of the past.

Northeastern University political scientist Nick Beauchamp says the revamped format reflects a shared sense of diminished expectations for meaningful debate, as both candidates face concerns about their fitness for the job ahead of a tightly contested clash for the Oval Office.

“The media has set the bar low for both candidates,” says Beauchamp, an associate professor of political science. “By their lights, Biden must avoid gaffs to counter the criticisms of his age, while Trump must appeal to swing voters like a normal politician.”

“The format will make it easier for both to achieve those low bars: the muted mics will make Trump behave more normally, while the traditional format will mean Biden doesn’t have to improvise and interact as much,” he says. 

But viewers shouldn’t expect much substantive debate over policy matters, Beauchamp says. The debate is scheduled just days after Hunter Biden, the president’s son, was convicted on felony gun charges; Trump was also convicted in a New York court on felony charges related to a hush-money payment made to porn star Stormy Daniels in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election.

Headshot of Nicholas Beauchamp (left) and Art Kramer (right).
Northeastern Associate Professor of Political Science, Nicholas Beauchamp, left, and Art Kramer, professor of psychology and director of the Center for Cognitive and Brain Health, right. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University and Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Additionally, neither candidate will be able to huddle with campaign staff during the commercial breaks.

“The fact that neither candidate can meet with advisers in the middle shouldn’t make much difference though; there are no expectations that Trump will stay on topic, and Biden has decades of practice in the sorts of short responses allowed here,” Beauchamp says. 

“That said, unlike some debates, there appear to be no rules on directly addressing each other, so we can expect both candidates to try to get under each other’s skin and respond to attacks on Biden’s family or Trump’s criminal record.” 

Will the age of the candidates matter?

The coming debate will be yet another test for Biden to persuade the public as to his fitness, says Art Kramer, a psychology professor and director of Northeastern’s Center for Cognitive and Brain Health.

Kramer downplayed the degree to which the candidates’ ages (Biden is 82, Trump 78) truly detract from their ability to do the job. Kramer notes that both Trump and Biden — whose backgrounds are in business and politics, respectively — have learned to rely on others and make tough decisions with “imperfect or incomplete information.” 

Such skills connect well with the presidency, a post that, among other things, is delegative by nature, Kramer says.    

“Both Trump and Biden have been in different professions for most of their lives … but they’ve both had challenging jobs for many, many years, so they’ve learned to deal with the kinds of information that you need to process to make decisions,” he says. “And often the information is incomplete — that is, it’s information that doesn’t clearly drive you from one decision to another. There’s a lot of uncertainty.”

2020 vs. 2024: Will things be different?

Biden and Trump famously had at it in two presidential debates in 2020, one on Sept. 29, the other on Oct. 22. Biden was then 77, Trump 74. Both debates saw the candidates hurl insults, with Trump interrupting Biden on numerous occasions — a tactic that might explain the shift to the new rules. 

Indeed, those 2020 meetings took a harsher tone than debates in prior cycles, observers note. Responding to the constant interruptions, Biden once told Trump to “shut up,” while Trump, when asked whether he would denounce the far-right extremists, defended the Proud Boys, telling the group to “Stand back and stand by.”

Four years later, and Biden is the first octogenarian to hold office; should Trump win in November, he too would achieve that milestone, barring any unforeseen developments.

But in terms of this month’s debate, how much will four years make a difference?   

“If you have a pathology, like Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease or many other forms of dementia, then sure — it would make a big difference,” Kramer says. 

Biden has some “hesitant walking,” which Kramer notes could be due to simply not wanting to fall. Kramer is skeptical about claims that Biden isn’t fit for the job, noting that a person’s physical frailty does not reflect diminished mental capacity.

Regardless of how it all goes, Kramer suspects the pair will be sufficiently coached. 

“Even though it’s unscripted in a sense, it’s not,” Kramer says. “They’re both going to be extremely well-rehearsed; their handlers are going to go through all of the possible questions they’re going to be asked.”

“For Biden there’s an obvious upside, which may be why he suggested the debates in the first place: if he manages to perform at the baseline for a standard presidential debate — competent talking points, a few pre-planned jabs and jibes — that could well be seen by the media as exceeding the low, age-related expectations and considered a success,” Beauchamp says.

But for Trump, the potential upside is harder to see, “particularly in the eyes of the non-right-leaning media,” Beauchamp says.

“In my fantasy world, of course, we could have a fascinatingly unique debate, with two candidates each with past records to defend and to connect to their ambitions for the future, but I have no expectation of that,” he says.