So far, nothing about the 2020 presidential race has been must-see TV. The candidates are well known. The storyline of the race is also well known.
The weird nature of campaigning in the age of COVID-19 has meant there are few spontaneous moments, like, say, Barack Obama meeting Joe the Plumber in 2008. Even the highly produced pair of national political conventions didn’t have a single moment that is still being discussed a month later.
Indeed, the issues that have defined this race have little to do with the candidates themselves. Those would be the coronavirus, the economy, police shootings of Black people and a movement for racial justice, wildfires, and the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
So it is almost by default the first presidential debate on Tuesday night will be the most important evening in the presidential race so far. But one could go further: the first 30 minutes of the debate will be the most important of any half-hour before or after in the entire campaign.
Some of this is obvious. In 2016, the first presidential debate was the most-watched one in American history, with some 86 million viewers tuning in. A new Monmouth University survey said that three out of four voters in 2020 say they plan to watch the first debate. Importantly, in our deeply fractured media world, Americans of all backgrounds will do so in a communal event: every screen will have the same image and words, without breaks for spin and pundits, and without commercials.
In previous elections, political strategists generally point to the first 30 minutes of the first presidential debate as critical. They do so for fairly generic reasons: Can the American public actually see either one of the people on stage as president? This is particularly true for a challenger against a sitting president.
Further, in the first 30 minutes, we will have a sense of how the entire remaining debate series will go, as in are the candidates prepared and respectful or is the whole thing a hot mess?
While America has seen a lot of President Trump this year, they haven’t seen a lot of Joe Biden, who has decided to campaign largely virtually due to the pandemic. Trump has framed Biden as an old man hiding his senility by staying in his basement.
In the first 30 minutes of the debate, Americans will get to judge for themselves whether Biden is ready. But Team Biden hopes the first 30 minutes won’t be just a test for Biden, but the moment when the contrast between Biden and Trump is the clearest.
So, yes, the stakes are high, particularly for President Trump, who has trailed Biden in every national poll all year and appears to be headed for defeat in the critical swing states. Trump is a television showman, of course, and if he wants to do something, er, unconventional, he will have a wide opening at the beginning when the first debate topic is Biden’s and Trump’s records.
In 1960, Americans famously got their first physical impression of John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon as they delivered opening statements. In the 1980 debate, Ronald Reagan seemed reasonable, not a hardliner, when he smilingly chided Jimmy Carter for an attack and said, “There you go again.” In 1992, third-party candidate Ross Perot got the first question and got to share the stage with the sitting Republican president and Democratic nominee, which set the tone for the campaign. In 2000, the first question was about George W. Bush’s readiness to be president.
So far, the race this year has been remarkable in this way: Biden’s lead has been so stable, particularly in extraordinarily unstable times around the country. The first 30 minutes is one of the last chances for Trump to change that dynamic. One thing that Trump has going for him is that Biden hasn’t had a good debate during this entire presidential race and he is a gaffe machine.
But if Biden survives the first 30 minutes of the first debate, the presidency could be his.