Election 2024: Will Next Week’s Debate Shake Up the Presidential Race?
from The Water's Edge and Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy

Election 2024: Will Next Week’s Debate Shake Up the Presidential Race?

Each Friday, I look at what the presidential contenders are saying about foreign policy. This Week: Both President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump hope that next Thursday’s debate will tip the election in their favor.
Donald Trump and Joe Biden at the presidential debate held in Nashville, Tennessee, on October 22, 2020.
Donald Trump and Joe Biden at the presidential debate held in Nashville, Tennessee, on October 22, 2020. CHIP SOMODEVILLA/Pool via REUTERS

Political aficionados longing to move past an anti-climactic nominating season will soon get their wish. Unless something unexpected happens, President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump will square off in a debate hosted by CNN next Thursday night. Both campaigns hope that the ninety-minute faceoff will turn Election 2024 decisively in their favor.

How much any presidential debate matters to the outcome in November is a matter of conjecture. U.S. history is replete with debates that seemed in the heat of the moment to have changed the tide but ultimately didn’t. Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama each famously flopped in their first debates when they sought reelection. Both men then went on to resounding victories. 

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How candidates perform on the debate stage would seem to matter most in tight races. That was the case in the three elections typically held up as examples of where debates determined the outcome: the Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960, the Ford-Carter debate in 1976, and the Carter-Reagan debate in 1980. The first is remembered for Richard Nixon’s five o’clock shadow, the second for Gerald Ford insisting the Soviet Union wasn’t dominating Eastern Europe, and the third for Ronald Reagan assuring viewers that he was reasonable rather than reckless

The Biden-Trump faceoff certainly qualifies as a tight race. But one difference sets it apart from past presidential debates: It is not being held weeks before Election Day but rather months. That will give both campaigns plenty of time, even with early voting starting in some states in late September, to clean up their candidate’s mistakes and to pound their opponents.

Biden and Trump, of course, want to avoid mistakes. To that end, Biden is headed off to Camp David this weekend for intensive debate prep. The Biden team’s messages to press on background is that the president will try to use Thursday’s debate to “remind tuned-out Americans of the former president’s many controversies.” In doing so, Biden will be trying to get into “campaign shape” and to avoid repeating Reagan’s and Obama’s overconfidence.

Trump is taking a different approach to preparing for next Thursday. Rather than holing up with trusted advisers to pore over briefing books, he has been on the phone with a range of advisers and holding rallies for his supporters. The Trump team’s message is that the forty-fifth president doesn’t need to be “coached up” by subject-matter experts. Rallies and phone calls are all he needs to prepare.

One wild card for the debate is whether the U.S. Supreme Court will release its decision on Trump’s claim that he is immune from criminal prosecution for all actions he took as president. The Court’s annual session ends next Friday, and it has yet to issue its ruling. It may wait until Friday to hand down its decision to avoid charges it is trying to influence the debate. But if it releases a ruling before then, the moderators—CNN anchors Dana Bash and Jake Tapper—will have a whole new line of questions for both candidates. 

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A wild card in all this is the debate’s structure. There will be no audience. So Bash and Tapper won’t be repeatedly asking people to quiet down. Neither Biden nor Trump will be allowed to bring props onstage, though they will be allowed a pen, a pad of paper, and a bottle of water. Both candidates will stand at a podium, and there will be one commercial break. Perhaps most consequentially, CNN will mute each candidate’s microphone when their time is up. So the crosstalk that dominates—and frequently undermines—most debates should diminish. 

Pundits will be parsing what Biden and Trump say in Atlanta. But as the Kennedy-Nixon debate illustrates, the debate could matter less for what either candidate says and more for how they appear or behave. Both campaign teams and their surrogates will be working the “spin room” onsite, and the multitude of cable and local news channels, to drive home a narrative that favors their candidate. 

Perhaps as consequential will be the debate clips that go viral on social media. George H.W. Bush came to rue checking his watch during his 1992 debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot. That was long before Facebook and Twitter were a gleam in anyone’s eye. Now a faux pas can be watched and rewatched around the world before a debate even finishes.

An added worry is that a harmless moment can be turned by critics into a harmful one. The deceptively edited videos circulated last week purporting to show Biden wandering off during the G-7 summit show how a debate debacle can be conjured out of thin air even without resorting to AI and deepfakes. Such videos seem to be catnip on social media, where nearly one-third of Americans say they get their news. Many of them are what political strategists like to call “low-information voters” easily swayed by what they see because they know so little. 

So, yes, a lot is at stake next Thursday, possibly including the outcome of the election. 

Campaign Update

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. failed to qualify for the June 27 debate. He did not meet either of CNN’s criteria to be added to the debate stage: reaching at least 15 percent in four national polls and qualifying for enough state ballots to have the potential to win 270 Electoral College votes. Kennedy blamed his exclusion on his opponents: “My exclusion by Presidents Biden and Trump from the debate is undemocratic, un-American, and cowardly. Americans want an independent leader who will break apart the two-party duopoly.” 

Trump’s conviction last month on thirty-four felony counts may have been bad for him personally, but it did wonders for his fundraising. The latest Federal Election Committee numbers show Trump and the Republican National Committee raised $141 million in May. That’s $60 million more than Biden and the Democratic National Committee raised. One donor gave Trump $50 million. The old saying that “money is the mother’s milk of politics” comes to mind. 

What the Candidates Are Saying

Trump pledged at a rally in Detroit last Saturday to cut U.S. aid to Ukraine. After calling the Ukrainian President “the greatest salesman of all time” for his ability to persuade the United States to send military aid to Kyiv, Trump went on to claim that when it comes to the war in Ukraine, “I will have that settled prior to taking the White House as president-elect.” The former president seemed unaware that by both law and custom a president-elect should wait until taking the oath of office to begin negotiating with anyone. 

BRICS News Donald Trump


Biden announced a new policy on Tuesday that would enable immigrants who have been in the United States for at least a decade and are married to a U.S. citizen to apply for citizenship without first having to leave the country. U.S. policy had previously required such individuals to leave the United States before their spouse could sponsor them for a green card. The problem was, they had no guarantee they would be allowed to return. As a result, few people took that gamble to get citizenship. Biden administration officials say that the policy change will create a path to citizenship for half a million people.

Biden Press Conference


Trump issued a statement denouncing Biden’s decision: “Biden only cares about one thing—power—and that’s why he is giving mass amnesty and citizenship to hundreds of thousands of illegals who he knows will ultimately vote for him and the Open Border Democrat Party.” 

Trump said this week that he favored giving foreign students who graduate from U.S. colleges and universities the opportunity to become U.S. citizens. He told the All-In podcast: “You graduate from a college, I think you should get automatically as part of your diploma a green card to be able to stay in this country, and that includes junior colleges too.” Trump did not pursue that idea when he was president. Rather, his administration was often hostile to legal immigration.

What the Pundits Are Saying

The latest issue of Foreign Affairs has separate essays making the case for Biden’s and Trump’s foreign policies. Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security advisor under President Barack Obama, made the case for Biden. While gently criticizing Biden’s “restorationist” foreign policy for failing to fully acknowledge that “the old rules-based international order doesn’t really exist anymore,” Rhodes argued that “in its more affirmative agenda, the Biden administration is repositioning the United States for a changing world by focusing on the resilience of its own democracy and economy while rebooting alliances in Europe and Asia. To extend that regeneration into something more global and lasting, it should abandon the pursuit of primacy while embracing an agenda that can resonate with more of the world’s governments and people.”

Robert O’Brien, Trump’s national security advisor from September 2019 through the end of his term, made the case for a second term Trump foreign policy. He portrayed Trump’s four years in office as an unbroken string of successes in which “Trump recognize[d] that a successful foreign policy requires joining forces with friendly governments and people elsewhere.” (That characterization is debatable, to say the least.) O’Brien predicted that “a second Trump term would see the return of realism with a Jacksonian flavor. Washington’s friends would be more secure and more self-reliant, and its foes would once again fear American power. The United States would be strong, and there would be peace.” 

Mike Levine of ABC News wrote that Kennedy is telling voters that the Central Intelligence Agency now controls major U.S. media outlets. Earlier this spring, Kennedy alleged that “the new head of NPR is a CIA agent.” Levine argued that “Kennedy continues to amplify such claims at campaign events, in media interviews, and on social media, supporting them with what experts described to ABC News as ‘half-truths,’ ‘intimations,’ misinterpretations of law, and twisted historical anecdotes. He often cites widespread—but utterly unsubstantiated—allegations that a CIA program supposedly called ‘Operation Mockingbird’ secretly recruited journalists decades ago to help brainwash Americans.”

Politico reported today that Washington and Seoul have begun talks a year early over Seoul’s financial support for U.S. military bases in South Korea. The goal is to “Trump-proof” the alliance, at least in the short-term. During his time in office, Trump pressed South Korea for a more than five-fold increase in so-called host-country support, a demand that strained the alliance. The current Special Measures Agreement governing South Korea’s support for U.S. military bases expires at the end of 2025. However, Seoul’s effort to speed up negotiations “risks reprisals if Donald Trump wins in November. They could include punitive financial burdens for South Korea that strain ties between Seoul and Washington amid rising regional tensions with both China and North Korea.”

What the Polls Show

A poll commissioned by the Ronald Reagan Institute found rising public support for U.S. engagement in the world. The institute’s poll last November found that just 42 percent of Americans favored greater U.S. engagement in the world. That number is now 54 percent. The poll’s partisan split was relatively small. Two-thirds of Democrats favor great engagement, as do a near majority of Republicans (49 percent). Six in ten Americans polled had a favorable view of NATO.

National polling looks to have become friendlier to Biden. FiveThirtyEight reported today that for the first time this year that Biden leads Trump in its average of national polls. The margin is slight, 40.7 percent to 40.4 percent, with Kennedy drawing nearly 10 percent support. All the standard caveats apply about margins of error and the fact that presidents aren’t chosen in a national vote but in the aggregation of votes in fifty states and one district.

It’s not just Democratic-friendly polls that are showing a shift toward Biden. A Fox News poll released this week found that Biden has pulled ahead of Trump in its national poll of registered voters. Biden’s 50-48 lead is the first time he has surpassed Trump in a Fox News poll since last October. Biden’s lead fell to one point, 43-42, when Kennedy is added to the mix. These numbers are all within the poll’s margin of error. Fox News attributes the shift toward Biden to growing support among independent voters. One obvious limitation of the poll is that it spoke to registered voters rather than likely voters. The two groups aren’t the same. As a result, the poll includes the views of respondents who won’t be going to the polls, and hence, won’t be directly deciding the election’s outcome.

The Campaign Schedule

The first presidential debate is in six days (June 27, 2024).

Donald Trump’s sentencing hearing is in twenty days (July 11, 2024).

The Republican National Convention opens in Milwaukee in twenty-four days (July 15, 2024).

The Democratic National Convention opens in Chicago in fifty-nine days (August 19, 2024).

The second presidential debate is in eighty-one days (September 10, 2024)

The first in-person absentee voting in the nation begins in Minnesota and South Dakota in ninety-one days (September 20, 2024).

Election Day is 137 days away.

Inauguration Day is 213 days away.

Shelby Sires assisted in the preparation of this post.

This publication is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy.

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