As the nation continues to be ravaged by the ever-present threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, the only hope for many of us stuck in our homes is to look towards the future. From the day that we can once again spend time with our friends and loved ones, to the day that the nation can once again fully be reopened, there are many glimmers of hope shining at the end of the dark tunnel that is this pandemic.
One such glimmer for the politically savvy comes in the form of the eventual 2020 General Election, and the high-stakes debates that will precede them. In the past, these debates have marked a key turning-point in the focus of an election cycle, as the candidates that have spent the preceding year looking for support within their own party must now switch gears and begin looking to gain support from the undecided voters in the center, and maybe convert some voters from the other candidate in the process. This time around, however, there is significantly more at stake than just convincing undecided voters.
It's impossible to talk about politics without bringing into consideration the ramifications caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The death toll continues to mount, even as states look to begin the daunting process of reopening. This pandemic has forced millions out of work, closed down thousands of businesses, and has brought our nation's economy to a near standstill. These issues spell uncertainty for both candidates, one of whom is currently at the helm of managing the crisis, and both of whom will be expected to solve it if elected. In an election between the current President, Donald J. Trump, and the presumptive Democratic nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, it would not be a great exaggeration to suggest that the fate of the future of this nation and the direction of a post-COVID America will be at stake.
When the first debate is held, (currently scheduled for September 29th) it seems unlikely that the nation will have reached a point in its battle with the COVID-19 outbreak to justify allowing crowds to attend the event. As a result, this first debate, as well as all other scheduled debates, will almost certainly be held in a format similar to the final Democratic debate held back in March. This means that, outside the candidates and the crew from the broadcasting company, no crowds will be present for the debate.
This debate format plays well into Biden's strengths, strengths that he put on full display in his March debate with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Biden, who had struggled to make an impact in previous debates containing a half-dozen potential nominees, provided a significantly stronger performance in his one-on-one with Sanders. Even beyond his debate abilities, the former VP brings a sense of calm and steady leadership that his opponent just can't replicate. In a time of chaos and confusion, it certainly pays to be presidential.
On the other side of the ticket is current President Donald Trump, a man so set in his ways he's willing to take a dangerous anti-malaria drug that he touted for weeks as a cure for the COVID-19 pandemic despite studies that invalidate his claims. If the lack of a crowd is going to impact any candidate the most, it's the current President. Trump has a unique ability to work a crowd that few other presidential candidates in recent history have possessed, a skill that is rendered effectively useless in a debate without an audience. Working a crowd only works if you can gain direct feedback from the audience. Take away the feedback, and it becomes next to impossible to do it effectively.
That being said, the President knows his support base, and he knows just what he has to say to get them riled up. After all, these debates tend to come down to one key element: soundbites. Every politician prepares them, and while many may mock a candidate for relying on them too much, it doesn't change the fact that the soundbites that come out of the debate are important. Think back to the 2016 presidential debates between Donald Trump and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Despite the ways Clinton handled tough questions from the moderators, and despite her skills and effectiveness at delivering her key messages, most of the memorable parts of the debate came from President Trump. A CNN article published in 2016 lists a number of notable quotes, a majority of which came from the then-nominee Trump.
The President has a firm understanding of the kinds of things that energize his voting base, whether it be unsubstantiated claims of wrongdoing against his predecessor or cries of fake news at journalists that don't support his beliefs. These kinds of things speak to a voting bloc that will not easily be converted over to Biden's cause, regardless of his professionalism.
With only a few short months between us and the 2020 General Election, the debates that precede it are going to be monumental in their importance. For the first time this year, we'll witness the steady leadership and confident one-on-one debate strategy of Joe Biden collide with the showmanship and theatrics of Donald Trump. It's still far too early to predict an outcome, but regardless of what these next few months have in store, this debate is sure to be much-watch television.