Will the Biden-Trump debates matter?

 Donald Trump and Joe Biden participate in the final presidential debate at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, on October 22, 2020.
Donald Trump and Joe Biden participate in the final presidential debate at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, on October 22, 2020.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

The Biden-Trump debates are on. President Joe Biden and Donald Trump last week agreed to meet in two debates under a deal reached shortly after Biden's campaign proposed the matchups. The first debate is set for June 27, which is earlier than normal, CBS News noted. The second is scheduled for Sept. 10. Biden's team pushed to wrap up the forums by early September so Americans could "size up" the candidates before early voting began, according to The New York Times.

Biden taunted Trump, saying he had beaten him in two 2020 debates and noting that Trump avoided squaring off on stage against his Republican primary rivals. "Now he's acting like he wants to debate me again. Well, make my day, pal," Biden posted on X. Trump challenged Biden to more debates, and posted on Truth Social that Biden is the "WORST debater I have ever faced — He can't put two sentences together!" Independent candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (likely excluded because of a 15% polling cutoff, The Associated Press noted) accused the Biden and Trump campaigns of "colluding to lock America into a head-to-head match-up that 70% say they do not want."

Biden trails Trump in key swing state polls and needs to turn things around; Trump has been sidelined by his New York criminal trial tied to alleged hush money payments to a porn star. Both have much to gain on the debate stage. But voters have had years to form their opinions about the current and former occupiers of the White House. Will the debates change anything?

Debates are Biden's big chance

The Biden-Trump debates could tip the scales to Biden, said Anthony Zurcher at BBC. He has faced "repeated questions about his age and competence," and sidestepping "face-offs" with Trump "risked convincing the public that he was not up to the task." Now he can tackle the issue head-on, with no live audience in the June debate to sidetrack him with things like pro-Palestinian protests. Plus, holding debates early will help Biden "frame the election as a binary choice" between a steady hand and an aspiring autocrat. The risk is that there will be no more high-profile debates to "shake things up" if he's still behind in October.

Biden's surprise proposal amounted to a tacit admission that "he's losing right now" and needs a "Hail Mary gambit to turn the race around," said the New York Post editorial board. He will try to "goad Trump into shooting himself in the foot on things like abortion and early voting." The former president, widely expected to interrupt and shout over Biden, just needs to "keep his cool." He should stick to key points, like arguing that he succeeded in moving the question of abortion access to the states — where "it has to remain" until there's "some clear national consensus." If he can do that, these debates could be his chance to cement his lead and "seal the deal."

These spectacles won't change anything

The Biden-Trump debates will be something to watch — "crouched in a fetal position" — but they won't matter, said Matthew Continetti in The Washington Free Beacon. Debates have almost never "decided a presidential outcome," with the possible exceptions of Richard Nixon's disastrous first showdown with John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Ronald Reagan vs. Jimmy Carter 20 years later. "Most of the time, debate results are indecisive." This year we have the "two oldest and two of the least-liked candidates in history." They won't tell us anything we don't already know, and if one of them makes a shocking gaffe, he'll have months to recover.

It's baffling that either of them "agreed to these no-win campaign stunts," said Jon Gabriel in USA Today. "Neither candidate is popular, to put it kindly." A recent Pew Research Center poll found them nearly tied, but "49% want both candidates kicked off the ballot." Knowing Biden and Trump, as we all do, these "debates promise to be a minefield of gaffes" that will make campaign staffers cringe. Maybe Biden and Trump want to meet because they think expectations are so low they can't lose. "If no one falls off the dais or starts chewing the lectern, both sides will call it a success."