HPS Insights

The Most Important Debates Ever!

September 25, 2020
5 min read
Matt McDonald

Hyperbole in politics is not new. Every presidential campaign is billed as the “most important of our lifetime,” and our politics seem to operate on a kind of reverse euphemism treadmill, where instead of trying to tone down language, we collectively ramp it up. In recent memory there was handwringing over this dynamic, and the seeming inability to dial up descriptions of the Trump era. After all, the political dial was already permanently set to 11.

And yet! There are reasons to think this fall’s presidential debates could be of particular consequence and interest beyond those of the past. There are three dynamics that point in this direction, and one big one that points the opposite way:

The pandemic and a lack of “campaigning.” While politics certainly occupies the center of our culture at the moment, it is being dominated by real world consequences and choices in the here and now. The pandemic, the associated economic crash, and the focus on racial justice are all real current political events, not theory batted back and forth through policy proposals. This dynamic focuses more attention naturally on the sitting president. The question is not: “How would a Biden Administration incrementally impact my life?” The question is: “What is the current President doing (or not doing) to dowse the burning platform I am standing on at this moment?” This dynamic, coupled with a general lack of a traditional campaign due to pandemic restrictions, means that attention has been going in different directions. This debate season will create a moment where public attention is going to snap back to the election.

Preparation changes. Behind the scenes in debate prep, there are briefing books, rehearsals, and coaching. One trick of debate preparation is to bake the prep into the ongoing campaign. Most of the messages and arguments in a debate should not be brand new to that moment. The speeches, rallies, and everyday talking points provide the practice and the ability for candidates to fine tune the case they ultimately will make on the big stage. But if none of that regular campaigning is really happening due to the pandemic, it takes away a big part of the organic preparation and increases the possibility of an unscripted moment of consequence.

Stagecraft changes. President Trump is known for his attention to stagecraft, but these debates will not have an audience to perform for. Social distancing guidelines will presumably prohibit some of the “lurking” moments of the past. Canned one-liners that work in an audience setting could come off as just plain awkward, and the campaigns will have to calibrate for this dynamic.

On the other side of why these debates just might not be a game changer is one big dynamic that has been true all year:

Fundamental stability of the race. The reality is that Vice President Biden has had a pretty stable lead of between four and eight points throughout this year. Throughout all the tumult of 2020, this fundamental dynamic has not changed. As we saw in 2016, anything can happen, but in retrospect, this presidential race may end up looking like a much more predictable affair than it feels like at the moment.

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