Eleven Three Twenty: 5 Things To Watch For in Tonight’s Debate

October 22, 2020

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Tonight’s Presidential debate at 9:00 PM Eastern between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden will give undecided voters one final opportunity to compare the two candidates side by side. Therefore, I thought I’d share the 5 things I’ll be looking for during the 90-minute debate.

It’s been a little over three weeks since the first Presidential debate, which was labeled the “Cacophony in Cleveland” due to the unruly behavior of the candidates — particularly the President. He interrupted his opponent and the moderator over 120 times according to some counts. And even his closest allies admitted that his angry and rude behavior was over the top. More significantly, most Americans agreed. The President’s poll numbers took a nose dive after that debacle, one he’s just now starting to recover from with only 12 days remaining in the election.

Consequently, I’m curious to see if the President is more controlled and measured this evening — or if he doubles down on his behavior in Cleveland. The introduction of a mute button for this debate should help. However, it will be used only during the two-minute period each candidate is given to respond to the moderator’s question. So the President easily could resort to the same type of behaviors in which he engaged three weeks ago during the open-discussion segments.

(In fact, as I finalized this post, I saw some media outlets reporting that the President has stated he will “answer the questions he wants to answer — not the questions he’s asked.” Meanwhile, campaign advisers are begging him to turn down the emotions instead. So I guess we’ll see if we get Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde this evening.)

2. The Mute Button’s Impact on Substance

Because the first debate descended into chaos from the first moment, the candidates didn’t provide much in the way of substantive answers. Theoretically, the mute button should allow at least some significant discussion of the topics.

Speaking of which…the six topics for tonight’s debate (chosen by moderator Kristen Welker of NBC News) are as follows:

These are important topics for individual Americans and the nation as a whole. So let’s hope the mute button forces the candidates to actually provide some substantive answers about them.

3. Joe Biden’s Closing Ability

Although the President has gotten some better news in a few high-quality polls over the past few days, he still is significantly trailing the former Vice President — both nationally and in a number of key swing states. Therefore, President Trump has the most to gain tonight, while former Vice President Biden has the most to lose this evening.

The fact is that President Trump’s behavior in the first debate meant the former Vice President didn’t have a lot of time to answer questions in depth. Which means he didn’t have an opportunity to screw up. And as I wrote in the lead up to that debate, Joe Biden is a self-admitted gaffe machine and has been for years. So will the mute button and increased speaking time allow him to show Americans he’s the best choice? Or will he commit a significant mistake that the Trump campaign can seize upon over the final stretch of the campaign? We’ll have to see.

4. The Candidates’ Answers to Tough Questions

As I mentioned above, there wasn’t much substance in the first debate. If tonight’s debate is more traditional, both candidates will be forced to answer some tough questions.

President Trump will be hit with challenging questions surrounding his administration’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change, some of his more inflammatory statements about race in America, and his sometimes controversial personal statements and behaviors as President (during the “Leadership” section).

The former Vice President undoubtedly will be forced to defend the mostly Democratic shutdown of the economy, how much he embraces the controversial (at least to Republicans and many Independents) so-called “Green Deal,” if he supports “packing” the Supreme Court, and attacks on his son Hunter by the President.

How the two candidates answer (or DON’T answer) these tough questions may influence how undecided voters ultimately vote.

5. The Candidates’ Closing Arguments to Americans

With only 12 days until the election ends on November 3, the candidates need to convince voters they are a better choice than their opponent. It’s kind of like the old “I don’t have to outrun the bear — just you” joke. They don’t have to convince Americans they are the perfect candidate — they just have to convince them they’re better than the other guy.

Tonight’s debate will provide the last large audience for each of them to do so. Therefore, I’ll be interested in hearing their answers under the final topic of “Leadership.” Because the discussion of that topic may be one of the last things voters are thinking about as they cast their ballot. Having said that, it’s also important to note that it’s entirely possible that over 50 million votes already will have been cast by the time the candidates take the stage this evening in Nashville, according to Michael McDonald of the United States Election Project.

As I did after the first Presidential debate and the debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris, I’ll write a follow-up piece tomorrow on what I thought of the candidates’ performances. Until then, let’s ALL hope tonight’s debate is not a repeat of the “Cacophony in Cleveland.”

For those of you wondering why I’m qualified to write about this topic, I have a Ph.D. in Human Communication Studies from the University of Denver — with an emphasis on leadership, power, and persuasion. My dissertation research focused on political communication, specifically Ross Perot’s 1992 Presidential campaign (“A Mythic Analysis of Ross Perot’s 1992 Campaign Infomercials as a Modern American Jeremiad”). And I have worked on — or consulted for — a number of political campaigns, ranging from the mayoral to the Presidential level.

President of Marathon Leadership, LLC — an organizational and leadership consulting firm based in Thornton, CO. Learn more at http://marathonleadership.com/

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