U.S. election: Biden, Trump set to face each other in first presidential debate

The stage is set. All eyes will be on United States President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden Tuesday as the two square off during the first presidential debate of 2020.

The event will be livestreamed at 9 p.m. ET from the Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.

Trump, for his part, has reportedly made the decision to forego formal debate preparation.

Biden, on the other hand, has been making aggressive preparations to debate the Republican president. The Associated Press reported mock debate sessions led by senior adviser to the Democratic nominee and former White House general counsel Bob Bauer, playing the role of Trump.

What to expect

Matthew Lebo, chair of political science at Western University, said he expected Trump to be on full offence, hurling insults and dismissing various allegations against him and his presidency.

Those are sure to include questions about his tax returns, Lebo said. The report was released Sunday by the New York Times and showed the Republican president only paid $750 in federal income taxes during his first and second years in office, skirting paying his taxes for over a decade.

Biden is expected to call out Trump over his attempt to rapidly confirm Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett by the election on Nov. 4. Biden opposed Barrett’s nomination, requesting the U.S. president respect late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dying wish to be replaced by the winner of the 2020 election.

Several Democrats have also openly opposed Barrett’s nomination, with Biden’s running mate Kamala Harris pointing to her “long record” opposing reproductive rights and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer arguing that a vote for Barrett was a “vote to take away healthcare.”

Trump has also been searching for a chance to confirm his unproven theories that Biden is either on performance-enhancing drugs or on cognitive decline. Biden’s campaign team has advised him against getting bogged down in direct confrontation with Trump, and instead focus his energies on sharing his vision of a future America.

“Arguing over facts, litigating whether what he’s saying is accurate, that is not winning to Biden,” Jen Psaki, a former Obama aide who is close to Biden’s team said in a previous interview with the Associated Press.

“This is an opportunity to speak directly to the American people. His objective should be to speak directly to them, but not be pulled in by Trump.”

Lebo said Democrats will also be looking to Biden to highlight the contrasts between him and Trump during the debate, and hold him accountable for his inability to curb the novel coronavirus pandemic in the U.S., which has killed more than 204,000 Americans so far.

“Biden’s main point to all of it will be to try to do what he did at the Democratic convention, which is express empathy towards Americans who are suffering economically, suffering from (COVID-19) or who have lost family or are terrified of the virus. He’ll try and project a much more compassionate image than Donald Trump,” said Lebo.

By the numbers

Sunday’s polling data from The Washington Post and ABC News put Biden at a 10-point lead nationally, while the most recent data from Ipsos released on Friday, showed Biden ahead by eight points among registered voters.

Not much is swaying voter opinion. Of a sample size of 1,160 registered voters, 89 per cent of registered Republican voters and 91 per cent of registered Democratic voters polled by Ipsos said they would be supporting their party’s nominee for the presidency.

Meanwhile, 87 per cent of Republican respondents said they still supported Trump while 57 per cent reported to “strongly approve” his overall presidency.

Do debates still matter?

Debates “don’t move the needle much at all,” and haven’t for a while, Lebo said.

“Especially in an election where the vast majority of people’s minds are made up, (debates don’t) have that much of an effect,” he said.

However, he said if an election is going to be close, a small impact “can matter.”

“Small key moments that might make their way into campaign commercials and news broadcasts,” he explained.

Once upon a time, debates were supposed to be a vehicle of voting information — what Lebo described as an opportunity for candidates to “face tough questions from each other,” and for voters to learn more about which leader most closely aligns with their core values.

Now, it’s become “just sort of a game of chicken,” said Lebo, where a candidate is forced to debate or face the consequences of appearing weak.

“It looks badly on a candidate to be the one to say, ‘no, I’m not doing it,’” he said.

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