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Presidential Debates Rarely Matter. The Biden-Trump Debate Is Different.

Tuesday night’s first presidential debate between Biden and Trump is unlikely to change many minds. But there’s still value to be had here.

Posted on September 29, 2020, at 8:00 a.m. ET

BuzzFeed News; Getty Images

You probably know how you feel about President Donald Trump. He has been the emcee of the last five years of American life. Depending on your view, he’s either the protagonist of your daily story or the uninvited guest who has been squatting in your one-bedroom apartment for years. It is a fun little joke to have with yourself to try to imagine the likely voter who just hasn’t heard enough about Donald Trump to have an opinion about him one way or the other.

So what is there to gain from the beginning of the presidential debates between Trump and Joe Biden?

Polling and reporting this summer showed an electorate that appears to have largely made up its mind. National and state polls have been remarkably stable through a series of crises and changed campaign messages. Trump’s approval rating of around 44% has been basically steady across his presidency. The number of voters considering a third-party candidate or who are still firmly undecided is not what it was in September 2016. It’s basically impossible to imagine the person who is going to be swayed in their vote by Trump insisting Tuesday night that Biden is on drugs.

This dynamic, even if it’s more obvious this year, isn’t unique. There’s a compelling reason to think general election presidential debates don’t move voters much even in a normal time. John Sides, a political scientist who has written loads about American elections, wrote in a 2012 survey of the research that “presidential debates have rarely, if ever, mattered.” Republicans typically believe the Republican candidate won the debate, Democrats believe the Democrat won, at most a candidate sees a slight polling bump and some days of positive or negative media attention, we all march on.

That said! I here propose why it makes sense to go through with this exercise anyway, even if it doesn’t all-caps MATTER for the election itself. And not just because of America’s pandemic-starved need for new television or our ever-accelerating drive toward masochism.

One thing that has been distinctly different about this year and election is just how little we’ve seen of the presidential candidates outside of highly controlled environments. The debates are very possibly going to be the only exception to that until deep into next year, well after one of the two is inaugurated.

Biden has rarely appeared in front of a group of more than a dozen people since March, always careful to role-model safe public behavior during the pandemic. Unless you’re diligently watching his livestreams, the most you’ve seen of the Democratic presidential nominee has been in his own ads or when he reads a speech. His interactions with national press have been rare. He’s not, as Trump would have it, hiding in his basement, but he’s also not the constant fixture in public life you’d expect a presidential candidate to be this close to an election.

And even though Trump is everywhere, he’s really only in the places he wants to be, speaking about the things he wants to speak about. Trump does regular news conferences, but still in an environment he controls, where he can safely disregard an unwanted question and move on to whatever One America News wants to ask him about. He has spent the vast majority of his presidency gliding from White House bubble to campaign rally bubble to Fox News bubble with only rare interruptions. It’s what made his interviews this summer with Chris Wallace and Jonathan Swan so compelling — in his nearly four years as president, we’ve barely ever seen Trump somewhere where he is not in charge.

The reasons each candidate has for being cloistered are different — Biden with a strict adherence to pandemic protocol, Trump with a strict adherence to ego maintenance. But you learn something to actually see what a president or candidate is like when they’re directly challenged and can’t easily change the subject or leave the room. It is rare to see either Biden or Trump forced to deal with discomfort.

It’s probably not going to change your vote this year. But as we work and live through a pandemic without a known end, seeing a candidate in a position they don’t want to be in reveals something about how that person actually is — how this year, or the last four, may have changed them. The debates are still an opportunity to learn a little more about these very sheltered men. That should still matter.

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