In the three weeks since Donald Trump last met Joe Biden on the debate stage, another kind of debate has been swirling on the campaign trail: one over the conditions under which the two presidential candidates would convene for a rematch. Virtual format, or an old-fashioned in-person face to face? Open microphones for both debaters, or only for the one who is speaking? A moderator who tightly enforces the rules, or one who allows the candidates – one candidate in particular – to run wild?
It is something of a miracle that Thursday’s debate in Nashville, Tennessee, is happening at all – and Trump being Trump, there is always the chance of a last-minute cancellation at any point before the camera’s light blinks red. After his disastrous opener against Biden, followed days later by a hospital stay for COVID-19, Trump dropped out of the second scheduled debate, a town hall that was to have taken place in Miami. Trump’s reason: he did not approve of the remote format that was being proposed as a precautionary measure against his illness.But with the incumbent president lagging in the polls, amid a surge in enthusiasm for Democratic candidates across the board, Trump finds himself in need of a follow-up debate. When the candidates meet again on Thursday, they will repeat the same format as in their first debate, with one notable difference: each candidate will be allotted two minutes at the beginning of every segment (there are six segments in total), during which the opposing candidate’s microphone will be silenced.The Commission on Presidential Debates, which has sponsored every general election presidential and vice presidential debate in the US since 1988, imposed this unusual change after acknowledging that the first Trump-Biden face-off deprived voters of “the opportunity to be informed of the candidates’ positions on the issues”. That is a nice way of saying that they hope for a more civilised round two, with the candidates engaging in a substantive dialogue rather than a shouting match.
This modest production tweak seems unlikely to produce a markedly different event. Since both microphones will remain open during the 11-minute “discussion periods” that round out each segment, a rerun of last month’s episode seems not only possible but inevitable.