What to Expect from Tomorrow’s Debate: Cogent Lobbyists Weigh In 

When it comes to Joe Biden and Donald Trump in front of two hot microphones, a betting man wouldn’t dare guess what events may unfold. Even so, our team of experts with lifetimes of combined experience in the halls of government, the chaos of campaigns, and throughout Capitol Hill weighed in with their predictions and shared their insights over the upcoming first general election debate of the 2024 presidential race.  

Setting the Stage: Rules of the Debate 

This debate is unusual in a number of ways, chief among them that moderators will have the ability to mute microphones of both candidates. Dave Oxner predicts “awkwardness and anger.” 

“The President and Former President likely have never been in a position of being cut off during a cocktail party let alone a TV event with tens of millions of viewers,” said Oxner.  

Randall Gerard fears this is the new norm. 

“As we saw in the GOP primary debates without Trump, every candidate looked to outflank or ‘out-yell’ their opponents to grab attention,” Gerard said. “It would be nice if we didn’t require this mic tool, but that’s not reality at this juncture in our political discourse.” 

Another break from tradition? The only people in the audience will be CNN’s Jake Tapper and Dana Bash and the camera crew. Our team was split on how this would impact both Biden and Trump’s performances. Founder and CEO Kimberley Fritts argues it will “take the oxygen out of the room,” and Shellie Purvis agrees. 

“Trump feeds off the crowd,” Purvis said. “This is well-known through his preferred choice of large-scale campaign rallies. Will Trump adjust his tone and volume with no debate audience? Much of the crowd feedback also plays into how far Trump goes with his remarks.” 

As the sole occupant of the “this-may-benefit-Trump” camp, Taylor McCarty Hoover believes this format will force Trump to appear “more presidential.” 

“Sure, Trump thrives on crowd energy and loves an audience reaction to a zinger, but having no audience may force him to be more measured, more presidential, rather than simply sparring – something that may be refreshing for the ‘double haters’ who are underwhelmed by what the Biden administration has offered the last four years,” said McCarty Hoover. 

What’s at Stake? 

There has been much talk about which candidate has more to lose. “I think the emphasis on Biden and his age is way overplayed,” said Claudia James, arguing the President exceeded expectations in the last two State of the Union addresses. Andrew Kauders agrees, saying, “similar to the State of the Union, I expect President Biden to come out swinging, showing a level of exuberance and energy that leaves little doubt about his ability to lead us for another four years.” But Fritts notes that the format of the debate could throw candidates off-kilter. “State of the Union relies on written text read from the teleprompter outlining policy victories and vision,” she said. “This debate format has the potential to challenge the candidates’ stamina.” 

“You can argue it has been quite some time since a debate truly moved the needle on the direction of a campaign,” Oxner said. But the aforementioned “double haters” are the hot topic demographic that seem to be one of the few things that can move the needle. 

“Both parties think this is a base election, but I see it as a margin election,” Gerard said. “When there is this much dislike of both candidates, focusing on base issues feels like a bad strategy. You should be focused on the voter you haven’t yet lost.” 

Closing Arguments 

  • Claudia James: “I want to see President Biden in an easy-to-understand way explain his record of delivery for the middle class, his support for a woman’s right to choose and his standing in the world as a global leader. I think this debate is an opportunity for President Biden to reach out to women voters, independent voters, young voters and Black voters to make his case for re-election.” 
  • Dave Oxner: “Regardless of how the candidates and CNN try to establish the stakes of this debate, the cold reality is that most likely voters have been exposed to both candidates for years or decades and probably have fully formed opinions of their respective strengths and weaknesses.” 
  • Andrew Kauders: “Biden has a proud record of achievements and a vision for the future of our country that will resonate with the important independent voter. During debate prep, he will have been reminded to ignore Al Gore-like sighs or facial contortions from his opponent, who will attempt to throw him off his game. At the end of the day, we will, once again, witness a statesman in Biden and an authoritarian man-child in Trump.” 
  • Shellie Purvis: “There will be no subtlety in Thursday’s debate. Voters are in a bad mood. I anticipate everything will be on the table, especially the more contentious and personal issues. Subtlety does not cut through the noise. And subtlety does not cut it with the voters. I have a feeling Thursday will not be an uplifting and ‘proud to be an American’ moment.” 
  • Taylor McCarty Hoover: “The bar is on the floor for President Biden, but I still think he has more to be worried about. In terms of voters who are still winnable, none of those folks are going to be lured to the Trump side because they like his bombastic nature – those voters are already with Trump. If anything, up-for-grabs voters will reluctantly side with Trump because Biden fumbles or seems unable to confidently lead the nation.” 
  • Randall Gerard: “With summer upon us, the Olympics, the conventions separated by a longer calendar spread, and the next debate not until September, how both candidates perform will make a lasting impression, especially for the smallest of undecided voters in the handful of true battleground states. The debate TV ratings for battleground states will be telling, as well as the post-debate polling on which candidate might have momentum.” 

The Impact 

As a gaffe-prone president and an unpredictable former president face off in the election’s first general debate, one thing is certain – the power of optics and PR. “Debates don’t win elections but could produce unforced errors to be used in advertising and rhetoric,” said Fritts.