• D.C.
  • BXL
  • Lagos
  • Dubai
  • Beijing
  • SG
  • D.C.
  • BXL
  • Lagos
Semafor Logo
  • Dubai
  • Beijing
  • SG

Updated Jun 25, 2024, 11:04am EDT
politics

What we’re watching at Thursday’s Biden-Trump debate

Morry Gash/Pool via REUTERS
PostEmailWhatsapp
Title icon

The News

Thursday’s debate is a first in modern presidential politics: A rematch in a new election cycle. Donald Trump and Joe Biden have a lot riding on the much-anticipated event, which will take place in Atlanta. The stage will look a bit different compared to their last meeting: They’re squaring off against each other in a crowdless CNN studio with moderators Jake Tapper and Dana Bash, and working under new rules after they both agreed to ditch the Commission on Presidential Debates, which typically handles these events.

Biden has been sequestered at Camp David over the past few days doing traditional debate prep with some of his key advisors, and one campaign official pointed out that he’s become “punchier” in recent weeks when it comes to going after Trump — something that will continue come debate night. Trump has been doing interviews and campaign events, while boasting about his comparative lack of preparation, which consists of informal “policy discussions” with his team and close allies.

Title icon

Shelby’s view

Here’s what I’ll be keeping an eye out for when the candidates meet on Thursday.

AD

The attacks the candidates know are coming. Both campaigns have previewed some likely attack lines heading into Thursday’s debate: For Biden, that includes now-standard topics like abortion, but also Donald Trump’s recent conviction, the January 6 riot, and his overarching theme that democracy is on the ballot. Democrats have also been teeing up attacks on Trump over taxes — Biden’s campaign has accused Trump of favoring “tax giveaways to the ultra-wealthy and corporations” by pledging to extend his 2017 tax cut package and make further corporate rate cuts.

A Trump advisor says they’re fully prepared to respond to some of the touchier subjects Biden is likely to highlight, telling Semafor that “no stone has been left unturned.” But while Trump might have to play defense at times on Thursday, he’ll also come prepared to punch back: The Trump campaign said that their main focus will be “compar[ing] and contrasting” on an array of topics that polls suggest are weak spots when it comes to Biden, including the economy and the border. How each candidate responds to some of the biggest issues on undecided voters’ minds could make all the difference in what’s shaping up to be an extremely close race.

In the past, Trump has also tried to rattle his opponent with pre-debate events: In 2016, he brought women who had accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct to his debate with Hillary Clinton. In recent days, he’s referenced people who have been killed by migrants — and Semafor is told it’s likely that victims’ family members will be among Trump’s guests in Atlanta. Democrats are already discussing how Biden might respond if the topic comes up.

AD

Filling in the policy picture. The crisis at the border, healthcare reform, and student debt are also among the many topics on voters’ minds — and both candidates have been preparing for a policy-heavy evening.

Trump ruled out pursuing a national abortion ban, but he’s yet to fill in the blanks on key questions like whether his administration would try to block access to abortion pills, as some allies have suggested. On foreign policy, he’s relied on his typical boasts that various disasters — Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Israel-Hamas war — would never have happened under his watch, but offered few details on how he’d actually approach them in office. He also floated a far-reaching proposal to provide green cards to all foreign college graduates on a podcast last week, which his campaign quickly walked back. He could bring up his new plan to exempt workers from taxes on tips.

Biden could face some tough questions on his vision for border security, where he took new executive actions earlier this month to limit migrant crossings that angered some progressives in his party. He’s tried to blame Republican sabotage, especially Trump’s opposition to a bipartisan deal to restrict asylum claims, and this will be his best chance yet to try to make the claim stick.

AD

Inflation continues to be a dominant concern in polling and the debate will give him a chance to convince voters he has some concrete plans for keeping prices in check, where Democrats have also been divided on how to sell his record. The White House rolled out a major push around “Bidenomics” last year, counting on lower inflation, high job growth, and a red-hot stock market to eventually turn the economy into a political asset. Voters didn’t come around to it, and some Democrats worry Biden needs to pivot to acknowledging their frustration more rather than convincing them they’re living in a golden age.

Who will beat expectations? The expectations game has played out much like the candidates’ last debates. Trump, aside from some last-second nods to Biden’s debating skill, has lowered them to the floor for his opponent by accusing him of being too old to function. And for the third presidential election in a row, he’s baselessly suggested a good performance by his opponent would be due to performance-enhancing drugs.

That strategy backfired in 2020 when Biden cleared the low bar set by Trump and voters decided he was qualified to be president. But Biden is four years older now and polls show voters are deeply concerned about his age and, to a lesser extent, Trump’s. Much like his State of the Union address, where his energetic style was encouraging for Democrats, Biden may be evaluated more for his level of engagement than anything specific he says.

For Trump, his temperament has long been a top concern. In their first debate in 2020, a fired-up Trump shouted down and interrupted Biden, who responded at one point “Will you shut up, man?” Post-debate polls found voters disliked Trump’s combative approach and he toned things down in their next meeting. One legacy of that night: The candidates’ mics will be muted when the other is speaking on Thursday. Biden’s campaign, which has argued that the former president has grown more out-of-control since his 2020 loss, would love Trump to come across as unhinged again (and perhaps are thinking of some ways to provoke him into doing so).

Which Trump VP candidate stands out. A number of Donald Trump’s vice presidential hopefuls are expected to be in Atlanta for the debate: Will one stand out as a clear winner when the night is over? In Philadelphia over the weekend, the former president told reporters that he already knows who he’s picking for the slot (Although, caveat, he said this back in January, much to the confusion of some of his aides). He also said the individual would “most likely” be at the debate.

Expect the various VP picks to play an active role come Thursday, much as they’ve done with other major Trump events over the past few months, whether that has meant attending rallies or showing up at court to support him. And expect Trump to be keeping an eye on their performance, as well as his own: Will one candidate make a particularly good argument as to why Trump won the night, or will someone falter and be knocked down on the list?

Title icon

Notable

  • The New York Times looks at the role CNN will play in the debate with the Commission on Presidential Debates sidelines: “For the first time in decades, a single television network will have sole discretion over the look, feel and cadence of a general-election presidential debate.”
Semafor Logo
AD