What to look for in the Trump-Biden debates

Early Returns
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We're within a week of the presidential debates, and Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, who will moderate the first round, has now released some likely topics:

The Trump and Biden Records
The Supreme Court
Covid-19
The Economy
Race and Violence in our Cities
The Integrity of the Election

So it's time for this cycle's general-election debate primer.

To begin with, debates typically don't have a significant effect on the election outcome. That's not surprising. Most attentive voters are partisans, and have already decided to support their party's candidate. The smaller number of attentive voters who have decided to defect have generally done so by now. And the even smaller group who really have no party preference? They, too, may well have decided by this point. Most of the undecided voters by now are those who don't typically pay much attention to politics, and hardly any of them will watch the debates. 

Most people who do watch, moreover, will conclude that the candidate they like won the debate, although sometimes comments by pundits afterward may shift their views. Debates sometimes produce short-term bounces in the polls, but even those ephemeral effects may turn out to be an artifact of polling — supporters of the candidate who "won" may be more likely to answer surveys after a debate, while those who support the "losing" candidate may choose to duck such questions. To the extent the events do have an effect, it's probably in solidifying support that was already there.

But this doesn't mean that the debates are worthless. For one thing, they're now long-standing rituals of democracy (televised general-election debates began in 1960, and have taken place in every cycle since 1976). They're slightly odd rituals, to be sure; there's no particular reason that debating skills would predict a candidate's ability to govern. They also imply a mythical politics (in which voters have strong opinions about various public-policy questions and must match their positions with those of a candidate) at the expense of real-world politics (in which people identify with certain political groups, gravitate toward the party that those groups support and then adopt the positions of that party). Nevertheless, having the candidates come before the people on equal terms and respond to questions from the independent media isn't so bad as a symbol of democracy. And there's something to be said for performing the rituals we have, whether or not they're the best ones imaginable.

Debates are also a useful part of the election process for the same reason that any high-profile appearance by the candidates would be: Candidates run for office by making promises to voters, and high-profile promises tend to matter the most — after all, more voters have heard and seen them, and (perhaps more important) candidates think that voters have heard and seen them. Promises aren't only about policy positions; they're also about how a candidate will govern, and the ways he or she will represent the nation. 

The best debate moderators offer up "easy" questions — What are your plans to control the pandemic? What is your China policy? — and then step back and let the candidates choose where they want to take the conversation. In general, debates are the wrong time for "tough" questioning, especially gotcha questions in which the moderator tries to force a candidate to explain a flip-flop or contradictory promises. Candidates can bring up such things about their opponents, but the moderator is usually on firmer ground bringing up general topics, and leaving it to the candidates to attack if they choose. 

1. Sarah Binder at the Monkey Cage on the Senate and the Supreme Court vacancy.

2. Dan Drezner on what happens to President Donald Trump's foreign policy if former Vice President Joe Biden wins.

3. Scott Lemieux on the Obamacare court case.

4. Daniel Marans and Kevin Robillard on down-ballot Democratic primaries this year.

5. Reed Abelson and Abby Goodnough on what happens if the Supreme Court really does strike down the Affordable Care Act.

6. Daniel Dale and Donie O'Sullivan on the Trump campaign manipulating clips as part of their attacks on Biden.

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