President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden met Tuesday, Sept. 29 for the first debate of the 2020 presidential election with Chris Wallace of FOX News as the moderator of the event.
Experts called the debate disorganized. Social scientist and professor in the Department of Life Sciences Communication at the University of Wisconsin Dietram Scheufele said the first 2020 presidential debate differed from past debates.
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“My initial thought is that I’ve never seen a debate quite like it before. I think U.S. debates have served as a model for many other countries, including the U.K. and Germany and other Western democracies for how televised debates should happen,” Scheufele said. “I think this year we’ve proven that we may not always live up to the ideals.”
The first presidential debate of 2020 finished after what Scheufele described as a slew of interruptions, name-calling and general disorganization.
According to Scheufele, American debates set the precedent of live debates on television.
Debates in the past had a set format which allowed for effective debate and discussion, Scheufele said. In previous debates, the parties agreed on a format both candidates were comfortable with.
“I think what American debates have gotten right is a format that really is aimed at informing voters,” Scheufele said. “It really helps them make sense of candidates and vice-presidential candidates and I think they’ve usually struck the balance right between appearance and substance.”
Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at UW Michael Wagner noted unusual chaos present throughout the debate with Trump adding primarily to the disorder, as he refused to follow debate rules.
“I thought it was an embarrassment,” Wagner said. “I thought it was a terrible display of democratic politics that didn’t help most voters think through the issues that are the most important to the country which we would hope would have some influence on how they decided they wanted to vote for President.”
After the first debate and with Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis, it is uncertain if future debates will occur. The group responsible for holding the debate, The Commission on Presidential Debates said, “additional structure should be added to the format of the remaining debates to ensure a more orderly discussion of the issues.”
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Wagner described what he thought would be the ideal format for future debates, including the moderator having control over the microphones, avoiding split screens, fact checking during the debate to check the claims made by the candidates and the moderator clearly explaining and enforcing the rules.
“All these things would have the likelihood of improving debates,” Wagner said.
Ultimately, it is unknown how either campaign will end up proceeding for the remainder of this election. The communication director for Biden’s campaign, Kate Bedingfield said Biden will continue speaking directly to the American people in a Today article.
Trump’s Director of Communications Tim Murtaugh responded similarly.
“Of course we are enthusiastic about the upcoming debates and look forward to them,” Murtaugh said.
Wagner said he’s not sure if it would be in Trump’s best political interest to continue participating in future debates, especially with more added restrictions.
“I think President Trump feels as though it’s [to] his advantage to interrupt Biden,” Wagner said. “I’m not sure why he would want to agree to rules that made it harder for him to do that.”
UW Professor of American Politics Benjamin Marquez said it would not be in the best interest of Trump to continue with the debates.
Marquez used COVID-19 as one of the reasons he thought it would be a poor decision for Trump to participate.
“This is a disease that affects the upper respiratory system and if he can’t raise his voice the way he used to that’ll just make him look terrible,” Marquez said. “His followers will think he’s weakened. They’ll think there’s something wrong with him.”
The future is unclear for the 2020 presidential election. Only time will tell how either potential presidential candidate will proceed for this year’s presidential debates.