What can voters expect from the 2020 debates?

USC experts share what they’ll be watching for when Trump, Biden, Pence and Harris hit the podium in late September and beyond.

September 24, 2020 Leigh Hopper

In a deeply divided era, when name-calling is the norm and people can’t seem to agree on basic facts, will the 2020 presidential and vice presidential debates be substantive or circuslike?

President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden will face off for the first debate, moderated by Fox News’ Chris Wallace, on Tuesday, with two more set for Oct. 15 and 22. The debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala D. Harris is slated for Oct. 7.

USC experts predict a spectacle, with moments of truth. Here’s what they will be watching for.

Beware to those who underestimate Biden

“Donald Trump has made the basic political mistake of relentlessly lowering expectations for the man he calls ‘Sleepy Joe,’” said Robert Shrum, the director of the Center for the Political Future at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and a former political strategist and consultant.

“Biden’s masterful acceptance speech seriously dented that attack. Something like this happened in the first Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960, when Kennedy’s commanding performance confounded the Nixon argument that he was the more experienced candidate and that experience was what counted.”

COVID-19 backdrop makes 2020 debates essential viewing

“The debate that voters want would focus on the progress of COVID-19 therapeutics and vaccines, economic relief and recovery, and an end to systemic racism with better policing for America,” said Dora Kingsley Vertenten, a professor at the USC Price School of Public Policy and an expert in political consulting, election campaigns, political parties and social media.

“Instead, Donald Trump will personalize his opposition with nicknames and name-calling. Joe Biden will serve up an aspirational message, long on vision, empathy and emotion.”

Gordon Stables, director of the USC Annenberg School of Journalism, believes the debates will address concerns raised by both campaigns about the competency of the other candidate.

Moderators will directly question the president about his record and Biden about what he would do for America.

Christina Bellantoni

“The debates will put those questions directly before viewers,” he said. “These sessions will lose the distracting role of audience cheers and groans without in-person audiences.”

Christina Bellantoni, a professor of professional practice at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and the director of the Annenberg Media Center, agrees that the debates will make for essential viewing.

“Debates have made a huge difference in many presidential contests,” she said. “Many in the press didn’t take Trump seriously when he debated Hillary Clinton in 2016, but that’s not going to happen this time around. I think these meetings will be more important than ever. Moderators will directly question the president about his record and Biden about what he would do for America.

“What’s more, vice presidential debates can be sleepy affairs. I predict you’ll see an even larger audience for a Pence-Harris debate than ever before. They couldn’t be more different politicians, and her interrogation skills will be on display.”

The ‘Blackness’ of Kamala Harris

“I’ll be paying close attention to the vice presidential debate,” said Velina Hasu Houston, a Distinguished Professor of Theater in Dramatic Writing at the USC School of Dramatic Arts and an expert in ethnic studies, multiethnic identity and Asian American drama. “Kamala Harris’ selection as Joe Biden’s running mate is historic in many ways. For those of us who are happily and confidently mixed race, it is also historic because she is a mixed-race woman.

“Some may embrace her Blackness, some may question her Blackness. Regardless of where the socio-politics fall — or stumble — Kamala Harris will be a draw on debate night for many communities.”

2020 debates: A fight between two ‘mastodons’

“Broadway is boarded up for the rest of 2020, but we can look forward to high drama at the presidential and vice presidential debates, even without a live audience,” said Oliver Mayer, a self-described “political junkie” and professor of dramatic writing and associate dean of faculty at the USC School of Dramatic Arts.

We can look forward to high drama at the presidential and vice presidential debates, even without a live audience.

Oliver Mayer

Mayer, who has expertise in contemporary American theater, Latinx theater and professional boxing analysis, likened the event to a fight between “two mastodons, with old age as a determining factor.”

“If this were a play, it would be one teetering on melodrama even as it wows us with violent emotions and — dare one say — moments of truth,” Mayer said. “Trump will posture, and his sheer physical mass will seem super heavyweight, but Biden will win the debate on old-fashioned values like gumption, preparedness and a good heart.”

Mayer said the vice presential debate will be unusually interesting as well, calling it potentially “one of the great mismatches of all time.”

“Pence’s utter colorlessness — not simply of complexion but lack of warmth — will be immediately on display, making Harris seem that much more vivid,” he said. “Her one real danger is in getting hot and seeming caustic in the face of his awesome blandness. She will need to summon her own cold smile and jab through his bloodless defenses.”