Joe Biden and Donald Trump

Joe Biden and Donald Trump will have their first 2024 debate on June 27. (Photos, left to right/David Lienemann, Library of Congress; Shealah Craighead, Library of Congress)

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What to expect from tonight’s presidential debate: Q&A with USC’s Christian Grose

During tonight’s first Biden-Trump debate of 2024, the spotlight will be on how each candidate leverages the elements of political theater to shape the narrative of their campaign.

June 27, 2024 By Nina Raffio and Ileana Wachtel

When President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump meet on the debate stage tonight, they will face off under a new set of rules designed to prevent disruptions seen in previous debates.

Box: How to watch the June 27, 2024, presidential debateBoth candidates have agreed to the revamped format: Microphones will remain muted except when it is their turn to speak. There will be no studio audience. During the two commercial breaks, candidates are prohibited from interacting with campaign staff.

USC News spoke with Christian Grose, a professor of political science and public policy at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, about what these changes mean for the debate’s dynamics and potential impact on the candidates’ performance. Grose is academic director of the USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy at the USC Price School of Public Policy.

What is the significance of this particular debate? What’s at stake for each candidate?

Grose: Everything is at stake, especially for President Biden. Given recent concerns about age, the expectations for Biden are very low. This election will be decided at the margins. Recent polls, including the two most recent polls by Fox News and Morning Consult, show a statistical tie.

Christian Grose
Christian Grose is a USC Dornsife professor of political science and public policy. (Photo/Courtesy of Christian Grose)

An early-stage debate offers a valuable visual contrast between the two candidates: a showman versus a statesman. Biden, without an audience and with moderators who can mute the mics, I would surmise, has an edge over Trump’s showmanship that thrives on an audience, interrupting and using theatrical distractions.

This setting … might not work well for [Trump] given the rules and set up. I’m thinking of when he lurked behind Hillary [Clinton] on the stage or how he decimated his opponents in the GOP debate.

The American people have an opportunity to see beyond sound bites, again providing Biden an opportunity to demonstrate, as he did at the State of the Union, that he is energetic, together and on top of his game. Trump must prove he is in control, which could be challenging due to his unpredictable nature, though this unpredictability also sets expectations quite low for Trump. Given the low expectations for both candidates, the debate has the chance to really launch one of them forward.

What strategies should each candidate employ to effectively sway undecided voters?

Grose: Biden still polls well among Black voters, Latino voters and young voters, but he is losing a surprising number of these groups to third-party candidates or those who choose to remain on the sidelines. Biden needs to consolidate support among Blacks, Latinos and young people by highlighting his accomplishments and future plans for his second term. Biden will emphasize abortion, Trump’s relationship with big business, Trump’s very conservative Supreme Court appointments, and threats to democracy evidenced by Jan. 6 and women’s rights.

LEARN MORE: A stage for persuasion — Political theater in the 2024 presidential debate
As President Biden and former President Trump gear up for their first debate of the 2024 election season, USC experts explore the enduring connections between politics and theater.

As for Trump, his ability to respond quickly, even if his statements aren’t always true, provides opportunities for him to shine. Trump has an advantage as the challenger on the way the war in Gaza has been handled, Biden’s funding of Ukraine and how inflation is still high. Trump needs to persuade independent and suburban voters who have started to move away from him since his convictions, while balancing mobilizing his hard-core supporters.

In what ways do in-person debates shape public perception differently than other forms of campaign communication, such as social media or televised ads?

Grose: In-person debates offer candidates a chance to connect with voters through the TV camera, showcasing authenticity, spontaneity and real-time responses. This debate is crucial for Biden to counter the narrative of being out of touch and cognitively impaired, especially if Trump appears incoherent on the issues or blatantly lying about his own record. It allows Biden to directly contrast himself with Trump.

Political science research shows that most voters will not be swayed as many have already made up their mind, but for those small number of undecided voters thinking of voting for a third-party candidate the research shows debates can have a huge impact. The presentation, style and substance can move the undecideds, turn off those on the fence and mobilize core supporters.