What Trump and Biden need to accomplish at their 1st presidential debate

The highly anticipated showdown Thursday will mark the first time the two candidates have faced off in a debate since 2020

All eyes are on President Biden and former President Donald Trump this week as they prepare for their first 2024 presidential debate tonight. It’s the first time in U.S. history a sitting and former commander in chief will face off on the debate stage.

Both Biden, 81, and Trump, 78, have agreed to a new set of rules for the June 27 debate. Not only will the debate have no audience, but the candidates will also have their microphones muted when they’re not speaking, among other changes.

For voters, it’s an opportunity to watch two presidents confront a divided nation in a uniquely vulnerable way without the added effects of applause or boos.

For the candidates, political and debate strategists tell Yahoo News it’s an opportunity to earn the trust of the American people and to win over the 10% of registered voters who are either undecided (6%) or don't plan on voting at all (4%) — according to a recent Yahoo/YouGov poll — in Nov. 5's general election.

Here's a look at what each candidate needs to do on Thursday to have a successful debate.

Brett O’Donnell, a Republican strategist who assisted former presidential candidate Mitt Romney during the GOP primary debates in 2012 against President Barack Obama, says Biden and Trump need to make their strongest pitch yet for why they deserve to return to the White House.

“The stakes of this debate are extremely high,” O’Donnell told Yahoo News. “To this point in the campaign, voters have not seen either candidate frame the race, and answer the question of why they should be the next president of the United States.”

Biden and Trump, the oldest candidates ever to compete in a presidential race, have opposing views on critical issues such as immigration, abortion, the war in Gaza and more.

To that end, Biden will reportedly highlight his team’s achievements while attempting to display a stark contrast between himself, “who is fighting for the American people,” and Trump, “who will walk on stage as a convicted felon,” campaign spokesman Michael Tyler described in a memo obtained by NBC News.

Trump, on the other hand, is reportedly focused “less on policy” and more on rhetoric, per CNN.

Still, the former president recruited a group of policy experts and allies to sharpen his messaging around the economy and immigration, as well as the Jan. 6 attacks and his promise to pardon the rioters, according to the New York Times.

President Biden at a podium with two microphones.
President Biden speaks at an event marking the 12th anniversary of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) at the White House in June. (Drew Angerer/AFP via Getty Images)

According to Jennifer Talbert, head of the debate program at Ohio University, President Biden needs to display a strong “mental acuity” — reminiscent of his fiery State of the Union address in March — to undermine Trump’s claim that he is mentally unfit to lead.

“Viewers will have the opportunity to watch President Biden answer hard-hitting questions and determine for themselves if he has the mental fortitude to continue as president,” Talbert said.

The president will seek to highlight what’s at stake if Trump is elected, Tyler said in a memo to the press. Specifically, Biden will try to emphasize issues where the former president “poses the most extreme threat” in Biden's eyes, such as the appointment of Supreme Court justices who helped reverse Roe v. Wade in 2022. Biden will aim to contrast Trump's record by praising his own accomplishments — from job growth to relief for COVID-related losses and student loans, per CNN.

The president also needs to avoid conflict and keep his focus on substance, O’Donnell stressed.

“There is no love lost between these two candidates and so there will be great interest in how much they go after each other,” he said. “[But] both need to keep this debate about the voters and not about each other. The person that best connects with the audience at home and convinces them that they have a plan to solve the major challenges facing the voters will ultimately be the winner.”

Donald Trump at a podium.
Trump speaks to a crowd during a campaign rally in Sept. 2023. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

The advice to avoid combativeness extends to Trump as well, noted Talbert, who said that Thursday’s debate is a chance for Trump to make his argument that America has gotten more expensive under Biden and that things were better during his time in office.

That message could resonate deeper with viewers if Trump is able to control his outbursts, she explained. In their first presidential debate in 2020, Trump repeatedly interrupted Biden while he was speaking, which the former president has since acknowledged was a mistake.

To that end, Talbert said Trump needs to convince viewers that he’s well-versed on the issues and that he answers questions accurately.

“Sometimes Trump runs loose and fast with some of his facts,” she said. “Viewers should watch the commentary after the debate to determine if Trump has the truth on his side.”

That’s especially true when it comes to the economy, which both parties are accused of misrepresenting.

“Much of the American public is financially impacted by the current economy regarding increased grocery prices, energy, and fuel costs,” Talbert said. “The candidates should be focused on their constituents rather than those zinger lines.”

Despite Trump’s 34 convictions last month in a hush money trial, sources told the New York Times that the former president is focused more on how to respond to debate questions about the Jan. 6 riots. Trump has promised to pardon the rioters, whom he often dubs as “hostages.” He reportedly told associates he’d do so on a “case by case” basis.

Ahead of Thursday, Trump and his surrogates have also been uncharacteristically complimentary about their opponent’s abilities, a sign they may be attempting to set expectations high for Biden’s performance.

“I was never a fan of his, but I will say he beat Paul Ryan — still years ago, but he beat Paul Ryan badly,” Trump said last Thursday on the All-In podcast, referring to the 2012 vice presidential debate between Biden and the former Republican House speaker.

“I assume he’s going to be somebody that will be a worthy debater, I would say, I think. I don’t want to underestimate him,” Trump added.

Not as much as you might think. Separate studies from 2019 and 2012 showed no significant changes in how a voter views candidates before and after watching a debate, as reported by Scientific American.

What voters see in the media or from political activists and other citizens, the 2019 study’s authors suggest, affects their decision more than what they see on the debate stage.

The 2024 presidential election is shaping up to be a tight race. A Yahoo/YouGov poll taken between June 3 and June 6 showed Biden (46%) barely leading Trump (44%) among registered voters. Biden's campaign pushed for an early debate, in part, with the hopes that it could give the president new momentum.

In an election this close, one thing is abundantly clear: Every vote matters.

Cover thumbnail photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images