How this week’s Biden-Trump debate is different from any other

This week’s debate between President Biden and former President Trump will be unlike any in the 64 years since the advent of the televised presidential debate.

From the host of the meeting to its unique timing, the event breaks with tradition in myriad ways. The debate is set to lay down a key marker in the general election battle and could prove pivotal for either candidate.

Here are five major differences audiences will see in Thursday’s match-up.

President vs. former president

This is not the first time a sitting president and a former president have faced off in a general election. But Thursday will mark the first meeting between two such figures on a televised debate stage, heaping another dose of intrigue onto Biden and Trump’s get-together.

The two candidates had a pair of memorable debates four years ago, the first of which — widely remembered for Trump’s constant badgering and interrupting of Biden and moderator Chris Wallace — did the former president no favors in the final weeks of the campaign.

But that has not dissuaded Trump this go-around. He was vocal for months about wanting to debate Biden whenever possible, perhaps sensing an opportunity in polling providing a rosier outlook for the former president.

Trump supporters see this meeting of two White House occupants as a chance to compare records, and they see economic and immigration arguments favoring their side.

“It’s pretty unique. … You have a pretty unique opportunity to review the tale of the tape,” said Sen. Eric Schmitt (R-Mo.), who has helped Trump with debate prep ahead of Thursday, of the match-up of two presidents. “All of these debates have a life of their own, but I’m pretty confident [Trump’s] going to do well.”

Earliest televised debate in history

Thursday’s match-up will be the earliest televised presidential debate in U.S. history by about three months, essentially firing the starting gun on the general election in an acknowledgment of how many voters have cast early ballots in recent years.

“In this day and age, more information is good, and people are going to be tuning in,” Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) told The Hill. “I expect that more people will be engaged from an earlier date and that’s good for our democracy.”

That was one of the main gripes the Biden campaign had with the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), the longtime organizer of the fall events.

Jen O’Malley Dillon, a top Biden aide, said in a letter to the commission that “tens of millions of Americans will have already voted” before its first proposed debate, citing it as one of the campaign’s many reasons for not agreeing to its slate of meetings.

Previously, the earliest debate held between major party nominees was in 1976, when then-President Ford and former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter (D) met on Sept. 23.

CNN runs the show

Sidestepping the commission also means that one network — CNN —  will be entirely in charge of operations come Thursday night, a major change for voters.

The network will effectively become the third major player at this debate. Two of CNN’s most respected news anchors — Jake Tapper and Dana Bash — will take on the role of co-moderators. And they will have additional tools to control the action compared to past moderators.

For one, both candidates will have their mic muted unless they are speaking, a big departure from in years past.

Perhaps more jarring will be the lack of a studio audience — the first time that has happened since 1960. Biden’s campaign clamored for the change after the pair of 2020 debates.

“It takes away the Jerry Springer feel to the swipes that Trump and Biden will likely give each other and it makes it less interesting for them to do those things without a crowd to cheer you on,” said Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist and the co-founder of Rokk Solutions.

The 90-minute affair will also feature two commercial breaks, during which neither campaign can strategize with the candidates.

Absence of the Commission

CNN’s presence comes at the exclusion of the CPD, which had been at the helm of the debate structure since 1988, after complaints from both sides.

The commission had long been considered a political boogeyman for Republicans, especially since 2012 after Candy Crowley, then a CNN anchor, fact-checked GOP nominee Mitt Romney live during his second debate with former President Obama. The CPD eventually agreed that having her moderate the event was a “mistake.”

But surprisingly, it was Democrats who seemed to land a death blow to the commission after what the Biden campaign perceived to be multiple missteps in 2020. In addition to the proposed first debate coming weeks into early voting, O’Malley Dillon panned the commission for being “unable or unwilling” to enforce rules during the two debates four years ago and for its “model of building huge spectacles with large audiences.”

“The debates should be conducted for the benefit of the American voters, watching on television and at home — not as entertainment for an in-person audience with raucous or disruptive partisans and donors, who consume valuable debate time with noisy spectacles of approval or jeering,” O’Malley Dillon said.

The commission was widely operated behind the scenes, meaning viewers on Thursday might not recognize a major difference outside of the lack of audience and CNN branding. But after their impact in recent years, political operatives are curious to see what Thursday will bring from a nuts-and-bolts perspective.

​​It feels like you’re taking out a referee for setting the terms of a fair debate, and CNN is trying to step into that role,” Bonjean said. “We’ll see how effective they are at that.”

Convention precursor

The late-June debate also means a major change to the traditional rhythms of the presidential season as it pushes the party’s national conventions from being the first major items on the calendar.

Thursday’s presidential back-and-forth will take place more than two weeks before Republicans flock to Milwaukee for their quadrennial confab — a complete reversal as the final convention has long taken place about a month before the first debate. It is about six weeks before the Democrats’ convention.

Democrats hope Thursday raises the bar for voters who thus far have tuned out the general election and puts the race on their radar earlier than it would have happened otherwise.

“It’s an important opportunity for the president to set the stakes for 2024,” one Democratic operative said. “Trump has been the GOP nominee for almost a year, there’s been no question. The GOP convention is a coronation.”

“That’s something everyone has known and it’s time for voters to recognize as well,” the operative added.

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