Old rituals in new territory

For the first time ever, two people who have commanded the United States’ nuclear arsenal will meet on a debate stage.

Tonight’s clash between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump will be simultaneously familiar and unprecedented, premature and overdue. It will also mark a new era of the race, coming days before the midway point between Election Day and when the matchup between the two was officially set in March.

Even as Americans’ media consumption becomes ever more fragmented, the quadrennial custom still draws tens of millions of viewers. But this year, the unprecedented distance until Election Day offers a new layer of unpredictability. Looked at one way, any mistake or gaffe could be far less potent than usual, eclipsed by the months of campaigning to follow. Looked at another, it could carry even more weight, defining the months of coverage and discourse down the line. 

The internet has also transformed debates’ impact in the modern era, with clipped video spreading quickly and impressions of candidates often driven as much by what trickles into memes as what comes out of spin room surrogates. And it’s here that the stakes are especially high for the incumbent: While the Democratic camp is quick to cry foul over “cheap fakes,” both parties agree that tonight's upshot may be how Biden dispels or confirms age-related concerns. Polls find about three quarters of voters are concerned about the issue when it comes to Biden, 81, compared to about half for Trump, 78.

However the showdown ends up influencing voters, viewers will tune into a debate that bears the unmistakable mark of a nearly decade-long transformation of American politics. 

There’s the demolition of formerly sacrosanct political traditions: For the first time in 34 years, the Commission on Presidential Debates is not managing any of this year’s scheduled matchups. While the Biden campaign provided the death knell with its official withdrawal back in May (and, despite its spin, remains the camp that insisted on one fewer debate than usual), the Republican National Committee struck the first blow, unanimously passing a resolution back in April 2022 to boycott any commission-sponsored events. What’s left is an event largely choreographed by the campaigns themselves.

There’s the encroachment of politics further into daily life: A June debate, 131 days before Election Day, is by far the earliest since presidential candidates began facing off on TV. From awards shows to corporate boardrooms to the NFL, few areas of American life have been left neutral in the bitter political debates of the past decade. Now, a traditional kickoff of the general election has moved earlier than ever before (the distance between Thursday’s debate and Election Day is more than three times the entire length of the approaching UK general election).

There’s the monetization of political discourse: The debate is sponsored by CNN, the outlet that perhaps best capitalized on the Trump years. Lofty monologues, emotional diatribes, and eight-box shouting matches became central to the network’s programming during Trump’s presidency, resulting in a ratings and cash bonanza. Now, that network is also breaking with six decades of tradition, wherein debates were cordoned off from corporate sponsorship, and running ads during the programming for the first time in the history of televised general election debates. 

And there’s the sense of brokenness and abnormality: Polls show record high dissatisfaction with the matchup of candidates. In April 2023, NBC News found supermajorities of Americans hoping neither of the men on stage tonight would even run for president. Last fall, Gallup found 63% of Americans saying the political system needed a third party — an all-time high — and Pew Research found 68% wishing for multiple political parties. In December, an AP/NORC poll found 7 in 10 “pessimistic” about the state of politics and just 19% “optimistic about the way leaders are chosen under the current political system.”

On top of that, an independent candidate, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., is polling better than any third-party candidate in modern history. The FiveThirtyEight polling average places him just shy of 10%, but he will not be on stage tonight. Not only did he fail to meet CNN’s new requirement to be on enough state ballots to theoretically hit 270 electoral votes, his polling average remains below the 15% threshold that has been required for years. 

It all adds up to something rather striking: The debate duopoly remains, for now, ironclad. All this discontent — voters’ dislike of the candidates, their dissatisfaction with the direction of the country, the historically high support for expanding the two-party system, and the abnormally high polling of a third-party candidate — still couldn’t break the norm. The system isn’t changing. And no matter what is said on stage tonight, that may be most Americans’ biggest takeaway. 

What the moderators won’t say

Tonight, Biden is all but guaranteed to mention restoring the protections of Roe. But codification may require nothing short of a miracle. In the latest episode of Margin of Error, we dive into the problem. Click to watch.

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