The 2020 presidential election has been anything but predictable. After months and months of primary debates, former Vice President Joe Biden emerged as the Democratic candidate, but not before the coronavirus pandemic dramatically altered almost every aspect of our daily lives.
Primary elections in certain states were rescheduled. The conventions went virtual, and some are being encouraged to vote by mail, all in order to comply with social distancing measures and avoid large crowds.
But even with so much uncertainty, there will be an election come November, and there will (maybe?) be more debates. (So much for certainty.) Below, all the dates you need to know so you can mark your calendars. And remember, election day is Nov. 3.
When are the general election presidential debates?
In October 2019, the Commission on Presidential Debates announced that there’d be a total of three general election presidential debates this year, all taking place in states President Trump won in 2016. With the cancelation of the October 15th debate, there now appears to only be two debates for this election. The debates start at 9 p.m. and run for 90 minutes without any commercial breaks.
- Sept. 29 at the Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic (Cleveland, Ohio)
- Oct. 22 at Belmont University (Nashville, Tennessee)
What about the vice presidential debate?
There was also one vice presidential debate, which took place a month out from the 2020 presidential election. It was also in a state Trump won in 2016.
- Oct. 7 at the University of Utah (Salt Lake City, Utah)
What’s the format?
The Commission on Presidential Debates announced the first and third presidential debates will consist of six 15-minute segments and the moderators will announce the topics for each segment at least a week before each debate. The second debate was intended to be in the style of a town hall. As for the vice presidential debate, it was divided into nine 10-minute segments.
Each debate has a single moderator: Fox News’ anchor Chris Wallace took the first presidential debate; USA Today‘s Washington bureau chief Susan Page took the vice presidential debate; C-SPAN’s senior executive producer and political editor Steve Scully was meant to take the second presidential debate; and NBC News’ White House correspondent Kristen Welker will take the final presidential debate.
The CPD also announced it will be “following all CDC, state, county and site health and safety protocols” at each debate and that the Cleveland Clinic will serve as the health security advisor to the commission for all four debates. There was also plexiglass at the vice presidential debate to separate the two candidates, who sat 12 feet apart. According to Politico, attendees had to test negative for COVID-19 and wear a mask when entering the vice presidential debate hall and “if they don’t comply, they will be asked to leave.”
The CPD issued a statement that the first debate “made clear that additional structure should be added to the format of the remaining debates to ensure a more orderly discussion of the issues.” (A refresher: That first debate went off the rails with Trump constantly interrupting both Biden and the moderator, leading to a chaotic, and often times incoherent, night.) The CPD said it “intends to ensure that additional tools to maintain order are in place for the remaining debates” and “will be carefully considering the changes that it will adopt and will announce those measures shortly.”
How can I watch the debates?
There are countless ways to watch the debates. For one, the debates are carried on all major networks, including ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC, Fox, PBS, MSNBC, Telemundo, and Univision. The Washington Post, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal have been streaming the debates, and CBS News, C-SPAN, PBS NewsHour, NBC News, Fox News, and ABC News have been setting up streams on YouTube.
Google has also been providing a livestream. Just search “watch presidential debate” and the debate should appear on the results page.
Will there be a second and third debate?
Good question. For now, the second debate has been cancelled, and the CPD announced that both candidates have agreed to participate in the final debate on Oct. 22nd.
A bit of backstory: On Oct. 2nd, after Trump tested positive for COVID-19, Vanity Fair‘s Gabriel Sherman reported: “Sources I spoke with are doubtful the next two debates will happen.” However, on Oct. 6th, CNN reported that “Trump has said that he plans to show up for the forthcoming debates despite his positive coronavirus diagnosis.” At the time, Biden said, “Well, I think if [Trump] still has COVID, we shouldn’t have a debate. I think we’re gonna have to follow very strict guidelines. Too many people have been infected and it’s a very serious problem.”
On Oct. 8th, the morning after the vice presidential debate, CPD announced that there would be a second debate, but it’d be virtual. However, Trump then said he wouldn’t participate in a virtual debate. The Associated Press reported that Biden’s campaign suggested the debate be delayed until Oct. 22, and Trump’s campaign agreed but wanted another debate on Oct. 29th. According to the New York Times, Kate Bedingfield, a Biden deputy campaign manager, responded in a statement, saying, “Donald Trump doesn’t make the debate schedule; the debate commission does. Trump chose today to pull out of the Oct. 15 debate. Trump’s erratic behavior does not allow him to rewrite the calendar, and pick new dates of his choosing.”
Then, after Trump’s doctor cleared him to return to “public engagements,” Trump’s team requested to move forward with the in-person debate on Oct. 15th. The AP reported that the chair of the CPD said “it is not reconsidering shifting the second debate from virtual back to in-person, despite a request from President Donald Trump’s team,” and on Friday, the CPD announced the second debate was cancelled.
Instead of the second debate, both presidential candidates will be participating in town halls that same evening. (Biden first announced his event and then Trump followed suit.) NBC News will be hosting the town hall in Miami with Trump, moderated by “Today” anchor Savannah Guthrie, while ABC News will be hosting a town hall in Philadelphia with Biden, moderated by anchor George Stephanopoulos. Both events begin at 8 p.m. ET.
But even before Trump contracted COVID-19, some people were calling for an end to the debates. In case you somehow missed it, the first presidential debate was decidedly unpresidential, with Trump constantly interrupting Biden and both candidates trading barbs throughout the night. The messy and chaotic evening led to a handful of headlines like “Just Cancel the Last Two Debates. America Has Suffered Enough,” and “After That Fiasco, Biden Should Refuse to Debate Trump Again.” However the Washington Post reported that, after the event, Biden’s top advisors confirmed he would participate in the other two scheduled debates.
Did Trump try to change the debate schedule before?
In August, Trump’s campaign did ask the CPD to adjust its debate schedule, arguing that the current dates would not be helpful for many people who would be voting early by mail due to the pandemic. The campaign requested the line-up include a fourth, earlier debate in September or for the CPD to move the final October debate to the first week in September. The CPD rejected the campaign’s request.
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The commission wrote in its response letter to Trump’s campaign, “While more people will likely vote by mail in 2020, the debate schedule has been and will be highly publicized. Any voter who wishes to watch one or more debates before voting will be well aware of that opportunity.”
Michael P. McDonald, a political science professor who studies American elections, told the New York Times that while millions of voters should have received their ballots by the first debate, based on his research, “far fewer people will have actually voted by that time.” He also argued that very early voters are not likely to “be swayed” by the debates.
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