First Trump-Biden TV Debate: Looks Speak Louder Than Words

On June 27, former President Donald Trump and incumbent Joe Biden faced off in a TV debate. Both candidates were asked questions on a wide range of policy issues, ranging from the economy to immigration. However, the long-awaited debate fell short of being a platform where policies could properly compete, leaving more questions than answers for many American voters. While each side tried to claim the better result, many Americans questioned if this was the best their country could offer.

Given the ages of both candidates, the TV debate almost turned into a health check showdown in the eyes of voters. How the candidates stood on stage emerged as a more important signal than their words. Thus the delivery, rather than the content, of their messages resonated more with voters. Biden’s health issues were evident from the moment he took the floor. It was not surprising that many wondered if Biden would be able to make it through another four years in office. Yet the consequences of Trump’s unpredictable character are another matter of concern for many voters.

While televised debates are a common practice in American politics, the recent debate was unusual given its timing. Held in June, months before the presidential election, the first debate lacked substantial policy discussions for voters. However, having the TV debate take place so early could benefit the candidates throughout the rest of their campaigns. In a way, the debate will surely provide an early opportunity for damage control for both candidates. Lessons learned at this stage will be instructive for shaping the future direction of their campaign strategies.

Such TV debates often shift into a showcase for candidates to prove how their personality is suitable for the presidency, rather than convincing voters of their policies. In a politically polarized society, it is already difficult to convince large audiences through just a few television debates. And in the age of multiple channels of mass communication, there are many tools and mediums available for candidates to reach voters. In this sense, TV debates turn into a mental battle where the candidates’ stances and judgments are tested. American voters saw this firsthand during last night’s debate, and the results were not promising.

Role of negative campaigning

Negative campaigning methods aimed at demobilizing the opponent’s voter base seems to be at the very center of campaign strategies during this US campaign season. The primary objective is not winning over voters from the opposite side, but rather wearing down their political stamina and enthusiasm, discouraging them from going to the polls. The first TV debate was yet another example of this trend, as neither candidate seemed to convince voters to change their minds or preferences in favor of the opposite camp.

The Trump campaign has long pursued a strategy targeting Biden’s physical and mental health while claiming Trump is in quite good health. And Trump was not hesitant to exploit this on the stage. The Biden campaign, on the other hand, focused on Trump’s legal issues, highlighting his status as a convicted felon. In May, in a New York court, Trump was found guilty of all 34 criminal counts in a hush money trial. Despite claims of politicization of the legal process, after the verdict both candidates pointed to the ballots. Trump said, “The real verdict is going to be on Nov. 5, by the people,” while Biden said, “The only way to keep Trump out of the Oval Office is through the ballot box.”

It is still too early to predict the election’s outcome, though Trump appears to lead by a slight margin in most polls. And such public debates are risky, with ample room for self-destruction. In such settings, what matters most is who suffers the least damage. At the end of the day, voters witnessed a stumbling Biden alongside a sharp Trump on the debate stage.

This article was first published by Anadolu Agency on 28.06.2024.

 Bekir İlhan is a researcher at the Türkiye Research Foundation.

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