Andrew S. Roe-Crines


Ahead of the first Presidential debate of the 2020 general election campaign, there was a growing sense of anticipation amongst pundits and commentators about what to expect as Donald Trump and Joe Biden met. It was always going to be a strange affair given the impact of social distancing brought about by the coronavirus crisis currently gripping the world. The reduced size of the audience to 70 made the usual interactions between candidates and their supporters harder. However, even within that context, the debate didn't disappoint in terms of the pure theatrics and drama that the audiences in the venue and observing around the world was set to witness.


There are a few rhetorical conventions which remained intact despite the global crisis. For example, audience expectations and the core messages each would want to communicate. Put simply each candidate had a simple message they wanted to convey to supporters and the relatively small group of undecided voters. Over recent years the voters have had ample opportunity to formulate an opinion of both candidates putting themselves forward for the Presidency. 


For example, Trump's character is well established. He is a President who hasn't shied away from giving his opinion on sensitive issues forcefully and dramatically. Meanwhile, Biden's record as Vice President to Barack Obama means voters are already familiar with his style of communication and progressive attitudes. Consequently, many voters have been able to make up their minds on who to vote for well in advance of the debate (although not all). Indeed, given this the opportunities for changing the voting intentions of firmly decided members of the electorate are unlikely. 


So rather than being an exchange of perspectives or ideals which may be customary in the Presidential debates of old, we were instead 'treated' to a piece of political theatre based on 'one-upmanship'. The aim is to undermine, ridicule, and demean their opponent for the appeal of their supporters, thereby demonstrating their rhetorical strength. For Trump, this means pushing his core attack lines that Biden is simply unfit for office due to declining cognitive abilities.


This is framed for his base as 'Sleepy Joe' which carries with it the implication that Biden is losing his intellectual abilities. In contrast, for Biden the aim to push the perception that Trump is an unfit leader based on his style and mannerisms. This is framed by describing Trump as the 'worst' President in US history based on perceived deficiencies personality and 'greed'. 


In contrast, they will be wanting to communicate a positive of themselves whilst attacking their opponents. Each candidate has a very different conception of what America is or should be. For Trump, it is about a low tax, low intervention economy that encourages enterprise in all sectors, whilst for Biden, it is higher taxes to fund investment in social services aimed at helping the poorest members of society. These reflect elements of their character that they want to communicate. Indeed, each of these is representative of a broader strategy of appealing to their core voters whilst simultaneously trying to appeal to the small but vital group of undecided voters in key states who are likely to 'swing' the outcome in either candidate's favour. 


To do this both figures would need to try and find a message likely to appeal to that group of undecided voters. They don't need to be overly concerned about their bases because they will support them regardless of what arguments they make given the alternative candidate is ideologically toxic to them. But for that narrow group of undecided voters, they will be asking which candidate is most deserving of their support. 


Finally, it is worth reflecting on the purpose of the debate and how the study of rhetoric can help inform a few conclusions on how it contributes to the US democratic process. Put simply, many audiences rarely remember the bulk of a speech or message in a debate. Even now (only a few hours after the debate ended) the specifics of the arguments will be fading in the minds of the viewers. However, the lasting imprint of the debate will be on how each candidate made the observers feel. For Trump, he wants his supporters to feel energized and angry at the prospect of losing the election to electoral fraud. For Biden, he wants his supporters to feel optimistic but also nervous about what a future Trump victory may look like. These feelings on both sides will be used to push forward campaigns and the sense of urgency felt by each side.


This raises a few concluding perspectives on the purpose of these debates. What are they for? How are they being used? And do they help inform voters of the choice on November 3rd? Put simply, the debates are unlikely to inform undecided voters on any policy difference between the two candidates. That is not the purpose of the debates. Indeed, those discussions are more likely to be taking place on the (virtual) doorstep rather than in the Presidential debate. Rather, it's all about emotion and the danger of the 'other side' winning.


Consequently, as we look to the next debate, we shouldn't expect much of a difference in the aims of both candidates to communicate their senses of urgency and attempts to undermine their opponent in any way possible. Ultimately, therefore it's theatre and drama rather than an exchange of perspectives or ideology.


Author biography

Dr Andrew S. Roe-Crines is a Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Liverpool and is a member of the Political Studies Association. He tweets at @AndrewCrines. Image credit: Screenshot.