UPDATED, with additional details: The first presidential debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden likely will be the most watched political event of the cycle so far, but it’s the aftermath of the debate that will be almost as important as what they say and what they do.
The minutes, hours and days afterward will see an avalanche of analysis, polling and other data to try to frame who won and who lost. Key moments will get played and shared, and even debate moderator Chris Wallace will be scrutinized for his framing of questions and his control over the proceedings.
There will be no shortage of ways to watch the debate, which starts at 9 PM ET at Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic. All the major broadcast and cable news networks will carry the feed, while it will be shown on platforms ranging from Roku to Twitter.
The first debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016 drew 84 million viewers, setting a record. Given the stakes this time around, there’s similar expectation of a blockbuster audience. The election has been framed as the most important of our lifetimes, but voters also are less undecided, more polarized and probably pretty exhausted.
There will be no spin room at the debate due to COVID-19, but the campaigns will be out in force to try to frame the event to their advantage. Already on Monday, Donald Trump’s campaign reportedly sent out talking points, including one that capitalizes on general grievance over “fake news”: “The media are going to declare Biden the winner. We already know that.”
Here’s what to look out for in the aftermath of the presidential debate:
Fact checking. Moderator Wallace already has indicated what his role will be on Tuesday night and what it will not be. He said Sunday on his Fox News show that he wants to be as “invisible as possible” and that “if I’ve done my job right, at the end of the night, people will say, ‘That was a great debate, who was the moderator?’”
That will be disappointing to those who expect Wallace to step in to correct or call out Trump (or Biden, for that matter). Wallace drew praise for real-time fact-checking of Trump during a July sit-down, but the Fox News Sunday anchor is not an interviewer at the debate, he’s a moderator.
“The general rule of thumb is not to get too deep in the woods on these things during the live event because fact-checking so often requires a nuanced look at various aspects of a complex issue that can unfold over a long period of time, with potentially conflicting interpretations,” said Alan Schroeder, author of Presidential Debates: Risky Business on the Campaign Trail. “In other words, the very concept of a thorough and fair fact-check is at odds with the moderator’s role as a television presenter who must keep the program flowing.”
That will leave the fact-checking to the media, and they will get to work soon after the debate is over. CNN’s Daniel Dale has been doing it for some time, and it’s expected to be a centerpiece of post-debate analysis on other networks as well. Dale will be doing real-time fact-checking on social media and CNN.com. Major Garrett will be fact-checking for CBS News.
While there has been some suggestion of doing a running fact-checking ticker throughout the debate, one of the debate organizers, Frank Fahrenkopf, co-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates, rejected that approach. Plenty of journalists can handle that role once the debate is over, he said.
There have been exceptions. Back in 2012, CNN’s Candy Crowley moderated one of the debates between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney and caught some flak for correcting one of Romney’s claims about Benghazi.
Schroeder considers what happened that year as a “cautionary example” of what happened when a moderator serves as a kind of umpire.
The lack of such fact checks during the debate “will frustrate a lot of viewers, I’m sure, especially with a fact-averse debater like Trump, but the moderator of a live debate cannot be all things to all people,” he said.
Polls, surveys, data. The prevailing question in the aftermath of the debate will be, who won? To answer, some networks have relied in part on post-debate “instant polls,” surveys done of debate viewers and reported within a couple of hours of the event. For ABC News, FiveThirtyEight is surveying voters before and after the debate for an Ipsos poll.
CNN and Public Policy Polling conducted these polls four years ago, with a representative sample of debate watchers, but they should not be confused with another type of survey. Those are the online “flash” polls posted by media organizations where anyone can click and vote (and vote again) for who they think won the debate. Trump cited these in 2016 to try to claim victory, but the surveys aren’t worth much. They are unscientific, for one, and probably are a better reflection of a website’s fan base than voter sentiment.
Even the scientific polling immediately after the debate as a snapshot of sentiment at that moment. As additional polling is done over the next few days, those opinions can change, as certain moments from the events are highlighted in the wave of post-debate punditry. This is going back a ways, but after a 1976 debate, instant polls showed that Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford did equally well. But in the days that followed, the polling began to change, as much of the media attention focused on Ford’s gaffe, when he said there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.
Networks also are planning focus-group-like gatherings to gauge viewer impressions. An example: PBS NewsHour‘s Amna Nawaz will interview a panel of voters as part of its coverage. Frank Luntz, the longtime focus group expert, will be conducting one with undecided voters from ket swing states.
Pundits. The networks are offering hours of post-debate takes, yet another opportunity for news organizations to show off their political teams.
Viewers can expect many pundits of all political stripes. For example, ABC News has lined up Rahm Emanuel, Yvette Simpson and Sara Fagen, along with Chris Christie, who has been involved in Trump’s debate preparations. Fox News will have contributors including Donna Brazile, Karl Rove and Katie Pavlich in addition to Brit Hume, Dana Perino and Juan Williams. CBS News will feature Reince Priebus and Valerie Jarrett.
MSNBC landed a pundit with perhaps the best expertise in what it means to take on Trump: Hillary Clinton. She’ll appear on a pre-show.
Saturday Night Live. The season premiere is this week, and if the past is any guide, the debate will be front and center.
The show has a gift for satirizing candidates’ flaws or strange mannerisms in ways that magnify debate moments. Campaigns are sensitive to it. In 2000, Al Gore reportedly was shown an SNL sketch of his first debate performance, depicting him as a know-it-all intellectual obsessed with putting Social Security in a “lockbox.” “A few less signs, absolutely,” Gore said afterward. Four years ago, an SNL skit mocked the way that Trump creeped up on Clinton during their second debate, done in the aftermath of the release of the Access Hollywood tape.
That’s not to say that SNL sways public impressions of the candidates, but can caricature aspects of the candidates that prove hard for them to shake.
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