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What last week’s presidential debate could mean for the 2024 election

Last Thursday, former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden debated for the first time since the 2020 election season, resulting in many false claims from Trump and a performance by Biden that left some Democrats anxious about his campaign. 

The debate was streamed live from Atlanta on CNN with no live studio audience, but there are other reasons it was unorthodox compared to previous ones.

It was the earliest debate ever in a presidential race, and neither candidate has been officially nominated by their respective parties. Additionally, CNN decided to mute each candidate’s microphone after their time was up to prevent crosstalk, which was prevalent in 2020.

The two candidates spent nearly two minutes of the 90 arguing about who was a better golfer, leaving Americans with their heads in their hands.

This photo taken from a screen shows the first presidential debate between US President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump in the CNN studio in Atlanta. The first pre-election debate between current US President Joe Biden and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump will be held on June 27 without spectators or reporters in the CNN studio in Atlanta. (Photo by Artem Priakhin / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

Could this impact the election?

UNF political science professor Sean Freeder explained that historically, debates don’t usually have much impact on an election.

However, in extreme cases where one candidate performs exceptionally well or poorly, debates may significantly impact election outcomes. 

”This is one of those few situations where we may have one candidate that performed so extraordinarily poorly that this could actually impact the election results in the future,” Freeder said. 

Freeder added that while this could be the case, many people have already decided who they’re voting for in November.

This was the first presidential debate between a current and former president, so people have a better idea of what to expect if either were to retake office.

According to Freeder, if anyone was swayed last Thursday, it was middle-of-the-road independent voters. He said this small percentage of voters probably didn’t tune into the debate. 

“The 3 to 5% of voters this would sway did not watch the debate last night. They don’t have enough interest in politics to actually pay attention,” Freeder said. 

He said these voters may be influenced more by the media. 

“They might not have watched the debate, but they may now be aware of headlines saying the results of the debate, which is: Biden struggled,” Freeder said. 

Freeder said the debate may also decrease turnout for Democratic voters, increasing Trump’s chances in this election; but ultimately, it’s too soon to tell.

“We’re four months away from the election, so by the time we hit October, I think everyone will have forgotten about this event,” Freeder said. “But if there’s more debates … I would expect we’re looking at a very similar performance.”

Could Biden be replaced as the Democratic candidate?

Democrats were worried after Thursday’s debate, and some major party donors even talked about nominating a different candidate. But could the Democratic Party replace Biden at this stage in the campaign? Freeder says it’s unlikely but not impossible.

“It is possible for them to switch candidates at this stage,” Freeder said. “But it would be a very risky and very difficult thing for them to do.” 

Freeder explained that a candidate switch at this stage would be unprecedented.

Biden’s delegates are now legally bound to vote for him at the DNC unless his name is off the list of contenders. In short, Biden would have to step aside and agree to be replaced. 

But who would replace him? Freeder said he couldn’t make any predictions, but the hypothetical replacement would likely be Vice President Kamala Harris. 

“Because they don’t have enough time to run another national primary election, it would be really likely that that replacement person would be Vice President Harris,” he said. “I’m closer to saying that could happen than I have ever been at any point in the past.”

The DNC will take place August 19 to 22.

“The worst in all of American history”

Something both Biden and Trump called one another during the debate.

During their exchange, Biden said Trump was the worst president in all American history, citing a political science study in which 154 political scientists ranked every American president from best to worst.

The study’s 2024 results rank Trump as the least great president. Even conservative and Republican respondents ranked Trump in the bottom five slots, on average.

Trump was also found to be the most polarizing president in a landslide. 

Freeder said this study and its results are legitimate measures of expert opinion.

“This is political scientists saying that there’s a real danger to a second Trump administration,” Freeder said. “I would feel bad if I didn’t make it clear that as awful as Biden’s performance truly was last night, [but] virtually all political scientists consider Trump to be an existential threat to the country.”

Freeder also shared more presidential ranking studies. The Siena College Research Institute conducts its presidential rankings survey halfway through each new president’s first term. 

Trump ranked 43rd in the 2022 and 2018 rounds, while Joe Biden ranked 19th in 2022.

Like the Presidential Greatness Project, SCRI’s survey respondents consist of historians and political experts.

What’s the point of debates?

Freeder said there seems to be more focus on the optics of presidential debates than on their substance.

Most headlines have focused on Biden’s poor performance and “advanced age,” while other countries’ media have described the debate as a “reality show.”

“Debates are toxic to our political discourse,” Freeder said.  “Trump, almost everything he said was an exaggeration [or] an outright lie. The substance of what he said was completely wrong, but that won’t be the headline.”

The Associated Press published a fact-check of Thursday night’s debate.

In response to the narrative that this debate was a triumph for Trump and a loss for Biden, Freeder said they both did terribly.

“I probably represent my fellow political scientists on this one—I’ve never been more embarrassed in my life for this country as [I was] watching the debate last night,” he said.

Freeder feels that America is “in a pretty dark place right now” and emphasizes that debates don’t serve the attention of modern voters. 

“If we were … a better society at this point, debates would be useful,” Freeder said. “But if people don’t watch them, and all they do is watch five-second clips the next day of people stumbling and making weird faces, I don’t know what the point of debates is.”

Biden and Trump’s second debate will be live on ABC on Sept. 10 at 9 p.m. EST.


For more information or news tips, or if you see an error in this story or have any compliments or concerns, contact [email protected].

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Madelyn Schneider
Madelyn Schneider, News Editor

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