3 reasons why Thursday’s presidential debate between Biden and Trump will be different than past matchups

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The presidential debate Thursday evening will feature two candidates who are very familiar to voters, but it will also include a lot of “firsts” when President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump take the stage in Atlanta, Georgia.

Watch the first presidential debate of the 2024 election live on WTOP.com starting at 9 p.m. 

It will be the first televised debate held this early in the campaign — more than four months before the election in November.

No other debate in U.S history has been held this early. Major debates in the past have always taken place after the national political conventions, but those are still weeks away.

While there has been considerable buildup to the debate, will undecided voters still consider how it played out months from now? Or could it provide a slight bump in the polls that alters the trajectory of the campaign?

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-VA, who took part in a national debate with former Vice President Mike Pence in 2016 as Hillary Clinton’s Democratic running mate, said he supports the early debate date.

“I think one of the reasons that’s smart is people vote earlier than they used to,” Kaine said. “In Virginia, we now have 45 days of early voting in September, so voting starts in mid-September.”

Kaine notes that in the past, debates would pack the fall calendar.

First for White House candidates

This debate will mark the first time that a sitting president and a former president will take part in a televised debate.

It will also be the first debate featuring candidates this old.

Biden is 81 and Trump is 78, making them the oldest major-party candidates to run for the White House.

While Trump is nearly the same age as the current president, for months, he and his campaign sought to portray Biden as inept and confused.

But the message has changed ahead of the debate, with Trump suggesting — without evidence — that Biden might take some unspecified performance enhancer to show more energy.

House Speaker Mike Johnson alluded to Trump’s comments when he spoke with reporters on Wednesday.

“Everybody wants to know, which Joe Biden is going to show up?” Johnson said. “Look, my summary is this — it doesn’t matter if he drinks a whole gallon of energy drinks, he’s not going to be able to match the acumen and the readiness of Donald Trump.”

While the Trump campaign has downplayed his debate preparations, the White House has made it clear the president is doing a lot of preparation with staff while at Camp David.

Biden is expected to stress his fight for democracy and abortion rights, as well as what he’s done for the economy.

Trump is likely to try to hammer Biden on issues involving immigration and the U.S. southern border, as well as crime and issues related to inflation.

Debate rules will be different

During their first debate in 2020, Trump repeatedly interrupted Biden, which even Trump’s advisers later acknowledged didn’t reflect well on the candidate.

At one point in that debate, an exasperated Biden said, “Will you shut up, man?”

But CNN, which will air Thursday’s debate, has set some strict ground rules.

The microphones of each candidate will cut off after they speak, so there will be less chance of interruptions. Also — and perhaps most significantly — there will be no studio audience.

Trump has often played to the audience in the past, so that could affect the tone of the debate.

The candidates will not be allowed to have pre-written notes in front of them at the outset of the debate, though they will have a pen and paper if they want to jot down notes as it moves forward.

The 90-minute debate will be simulcast on WTOP-FM and you can watch it on WTOP.com, starting at 9 p.m. Thursday.

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Mitchell Miller

Mitchell Miller has worked at WTOP since 1996, as a producer, editor, reporter and Senior News Director. After working "behind the scenes," coordinating coverage and reporter coverage for years, Mitchell moved back to his first love -- reporting. He is now WTOP's Capitol Hill reporter.

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