Biden and Trump's first 2024 debate will be different from any other in recent memory

  • Joe Biden and Donald Trump are set to debate Thursday night.

  • Their face-off is the earliest major debate on record.

  • There are other notable changes, including commercial breaks and no studio audience.

President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump are set to face off Thursday night in the earliest major presidential debate on record.

Both men enter their first face-off of 2024 locked into a race that remains very tight. According to RealClearPolitics' polling averages, Trump holds narrow leads in key swing states that could decide the race.

In an era where Americans watch few live events besides football, the evening offers each campaign a chance to get its message in front of millions.

Here are the vital facts you need to know before Thursday night's debate.

When is it and how can I watch it?

The first presidential debate of the 2024 election is scheduled for Thursday at 9 p.m. ET. CNN will host the debate, but all major broadcast and cable networks will offer simulcasts. You can also stream the debate on Max. If you can't access the debate any of those ways, CNN is also streaming it on its website here. You don't even need a cable login.

The debate will last 90 minutes.

Donald Trump looks at Joe Biden during the final 2020 presidential debate
Trump, the president at the time, and Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee at the time, during the final debate of the 2020 election season.Morry Gash-Pool/Getty Images

How is this debate different?

Beyond taking place in the summer, this debate will differ from any other recent memory. Instead of a live audience, Trump and Biden will square off at CNN's studios in Atlanta. There will be moderators, but both campaigns effectively killed off the bipartisan organization that has hosted debates for years. So CNN chose its anchors Jake Tapper and Dana Bash.

At Biden team's urging, CNN has pledged to mute the mic of the candidate who's not speaking. You might recall that in 2020, Biden asked then-President Trump, "Will you shut up man?" during their raucous first debate. The first debate was considered by just about everyone involved to be an abject disaster.

Trump is set to get the last word this time since Biden elected to choose his podium position after winning a coin toss. There will be no opening statements.

Wait, there are going to be commercials?

Yes, there will be two commercial breaks. This, too, is a major departure from traditional debates.

What about fact-checking?

The CNN correspondent Daniel Dale rose to fame fact-checking Trump, but don't expect him, Tapper, or Bash to chime in during the debate. David Chalian, CNN's political director, told The New York Times that the debate "is not the ideal arena for live fact-checking." The fact-checking will have to wait until after the debate.

Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
The independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. did not qualify for the debate.Kena Betancur/AFP via Getty Images

What's Robert F. Kennedy Jr. going to be doing?

It's not clear yet. We know he won't be joining the two presidents on the stage. CNN confirmed that Kennedy failed to reach its twin thresholds of 15% in four selected national polls and qualifying for the requisite number of ballots in each state. The billionaire attorney and philanthropist Nicole Shanahan, Kennedy's running mate, has promised "a few surprises" with their own live broadcast.

Kennedy's campaign is in a critical moment. He previously announced that he raised less money in May than in any month this year, mainly due to Shanahan's decision to tap into less of her fortune. The noted vaccine skeptic is also in the thick of trying to qualify for the ballot in all 50 states.

A third-party presidential hopeful hasn't made a debate stage since 1992, so Kennedy's failure is far from unprecedented.

How is Trump approaching the debate?

After years of suggesting Biden is too feeble to do the job, Trump has been slightly complimentary of the man who beat him in the 2020 election.

Republicans seem to recognize that setting the bar for Biden's performance at practically not dying on the stage is, uh, a low bar. So instead, Trump is engaged in the very traditional game of trying to shape the media narrative before the showdown begins.

What about Biden?

Biden has spent days prepping for the debate at Camp David, the presidential retreat. History shows that incumbent presidents typically struggle in the first debate, a fact that both former President Barack Obama and Trump can attest to. Biden's lawyer Bob Bauer was expected to reprise his role as the former president in mock debates. The former White House chief of staff Ron Klain, who has prepped Democrats for general-election debates for decades, is taking time off from his new perch at Airbnb to help as well.

What topics can we expect?

Only Tapper, Bash, and a few select people at CNN know the exact questions. That being said, a few issues seem almost guaranteed to come up. Polls show that Americans have deep concerns about Biden's age. Some national polls have also showed support for Trump dropping slightly in the wake of him becoming the first former president to be convicted of a felony. Tapper has also grilled Republicans who, like Trump, continue to try to raise doubts about the 2020 election. The former president never directly conceded the race.

Trump's comeback campaign is also surging because of views about the US economy. Traditional metrics show Biden has much to be proud of, but while inflation has cooled, voters are still angry about high prices. Voters are also deeply skeptical of Biden's immigration policies, one of the biggest areas of disagreement between the two presidential contenders.

Wasn't it possible there would be no debates?

Yes, that was a very real possibility. In 2022, The Republican National Committee formally withdrew from the Commission on Presidential Debates after years of tensions with the organization that had organized general-election debates since 1988. It became an open question of how debates would move forward this time.

Trump, who easily dispatched his primary opponents, began goading Biden into debating him anyplace and anytime. In late April, Biden told the radio host Howard Stern he would debate Trump. Weeks later, Biden's campaign delivered the final blow to the commission, confirming that Biden would not participate in any of its scheduled debates. The president's team said the debates had become too unruly and were scheduled too late in the calendar.

Trump and Biden then quickly agreed on the CNN debate and another contest in September, operating without any help from the commission. The pair haven't agreed to a third debate. Traditionally, the commission held two formal debates and one town-hall-style debate.

What's next after the debate?

Both sides are set to campaign on Friday. Biden will be in North Carolina. Trump will be in Virginia, a state that hasn't gone for the GOP in a presidential election since 2004. Trump is optimistic he can expand the list of swing states.

At least one more debate is on the calendar; ABC News plans to host a September 10 debate. Vice President Kamala Harris and Trump's yet-to-be-named running mate are also expected to debate. They haven't settled on one network to host that debate.

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