Biden and Trump Face Off: How to Watch the First Presidential Debate and What to Watch For

Tuesday night's debate promises to be like no other

Joe Biden and Trump
Former Vice President Joe Biden (left) and President Donald Trump.

No handshakes, a few dozen audience members and two candidates on stage, answering Chris Wallace's questions: That's what the first presidential debate — and the first amid the COVID-19 pandemic — will look like on Tuesday night when President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden face off.

The election-season tradition is expected to be as widely watched as before, with 74 percent of voters in one poll saying they plan to tune in. (About 74 million people, on average, watched the Trump debates with Hillary Clinton in 2016, according to The New York Times.)

But in other ways, this debate promises to be like no other.

The novel coronavirus required new health protocols that limited the number of in-person attendees to about 70, all of whom will be tested, according to CNN. The candidates will also not shake hands, though they will be unmasked as they answer questions and discuss topics, Fox News reports.

The first debate — indeed, the first consequential time that Biden, 77, and Trump, 74, have been in a room together as politicians — comes as the presidential race enters its final weeks, with voting already underway in some parts of the country.

The president trails Biden in national polling, as he has for months, and in many key states.

The debates offer an enormous audience for campaign appeals, though surveys suggest many voters have already made up their minds or don't foresee the match-ups persuading them either way.

“I think they’re both kind of wild cards — you never really know what’s gonna come out their mouths — and we’re gonna put them on TV and have them debate each other? I think it’s gonna make for some pretty entertaining TV,” one voter told The Wall Street Journal.

Here's what you need to know about how to watch the first presidential debate, what it will cover and what to watch for.

Joe Biden, Trump
Former Vice President Joe Biden (left) and President Donald Trump. OLIVIER DOULIERY/Getty Images; BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/Getty Images)

When It Starts and How to Watch

The first presidential debate begins at 9 p.m. ET Tuesday and will air across the major networks and online.

It will be broadcast from Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland.

The debate will last 90 minutes without commercial interruption.

Who Is Moderating?

Fox News' Chris Wallace will be questioning both candidates at Tuesday's debate and facilitating the discussion between them.

Wallace, the Fox News Sunday anchor, a longtime star of Fox's news division and son of 60 Minutes' Mike Wallace, has said he'll stick to the issues at hand, while debate officials cautioned against the idea of real-time fact-checking.

“My job is to be as invisible as possible,” Wallace has said on his show. “I’m trying to get them to engage, to focus on the key issues, to give people at home a sense of ‘why I want to vote for one versus the other.’ "

Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., co-chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates, told CNN that “we don’t expect Chris or our other moderators to be fact-checkers. The minute the TV is off, there are going to be plenty of fact-checkers in every newspaper and every television station in the world. That’s not the role, the main role, of our moderators.”

Wallace previously moderated a 2016 debate against Clinton and Trump.

USA Today's Susan Page will moderate the vice-presidential debate next week, on Oct. 7; Steve Scully, of C-SPAN, will moderate the Oct. 15 presidential debate, a town hall; and NBC News' Kristen Welker will moderate the final debate, on Oct. 22.

Chris Wallace
Chris Wallace moderating a 2016 presidential debate. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

What Are the Topics?

According to the commission, Wallace selected the six topics for Tuesday's debate, each of which will be discussed in 15-minute segments. (That means there will be no opening statements.)

The six topics are — not necessarily in this order — the candidates' respective records; the Supreme Court; COVID-19; the economy; ″race and violence in our cities″; and election integrity.

The topics are almost all drawn from the news cycle as the campaign is in its final phase. The pandemic and the economy slowdown it caused as well as the president's handling of both have been key to Biden's campaign argument, while Trump has focused on the recent vacancy on the Supreme Court, nominating Amy Coney Barrett to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg after the latter's death this month.

Trump has also repeatedly falsely attacked the legitimacy of mail-in voting and said he might not accept the results of an election he lost, much as he did in 2016.

Wallace's framing on the topic of national protests and unrest has reportedly drawn criticism from some Democrats given how they say it conflates, as the Trump campaign has, frequently peaceful demonstrations against police misconduct and injustice with the periodic spasms of violence and destruction seen in some cities.

The debate commission announced Wallace's selected topics before a weekend exposé by The New York Times on Trump's taxes, which will almost certainly come up Tuesday night.

According to Fox News, Biden and Trump will each have two minutes to answer Wallace's question on a given topic and then Wallace will structure the ensuing discussion.

“As always, the moderators alone will select the questions to be asked and those questions are not known to the candidates, the campaigns or the commission,″ a commission spokesman previously said, according to Fox News. ″The moderators will have the ability to extend each segment, focusing on equal time for the candidates.”

Trump will take the first question after winning a coin toss.

What Should You Watch For?

It's unclear the extent to which the debates may change voters' minds: Recent polls have shown voters saying the face-offs will not be key in a decision and this year's race has been much more stable than in 2016.

That poses a challenge for Trump, given how long he has trailed his rival as the election date draws closer and closer.

The president has tried to cast Biden as both an enfeebled figurehead — ″Sleepy Joe" — and a puppet for more radical left-wing lawmakers. By contrast, Biden has repeatedly hammered Trump on his much scrutinized handling of the coronavirus, which has killed more than 200,000 people in the U.S. and which the president knowingly downplayed.

Trump adopted a provocative, spontaneous style — even bizarre, according to his detractors — in his 2016 debates with Clinton and, as with four years ago, he has eschewed rigorous debate prep.

Joe Biden, Kamala Harris
President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris during the 2020 campaign. Drew Angerer/Getty Images
donald trump
President Donald Trump. MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty

Biden, who faced other candidates frequently throughout the 2016 Democratic primary in addition to his previous appearances as a presidential and vice presidential candidate, has reportedly been more focused on it. He has a history as a strong debater in his decades as a lawmaker, though observers note he sometimes struggled to take command on the crowded stages of the 2020 primary debates and occasionally gave meandering or contradictory answers.

Trump, too, raises eyebrows with his penchant for incendiary personal insults and misleading or false statements.

″The place he is most uncomfortable is on the facts,″ Biden has said. ″The place he’s most uncomfortable is in the area of what he’s going to do. The place he’s most uncomfortable is knowing the policy. He’s one of the most ill-informed presidents substantively that I’ve ever worked with.″

Most recently, Trump said that both candidates should take a drug test because Biden must be using a substance to aid him. (He made a similar assertion in 2016.)

″If you go back and watch some of those numerous debates, he was so bad," Trump told the Washington Examiner of Biden in August. ″He wasn't even coherent.″

The Biden camp's response?

″Vice President Biden intends to deliver his debate answers in words. If the president thinks his best case is made in urine he can have at it," a spokeswoman said last weekend. "We’d expect nothing less from Donald Trump, who pissed away the chance to protect the lives of 200K Americans when he didn't make a plan to stop COVID-19."

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