WASHINGTON – The last-minute decision to mute microphones during parts of the final presidential debate has injected a new element of uncertainty into a high-stakes political event that could be a watershed moment for President Donald Trump.
Following a widely controversial debate on September 29, in which Trump repeatedly interrupted Democrat Joe Biden, the Presidential Debates Commission said it would mute each candidate’s microphone for two minutes while their rival was answering questions – a move described by experts as unprecedented in a general election. presidential debate.
“Anytime a major new rule like this makes its debut, it’s going to create some uncertainty,” said Aaron Kall, debate director at the University of Michigan.
The move sparked a furious debate over whether the move would lower the temperature of a particularly vitriolic and divisive presidential campaign and whether it would benefit Trump or Biden more. Because he’s in the polls, Trump has more at stake in the final debate than Biden, who has the luxury of simply trying to maintain the current status quo.
Mute:Mics will be muted for parts of the final presidential debate
Facts:Watch the debate with live fact-checking by USA TODAY’s team of experts
At times, such as in the first debate, and then in a recent town hall on NBC News, this state of affairs has led Trump to adopt a much more combative posture than Biden, appearing to be agitated by difficult questions posed by moderators as well as by criticism launched by his opponent. Biden, on the other hand, adopted what was initially seen as an insult from a Trump campaign advisor: that the former vice president’s style came as an episode of the Mr. Rogers children’s TV show. ‘Neighborhood.
The decision to mute microphones during parts of the debate is unlikely to impact this dynamic, experts have said.
Republicans already envisioned the final debate, set for 9 p.m. ET on Thursday, as perhaps Trump’s last chance to reset a campaign in which polls show most of the main battlefield states are lagging behind. While Trump aides have criticized the microphone’s decision as “unfair,” even some critics of the president have acknowledged that it could work to his advantage.
Aid to Trump had already been signaling for several days that the campaign wanted the president to give Biden more leeway to speak – not only as part of an effort to soften Trump’s image, but also to give Biden more leeway. latitude to make an unforced error.
An official with knowledge of the campaign’s debate strategy, speaking on condition of anonymity, said aides urged Trump to continue to be “aggressive” while adopting a strategy of “change” that boils down to less interruptions.
It remains to be seen whether Trump will take that advice, however, the person acknowledged, although officials have predicted Trump would be more reluctant.
“Staff are encouraged to let Biden speak more,” the official said.
Others said the tactics may change due to the mute button decision, but there is no change in the overall strategy.
“I wouldn’t want him to change his strategy,” said former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer who helped prepare for the debate. “I want him to dominate the debate. I want him to be the strongest.”
Giuliani called the microphone’s decision unfair and said it undermines the credibility of the debate committee.
“Let them interrupt you,” he said. “If the idea is for a candidate to pay a price for it, fine.”
Impact on and off stage
Experts, including Kall, have predicted that the decision to mute the audio may have limited impact. Candidates will still be allowed to practice – and interrupt – during the open discussions, which will make up the majority of the 90-minute debate. And the microphones will be cut off at set times – at the start of each candidate’s response to a question – not arbitrarily.
“The problem, in general, is overblown,” Kall said.
Alan Schroeder, historian of the presidential debate and author of the book “Presidential Debates: Risky Business on the Campaign Trail”, said there was no precedent for turning off microphones because the problem had not arisen at the same time. degree in previous races.
But the mute feature, while historic, is unlikely to change the dynamic between Trump and Biden and is more aimed at those who watch at home, he said.
Frank Fahrenkopf, chairman of the debate committee, noted that the two campaigns agreed months ago that the first four minutes of an exchange would be non-stop. Both candidates, he said, violated this rule in the first debate. Speaking on Fox News, Fahrenkopf called the decision not a new rule, which would require negotiation with the campaigns, but the application of an old one.
Yet, observers say, the change could create a different dynamic on and off stage. For starters, it allows Trump to argue that the non-partisan commission is changing the terms in favor of Biden – even though some Republicans say it could, in fact, help Trump.
Ref:Trump already attacks moderator of final presidential debate
“If the president wants to be a jerk and hurt himself again, they should leave him,” said Brendan Buck, who worked for the formerRepublicanSpeakers of the House John Boehner and Paul Ryan. “There is no Trump-proof debate setup, and all of this only gives his campaign one more reason to claim the system is rigged against him.”
Trump not only balked at the rules of the debate, he also frequently attacked moderators. He described Thursday’s debate moderator Kristen Welker of NBC News as “extraordinarily unfair” this week. Not only did Welker’s colleagues come to her defense, but Trump himself congratulated her this year when she became co-host of the network’s Weekend Today program.
“They made a very wise decision,” Trump told Welker at the time.
“Thank you very much,” she replied. “Well, we invite you for an interview whenever you’re available.”
Applying the rules of debate can also lead to unforeseen drama on stage.
In perhaps the best-known case, former President Ronald Reagan complained about a cut-off microphone during a 1980 primary debate in New Hampshire. When the moderators attempted to mute the sound, Reagan stood up from the table, took the microphone in his hand and rang, “Is that on?” As the audience clapped and responded that it was, the moderator again requested that the audio be muted, Reagan responded, “I’m paying for this microphone.”
The audience roared with approval. The microphone has never been muted.
But in this case, Reagan’s aides had, in effect, borne the cost of the debate, giving the candidate control of the conditions of the event.
A question left largely unanswered by the committee is whether the current president or Biden will honor the code of silence for the first two minutes when his microphone is muted or use it as an opportunity to point Biden to the other side. from the scene, Schroeder said.
“He’s a president who doesn’t like being told what to do and what not to do,” he said. “And sometimes it’s her natural reaction to grow back in one form or another.”
Regardless of how the contestants deal with muted microphones, both will have a lot at stake in the final debate.
After Biden nationally in double digits in some polls, Trump may use his exchanges with Biden to broaden his appeal to suburban women and other key constituencies or echo the combative approach he used in the first debate to incite major supporters.
Facts:Watch the debate with live fact-checking by USA TODAY’s team of experts
Mute:Microphones to be muted during final debate after committee adopts new rules
Republican leaders have said they hope Trump will take the first path.
“This is his only chance,” said former Senator Judd Gregg, a Republican from New Hampshire, who rejected the strategy of appealing only to the Republican base in a debate attended by millions of voters. “You don’t win the election with 30-35% of the vote.”
For Biden, experts say, the goal is much simpler: do no harm.
With the momentum behind him, Biden must continue to send a leadership-focused message, observers said, and avoid the kind of “oops” blunder that haunted then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry at the time. ‘a debate in 2011. The former vice-president must also stay. focused on portfolio issues even as Trump launches into the attack, Democrats said.
“This is important as a moderator, but also for Biden and how he maintains control of his message while hitting key areas like health and the coronavirus,” said Amanda Renteria, political director of the 2016 campaign. ‘Hillary Clinton.
The former vice president said he supports disabling microphones so candidates can explain their positions
“I think it’s a good idea,” he told WISN-TV, an ABC subsidiary in Milwaukee. “I think there should be more boundaries so that we don’t interrupt each other.”
Ken Spain, a veteran GOP consultant, predicted that it would take a major unforced error on Biden’s part to change the trajectory of the election. It would also force Trump to focus on a compelling closing argument, which Spain said it has failed to do so far.
“At the moment the only person who can beat Joe Biden is Joe Biden,” Spain said.
Contributor: Bart Jansen