Tens of millions of Americans glued to their screens, an expectation at its height … The first debate Tuesday between Donald Trump and Joe Biden promises to be a major show event, even if its impact on the poll should remain limited , in an ultra-polarized climate with only a few undecided people.
The first Donald Trump-Hillary Clinton duel in September 2016 had a record audience of 84 million people: if Tuesday's numbers are similar, it will be more than triple the audience for speeches by the president and his challenger at conventions Republican and Democrat. Only the “Super Bowl” did better, with some 100 million viewers.
“It's a unique moment (…), the only moment when we see the two candidates together and the two major parties openly debating, outside Congress”, underlines John Koch, professor specializing in debates at the university Vanderbilt.
However, for spectators and Internet users bombarded with election advertisements for weeks, this duel is unlikely to have a decisive effect on the November 3 ballot, analysts say.
All recall how the former Secretary of State was deemed the winner of the three debates in 2016 – before losing the election.
This disconnection between the performance of the candidates and the outcome of the ballot does not date from the Trump era: Democrat John Kerry was also given the winner against outgoing President George W. Bush in 2004, to no avail.
The last time there was a debate over the polls was in 1984, with a joke by Ronald Reagan – then America's oldest president at 73 – about his rival's “youth and inexperience” helping him to win the ballot.
It must be said that, since the first American television duel in 1960, which pitted Richard Nixon against John F. Kennedy, the debates have become much less informative, indicates Michael Socolow, media historian at the University of Maine.
In 1976, Democrat Jimmy Carter could still “present new ideas” to incumbent President Gerald Ford, he said. Today, the spectators “know what (the candidates) are going to say before the debate takes place”, and the exercise is essentially “a show, which makes it possible to check whether (they) know their text well”.
Especially since the undecided – that these debates are intended to switch – “have become rare”, underlines John Koch.
In the absence of reversals, the debates nevertheless allow those slightly hesitant to confirm their choice: in 2016, 10% of voters who watched the debate said they had decided definitively “during or just after the debate”, according to the Pew research institute .
In this context, the style – and the sympathy – that each candidate exudes often counts more than the words.
Onlookers might be especially curious about Joe Biden, who many are unfamiliar with.
“People will be watching him, to see if he's likable and if he's comfortable,” says David Barker of American University.
At 77, the former vice-president will inevitably evoke the loss of his first wife and their daughter in a car accident in 1972, and the death of his son Beau from cancer in 2015: this personal tragedy earned him a lot of empathy and has often proven to be “a politically effective tool”, according to Barker.
Limit the risk
But in a high-profile society, the hot impressions of viewers sometimes leave less traces than the assessment of candidates by political commentators, on the lookout for a hesitation, gesture or unexpected phrase.
“What happens after the debate, and how it is used, can have more impact” than the debate itself, underlines Amy Dacey, former leader of the Democratic Party.
Candidates can even “try to get their opponent to say certain things” and then reuse them in their ads, she says.
One thing is certain: the format of these debates, adopted since 1988 by a special, politically neutral commission, limits the risks to the candidates as much as possible: a moderator asks questions and raises them, on themes chosen in advance, with timed interventions.
The pandemic should only modify this ritual at the margin: no or very few public, and a Joe Biden who will probably appear masked, to emphasize the severity of the coronavirus that Donald Trump is accused of minimizing.
For John Koch, however, voters would have everything to gain from a different format, where the candidates would have a problem to decide, which would force them to consult their advisers and then explain their decision, live.
Close to reality TV, “it would appeal to viewers and really help us see who can be president,” he says. “But that doesn't appeal to campaign managers, who want as few surprises as possible.”