Presidential Debates: We Will Watch Them, and Then Forget Most of What Was Said

Students stand in for President Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden during preparations for the upcoming debate in Cleveland, Ohio, September 28, 2020. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Tomorrow night, Donald Trump and Joe Biden will attend the first presidential debate of the 2020 cycle, one of three scheduled in the coming weeks. The coverage and hype will be huge, and who knows, maybe something truly memorable will occur. Between the garrulous “Malarkey! Come on, man!” verbal habits of Biden, and Trump’s full-spectrum combativeness and unpredictability, we’re likely to get fiery exchanges.

But the dirty little secret of the debates is that their effect comes down to what, if anything, gets discussed afterwards and remembered.

In 2016, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton debated for a collected four hours and 30 minutes over three nights, and Mike Pence and Tim Kaine debated for another 90 minutes. How much of those debates do you remember? How many memorable exchanges were there?

You might remember “you’d be in jail,” or “No puppet! You’re the puppet!” Or maybe you remember Trump’s description of partial-birth abortion. Chances are you remember just one or two moments, even if you watched all three debates in their entirety.

Have you thought about Ken Bone at all since the 2016 election?

Most presidential and vice-presidential debates are remembered for just one moment or exchange — and not always from the candidates who won the election. “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” “You’re no Jack Kennedy.” “Who am I? Why am I here?” Al Gore moseying on over to George W. Bush’s side of the stage. “The 1980s are now calling to ask to get their foreign policy back, because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.”

Keep in mind, the person the pundits perceive as the winner may not be the same as the person the broader public sees as the winner, and winning the debates may not mean winning the election. Four years ago, Ezra Klein of Vox concluded, “Hillary Clinton crushed Donald Trump in the most effective series of debate performances in modern political history. . . . We aren’t used to this kind of victory. We aren’t used to candidates winning not so much because of how they performed but because of how they pushed their opponent into performing. But the fact that we aren’t used to this kind of victory doesn’t make it any less impressive. Hillary Clinton has humbled Donald Trump, and she did it her way.”

Did she, now?

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