Buckle your seatbelt
A presidential debate primer.
All debates scheduled from 9 to 10:30 p.m. ET
Date -- Tuesday, Sept. 29
Host -- Case Western Reserve University
Location -- Cleveland
Moderator -- Chris Wallace, FOX News
Type -- Presidential debate format
Date -- Wednesday, Oct. 7
Host -- University of Utah
Location -- Salt Lake City, Utah
Moderator -- Susan Page, Washington bureau chief, USA Today
Type -- Vice Presidential debate format
Date -- Thursday, Oct. 15
Host -- Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County
Location -- Miami, Fla.
Moderator -- Steve Scully, political editor and senior executive producer, C-Span Networks
Type -- Presidential town hall format
Date -- Thursday, Oct. 22
Host -- Belmont University
Location -- Nashville, Tenn.
Moderator -- Kristen Welker, White House correspondent, NBC News
Type -- Presidential debate format
Bottom line The upcoming election arguably is the most contentious and consequential in our lifetimes. The top of the ticket weighs President Donald Trump’s unconventional behavior against former Vice President Joe Biden’s progressive fiscal policy agenda. But given our tendency to vote straight ticket in presidential elections, the down-ballot impact will be equally important. It could decide if Republicans hold onto their Senate majority and if the House of Representatives remains in Democratic hands. The balance of power in the Supreme Court and the Federal Reserve effectively is on the ballot, as well. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s recent death elevates the ideological control of the nation’s highest court, and the next president will nominate the Fed chair when Jerome Powell’s term expires in January 2022.
With early voting and an expected tsunami of mail-in ballots due to the coronavirus, this year’s four debates take on even greater importance, particularly Tuesday night’s kick-off between Trump and Biden. Viewership is estimated at 100 million people, which would rival this year’s Super Bowl and make it one of the most-watched programs in broadcast history. We’re told that either Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon pair beautifully with a bucket of popcorn.
What can we expect Tuesday? Moderator Chris Wallace has already announced six outstanding topics the candidates will address in 15-minute segments in the first debate in Cleveland: their voting records, the Supreme Court, Covid-19, the economy, race and violence in our cities, and the integrity of the election. Wallace has already generated some criticism, however, due to his exclusion of climate change and international policy, although there will be two subsequent debates with other moderators to cover those. The candidates have starkly different views on each subject, so we’re expecting sparks will fly amid a riveting and revealing night.
Biden on full display Since the coronavirus hit earlier this year, Biden has maintained a relatively reclusive schedule, choosing the low profile rather than crisscrossing the country with stump speeches. He’s also hand-picked only a few media interviews. The first debate will be an excellent opportunity for him to share his policy differences with Trump with the American people. In addition, at 77 years of age Biden would be the oldest sitting president in history if he wins the election. To that point, a Rasmussen poll this past June said that 38% of Americans are concerned about his health, and that he should address the issue publicly. This debate offers an excellent opportunity for that.
Contested election? Given the significant voter enthusiasm gap between Trump and Biden, and the coronavirus-related concerns of their supporters, Republicans are expected by a 4-1 margin to vote in person, while slightly more than half of Democrats are expected to mail in their ballots. So tens of millions of mail-in ballots will need to be collected and tabulated. To complicate things further, some percentage of them likely will be disqualified due to a missing or late postmark, signatures failing to match voter registration records, omitted addresses or insufficient witness information. The night of the election, then, we could very well see Biden leading comfortably in the popular vote—thanks to California, Illinois, New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts— but Trump leading in the Electoral College. It may take a month or more to process the record flood of mail-in ballots, likely triggering lawsuits on both sides of the aisle. Ultimately, as we saw with the Bush/Gore contested election in 2000, the Supreme Court may need to intervene.
Whither SCOTUS? But in light of Ginsburg’s death, the Supreme Court now finds itself with only eight justices. If the court ties 4-4 on some key ruling, the presidency of the U.S. may well be decided by a lower federal appeals or circuit court, which would be totally unacceptable. As a result, Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have an obligation to fill Ginsburg’s open seat as promptly as possible in the event it must settle a contested presidential election.
Candidates for the high court Trump might nominate his replacement as early as this weekend. There appear to be two leading candidates: Judge Amy Coney Barrett from the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago and Judge Barbara Lagoa from the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. Both are eminently qualified, and Republicans appear to have enough votes in the Senate to advance either candidate.
'Nothing is off the table' Democrats are unhappy about this prospect, of course, because it could shift Ginsburg’s reliable liberal seat into the conservative column for a generation, potentially shifting the balance of power to the right. In addition, Democrats still are smarting over Senator McConnell’s unwillingness to put President Obama’s SCOTUS nominee, Judge Merrick Garland, up for a vote in Obama’s last year in office in 2016, as a replacement for the late Justice Antonin Scalia.
Biden has said that if he wins the election with a Senate majority, he may consider several actions, including increasing the size of the Supreme Court; introducing justice term limits; eliminating the Senate’s legislative filibuster; and proposing statehood for Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico (which would add four more senators). The question is how popular any of these actions would be, so they may be a double-edged sword. Clearly, the Supreme Court is a powder-keg issue.
Buckle your seatbelts, everyone. It promises to be memorable.