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June 24, 2024

SIU debate/political experts: Presidential debate likely to vex voters

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. — While the format for the nation’s first 2024 presidential debate Thursday night between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump will be different, Southern Illinois University Carbondale experts in debate and politics anticipate the same rhetoric between the two candidates.

john-shaw-sm2.jpg“I do not expect an edifying or uplifting debate,” said John Shaw, Paul Simon Public Policy Institute director. “It is likely to expand and deepen the frustration that many Americans have about their choices for president in November. There is very little chance that Americans will leave this debate and feel more confident or hopeful about the nation’s short-term future.”

todd-graham.jpgTodd Graham, professor of debate in the School of Communication Studies and a regular contributor and debate expert for CNN and CNN Opinion, said he also anticipates “a terrible debate; lots of flaws,” noting neither candidate has had debate practice in four years.

“But I think the new rules will amplify any poor policy answers and lack of knowledge better than the old way,” he said.

faculty-photo-mulligan.jpgKenneth Mulligan, an associate professor of political science in the School of Anthropology, Political Science and Sociology, said academic research on presidential debates tends to show that debates do not usually affect the outcome of presidential elections, although they can, and have, when the election is close.

Media availability

Todd Graham is professor of debate in SIU’s School of Communication Studies, where his debate teams have won five national titles. He has been analyzing presidential debates for more than 20 years and is a regular contributor and regular debate expert for CNN and CNN Opinion. He can be reached at 314-495-7278 or at or

Kenneth Mulligan is an associate professor of political science in SIU’s School of Anthropology, Political Science and Sociology. His research and teaching involve American political behavior, media and politics, and public opinion. He can be reached at 618-201-9634 and

John Shaw, director, Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, spent 26 years in Washington, D.C., covering Congress and economic issues for Market News International before his arrival at SIU Carbondale in 2018. He has been a guest on the PBS NewsHour and C-SPAN. He can be reached at 618-453-4009 or

The 90-minute June 27 debate in CNN studios in Atlanta will feature new details that most viewers and candidates are not accustomed to since the 1976 televised debate between then-President Gerald Ford and candidate Jimmy Carter.

Among the debate rules:

  • No opening statements.
  • Candidates’ microphones are muted until it is their turn to speak, and each has two minutes to respond to a question.
  • There is no studio audience, and the respective campaign staffs cannot speak or interact with their candidate until the end of the debate, including during two commercial breaks.
  • No pre-written notes are allowed, although candidates will be given a pen, paper and water.

Biden ‘needs to hit the mark’

Graham said the guidelines were set up in an effort to avoid the crosstalk and interruptions by the two men in the first 2020 debate.

“I think it will work somewhat, but anytime you try something out the first time, you should expect stuff to go wrong,” he said, adding that a “lack of audience will hurt Trump more than people understand. He needs that.”

Graham said that recent articles show that Biden is taking debate preparation more seriously and that Biden “had a chance to answer all of the critics with a good, robust energetic informative debate. He needs to hit the mark.”

Mulligan said research also suggests that candidates “win” debates by exceeding voters’ expectations.

“Campaigns know this,” Mulligan said. “In this debate, if these candidates are rational, then one might expect Trump would make an effort to appear statesmanlike and Biden would strive for lucidity.”

Candidates sniping at one another

Shaw, meanwhile, said he expects Biden to prepare carefully both in terms of policy and in seeking ways “to get under Donald Trump’s skin.”

“I suspect that he will use the term, ‘convicted felon’ to describe Trump at every opportunity. Biden wants to project calm maturity, but he also must show energy and forcefulness,” Shaw added. “The single greatest obstacle to his re-election is the view of many that Biden is too old and lacks the mental acuity and physical stamina for four more years in the White House.”

As for Trump, Shaw said he doesn’t expect Trump to prepare for the debate “in any substantive way, but he may practice some of his lines of attack.”

“I suspect that he will try to mitigate his status as a convicted felon by pouncing on Hunter Biden’s recent conviction,” Shaw said. “He will certainly blame his multiple criminal indictments and his recent conviction on the Deep State and Biden justice department. I expect Trump to focus more on his problems than on the nation’s challenges or its future.”

A second presidential general election debate is set for Sept. 10 and will be hosted by ABC.