(CN) — President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden will take center stage during primetime Tuesday night to make their cases to the American people in the first presidential debate of the 2020 election campaign.
The 90-minute debate starts at 9 p.m. Eastern time and is being held at Case Western University in Cleveland. It will be separated into six 15-minute segments on topics that have been chosen by moderator Chris Wallace.
Wallace, who anchors “Fox News Sunday,” plans to press the candidates on their political records, the Supreme Court, Covid-19 pandemic, economy, integrity of the upcoming election and race and violence in American cities.
Heading into the first debate, two recent polls show Biden with a slight edge over the Republican incumbent. An Emerson College poll shows the Democratic challenger with a 4-point lead nationally, while a poll from the New York Times and Siena College gives Biden an 8-point edge.
While the debate will serve as each candidate’s first chance to confront each other face-to-face in this election cycle, the two have ratcheted up criticism and personal attacks against one another in the days leading up to the debate.
On Sunday, Trump used his Twitter account to call for a pre-debate drug test of the former vice president.
“I will be strongly demanding a Drug Test of Sleepy Joe Biden prior to, or after, the Debate on Tuesday night. Naturally, I will agree to take one also. His Debate performances have been record setting UNEVEN, to put it mildly. Only drugs could have caused this discrepancy???” the president wrote.
President Trump has previously made similar demands and criticisms about Biden, who himself declined to comment at a Sunday news conference. But Kate Bedingfield, his deputy campaign manager, told Politico that they “expect nothing less” from Trump.
“Vice President Biden intends to deliver his debate answers in words. If the president thinks his best case is made in urine he can have at it,” she said. “We’d expect nothing less from Donald Trump, who pissed away the chance to protect the lives of 200K Americans when he didn’t make a plan to stop Covid-19.”
Despite Biden’s lead nationally, many polls show a closer race in battleground states like Pennsylvania, Florida, and Arizona, and while there is no consensus on the effect presidential debates have on the race, each candidate can seize the opportunity to sway the few remaining undecided voters.
Indiana University professor Beth Fossen, whose research is focused on advertising, social media and political marketing, thinks many factors could play into the importance of the debates.
“In general, I think presidential debates can be very important for undecided voters. They offer a window into what issues are the most central to the candidate’s campaign and how candidates handle tough questions and often confrontational discussion,” she said in an interview. “I think voters often look at the debates to judge a candidate’s personality and likeability, which play a huge roll in their voting behavior.”
Several polls show the number of undecided voters this election cycle is low. The Emerson College poll that given Biden a slight nation lead and a recent Quinnipiac poll both found that only 4% of likely voters were undecided. Several states have also started or will be soon starting early voting, meaning many Americans will be casting their votes far ahead of Election Day.
Fossen said the fact that Trump and Biden are such known figures in American politics could play a huge role in the importance of the debates.
“I think there are opposing forces that could either diminish or heighten the importance of the debates for the 2020 election,” she said. “For the former, voters know a great deal about Trump and Biden already, so fewer voters may tune in to the debates to learn about the candidates and assess likeability. Additionally, there have been a few reports that more voters plan to vote early than in previous elections. This larger pool of decided and already voted voters may decrease the importance of the debates for this election.”
Meena Bose is the executive dean for public policy and public service programs at Hofstra University’s Peter S. Kalikow School of Government, Public Policy and International Affairs. She laid out what she thought could be important for each candidate, and how both Trump and Biden could have effective debates.
“Given the popular vote-electoral vote difference in 2016, turnout is a primary focus for both campaigns, and the first debate will influence whether voters decide to cast a ballot,” Bose said.
“Given Biden’s steady and strong lead in the polls, the first debate will be very important for President Trump to make a case to voters for a second term,” she added. “[Trump’s] main goal is to show that he is a preferable choice to Biden for leading the country in these challenging times.”
For Biden, Bose said his “main goal is to show Trump’s weaknesses as president and demonstrate that he would be a plausible alternative.”
That opinion was echoed by Seth Masket, political science professor and director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver, who thought it would be best for Biden to keep calm when Trump attacks him on the debate stage.
“One thing that would help Biden would be to not rise to this bait,” Masket said. “His worst debate performances in the primary debates were when he got overly agitated. In many ways, giving a calm and even performance would be a welcome contrast from Trump in many voters’ eyes.”
Trump and Biden are scheduled to square off two more times after Tuesday’s debate. The second presidential debate is scheduled for Oct. 15, at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami. The third and final presidential debate will take place one week after that on Oct. 22 at Belmont University in Nashville.
The lone vice presidential debate will be held at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Oct. 7.