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How CNN’s New Debate Rules Worked in Trump’s Favor

By Jake Beardslee · June 28, 2024

In a departure from traditional debate formats, CNN recently hosted the first presidential debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump for the 2024 election cycle. The event, held on a closed soundstage without a live audience, introduced strict new rules aimed at fostering a more controlled discussion.  Jack Gruber-USA TODAY

Moderators Jake Tapper and Dana Bash enforced these regulations, which included muting candidates' microphones during their opponent's speaking time.  Jack Gruber-USA TODAY

This measure effectively prevented the interruptions that plagued previous debates, such as the 2020 encounter where Trump interrupted Biden 71 times, according to Axios.  Andrew Nelles / USA TODAY NETWORK

Contrary to expectations, the new format appeared to benefit Trump more than Biden. Without the ability to play to a live audience or interrupt his opponent, Trump presented a more measured demeanor for most of the debate. However, he became visibly agitated in the final half-hour when questioned about accepting election results, stating he would only do so "if it's fair."  Jack Gruber-USA TODAY

Biden, on the other hand, struggled with the uninterrupted speaking time. His delivery was often halting, and his affect appeared less animated than usual. The split-screen format, which showed both candidates simultaneously, further highlighted Biden's age and occasionally expressionless demeanor.  Jack Gruber-USA TODAY

The moderators effectively managed the debate, though some critics later argued they should have fact-checked Trump's statements. CNN had previously announced that the debate would not include real-time fact-checking.  Jack Gruber-USA TODAY

In terms of content, both candidates largely rehashed familiar talking points on issues such as January 6th, inflation, COVID-19, immigration, and Ukraine. The debate's stripped-down format, while providing clarity, did not necessarily elevate the quality of the candidates' responses.  Jack Gruber-USA TODAY

As the campaigns look ahead to a potential rematch in September, Biden's team may need to strategize on how to make the new debate format work more in his favor. The lasting impression from this encounter was of a struggling Biden trying to keep pace with an energetic Trump.  Jack Gruber-USA TODAY

This reimagined debate format harkens back to the televised debates of the 1960s between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, emphasizing substance over spectacle. However, it remains to be seen whether this approach will become the new standard for presidential debates moving forward.  United Press International / Wikimedia