Biden’s surprise proposal to debate Trump early, explained

Biden’s surprise proposal to debate Trump early, explained

Then-US President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden during the final 2020 presidential debate. | Pavlo Conchar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty

The political intrigue behind the unusually early June debate date.

After months of uncertainty, it looks like we’ll be getting debates between Joe Biden and Donald Trump after all — and sooner than expected.

On Wednesday, the Biden campaign announced a proposal to have two presidential debates, one in late June, the other in September. Trump quickly said he accepted those dates.

Later Wednesday morning, Biden announced on social media that he’d received and accepted an invitation for a CNN-hosted debate on June 27 in Atlanta. Trump then told Fox News, “I’ll be there.” So, this is apparently happening.

Why this is a big deal: It had been unclear whether there would be any presidential debates this year. Trump has for months said he’d debate Biden anytime and anywhere. But Biden has been more reluctant to commit — in keeping with the White House’s strategy of tightly controlling Biden’s availability for high-stakes adversarial public questioning. (Biden gave fewer interviews and press conferences in his first two years than any president in decades.)

In March, Biden said whether he’d debate Trump “depends on his behavior.” Finally, a few weeks ago, Biden said he’d be “happy to debate” Trump, but that he didn’t know when. Now, his team has put forward specifics, which means we’re closer to this actually happening.

Biden’s unusually early June date is intriguing: Biden’s proposal for a June debate is surprising, since every presidential debate has been in September or October. We don’t know exactly what the campaign is thinking, but there are a few likely considerations.

  1. Biden is trailing in the polls right now, and usually, the trailing candidate wants to shake up the status quo somehow.
  2. Biden’s team wants to frame the election as a choice between him and Trump, rather than just a referendum on his job performance. A debate would clearly do that, putting them side by side and making clear that it really is either him or Trump.
  3. His team may hope that if Biden performs well, he could quiet voters’ concerns about his age and mental fitness.
  4. If a June debate does go poorly for Biden, there will still be ample time for him to recover. And even if Biden flops in September, too, the campaign would continue throughout October, giving time for voters’ attention to shift to other things.

RFK Jr. likely won’t be invited to the first debate: Another big question hanging over this year’s potential debates is whether third-party or independent candidates would be included — most notably, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who neither Biden nor Trump want onstage.

But CNN announced qualification rules for the June debate that would make it extremely difficult for RFK Jr. to qualify by then.

The network said candidates must hit 15 percent in at least four national polls from approved outlets by June 20. That’s the traditional standard used for general election presidential debates. RFK Jr. has been polling at about 10 percent nationally, which is below the threshold but not too far below it.

The catch, though, is that CNN also said the candidate must qualify for the ballot in states that added up to 270 electoral votes. According to Politico, RFK Jr. is currently on the ballot in only four states, and though his team’s effort to qualify in others has been going better than expected, it likely wouldn’t happen soon enough for the late June debate.

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