Our contributors rewatched the 2020 Biden-Trump debates for clues. Here’s what they predict will happen Thursday


The past isn’t always prologue — but this week it might turn out be. That’s what can happen when two bitter rivals for the White House meet for a rematch on a debate stage and their positions on many of the major issues are well-established.

Even so, President Joe Biden’s and former President Donald Trump’s face-off this week — expected to be one of the most consequential moments so far of campaign 2024 — is almost certain to surprise us in some way. Debates almost always do.

CNN Opinion editor Stephanie Griffith asked several of our veteran political observers to look back at 2020’s debates and share their thoughts about what insights can be gleaned from those encounters, and what we might expect to see in Thursday night’s showdown.

Scott Jennings

With the first presidential debate of 2024 upon us, a lot of us are thinking back to the last time Donald Trump and Joe Biden met on a debate stage — twice in the space of a few weeks, in fact.

Specifically, I think back to then-President Donald Trump’s disastrous performance in the first debate in September 2020 in Cleveland, Ohio. Trump effectively ended his campaign’s chances that night against Biden, badly misreading what the American people needed to hear from their president at that moment.

But you might have forgotten what happened in the second debate in Nashville, Tennessee, a few weeks later. A measured Trump offered a spirited and coherent defense of his administration’s record. And he rebutted and counterpunched Biden throughout the night without looking like a jerk.

Like the upcoming CNN tilt, that debate featured a mute button “that turned off each candidate’s microphone for the first two minutes of his opponent’s speaking time at the beginning of each debate topic.”

Look at this clip of Trump answering a question about opening schools — and ultimately the country — during the coronavirus pandemic. He delivered a deft summation of his position that was hard to argue with: “The cure cannot be worse than the problem itself.”


2020 presidential debate moment: ‘The cure can’t be worse than the problem’

Trump masterfully walked through the societal ills of keeping schools and businesses closed. When Biden finished his answer explaining why keeping schools shuttered was, in his view, the right way to go (which, with the benefit of hindsight, was way off base), Trump responded with his own comment about New York having become “a ghost town” and the need to “protect our seniors, protect our elderly” as he finished. Perfect.

Substance aside, Trump delivered a performance that, had it come in the first debate, might have given him a chance to win reelection. He looked and sounded like a reasonable, composed leader who had command of the national situation. But by then, the American people had soured on Trump’s style, and millions had already voted.

As the first debate of 2024 approaches, the circumstances are different. This time, Biden is president, and the American people look like they want to fire him. His approval rating remains mired at around 38%.

The pressure is on Biden to change the trajectory of a race which Trump, according to forecasters, is now favored to win. There are near daily political stories citing Democratic leaders in a panic over Biden’s flailing performance.

Trump simply needs to replicate his performance from the second debate in 2020 to win this one. Remain calm. Be the president, not a member of the peanut gallery. Play the happy-but-determined warrior and let Biden lose his temper the way he has so often when confronted in public. Bring clear facts to exchanges on the economy and inflation, because Biden has struggled mightily to do so himself.

And think through each answer. So much of this will be decided on image. Many Americans have concluded Biden is not up to another term. Trump wants to confirm that instinct while appearing under control and plausible himself. Watching clips of the 2020 debates, it is shocking how much Biden has deteriorated in four years. Letting him dominate the screen is probably a good tactical choice.

Finally, try to keep the debate centered on the issues that work in your favor. Spend 90 minutes relitigating January 6 and you will lose. Spend 90 minutes explaining how inflation and rampant illegal immigration has destroyed American working families, and you win.

The correct frame for Trump is strength versus weakness, and there’s nothing stronger in politics than a measured, calm leader who knows how to contrast himself against a flailing, angry opponent.

Scott Jennings, a CNN senior political commentator and Republican campaign adviser, is a former special assistant to President George W. Bush and a former campaign adviser to Sen. Mitch McConnell. He is a partner at RunSwitch Public Relations in Louisville, Kentucky.

Sophia A. Nelson: Both candidates will be asked about our racial divide. Only one will have an answer

Sophia A. Nelson

One of the most striking moments from the 2020 presidential debates — the most iconic and jaw- dropping moment in my view — was an exchange between then-President Donald Trump and debate moderator Chris Wallace.

Wallace challenged Trump to disavow the White nationalists who were among his fervent supporters. Some had engaged in violent protests, including in Charlottesville, Virginia, months earlier, where one left-leaning counter-demonstrator lost her life.

That’s when Trump made this shocking exhortation to the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.”

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2020 presidential debate moment: ‘Proud Boys, stand back and stand by’

It was one of the most unforgettable moments of that or any presidential debate. Not only did Trump not distance himself from White nationalists, he used the debate stage platform to utter what they considered to be words of encouragement.

By now, we all know how that story played out: A few months later, on January 6, 2021, hundreds of angry Trump supporters stormed the Capitol. Refusing to accept his election defeat, they caused the worst political violence seen in this country since the Civil War.

Nearly four years later, that shocking insurrection — and the insistence by Trump’s supporters to respect neither our political processes nor the rule of law — continues to tear the fabric of our nation, stoking anger, tribalism and political division. And it’s not going too far to say that we live under the threat of more domestic violence, very much like what we saw on January 6.

Events from Charlottesville and the unrest that followed will almost certainly be on the agenda when President Biden and former President Trump appear at their first presidential debate this week. The moderators should be sure to ask the formerresident how it is that he did virtually nothing to quell the violence as rioters attacked police officers and defiled the US Capitol.

It’s one of the most divisive episodes of Trump’s chaotic presidency, but not the only one.

The moderators should also bring up Trump’s divisive record on immigration and racial issues — including the role he has played in dismantling affirmative action and the attacks on programs promoting diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).

As a former Republican who was a proud member of the party for decades dating back to college, it has been sad to see its demise, largely as a result of the wayward leadership of the soon-to-be GOP nominee.

Both men will need to offer a pathway forward that restores domestic tranquility and unity, but only one will rise to the challenge.

Even if Trump is pressed, I do not expect him to offer anything of substance on the issue of race. His 40 years in public life as a business mogul, casino operator and reality TV show host have led me to believe that he is an unalloyed racist. The list of his racial insults and transgressions is long and continues to grow by the day.

I expect Biden, meanwhile, to shine brightly in this area. He can talk about his long list of accomplishments, including putting more Black women on the federal bench than any president in history, canceling student debt and lowering prescription drug costs, both of which disproportionately affect Black Americans.

In short, I anticipate that race will once again be a central debate topic this week. It’s already a campaign talker: The Trump campaign continues to say that the former president is getting the support of large swaths of Black and brown voters in 2024. And some polls show that Biden is facing eroding support from those same groups, even as his campaign team insists that the polls are skewed. I’m hoping that the polls are wrong too. We’ll only know for sure on Election Day.

Sophia A. Nelson is an award-winning author and journalist. She is a former House Republican Government Reform and Oversight Investigative Committee Counsel.

White House communications director Kate Bedingfield speaks with CNN on Thursday November 10. 

Thursday’s debate will be a high-profile, high-stakes moment for this presidential campaign. The debate rules have been scrupulously negotiated by both camps and will have a major impact on how the television audience perceives the evening. Importantly, each campaign has agreed to have their candidate’s microphone muted when the other is speaking. That could make a huge difference.

I was part of then-candidate Biden’s debate prep in 2020 when he and President Trump participated in two debates, one with muted mics and one without. I believe the muted mics may mean the country sees a more disciplined, controlled former President Donald Trump than many are expecting. President Biden should prepare for that.

The strategic aim of each camp is to put the other’s vulnerabilities on display. In 2020, our debate prep with Biden focused in part on strategies to push Trump to own and defend some of the most chaotic and destructive things he had said and done as president — like downplaying and lying about the severity of Covid, attacking the security and credibility of our elections and condoning and supporting White supremacy groups.

During multiple exchanges at that first 2020 debate, Biden put Trump on defense, throwing him off balance as Biden pushed him to defend his record (that’s how we got the infamous “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by” moment, for example). Or he stood back and allowed Trump to continue shouting and interrupting the moderator, showing him off to his worst effect, in other words.

The video below, from the first debate, is a good example of how Trump conducted himself throughout that evening: loud, brash and obnoxious, interrupting and interjecting without regard for the debate rules.

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2020 presidential debate moment: ‘You just lost the left’

Trump’s open mic meant the TV audience got the full brunt of his frantic, angry energy and Biden got the contrast he wanted. In the second debate, with muted mics, Trump was forced to be far more restrained, which meant Biden had to drive the conversation more clearly to his lines of attack — something we focused on heavily in debate prep.

Team Biden should have every expectation that will be his task later this week when — given the muted mics and the lack of an in-house audience to feed off — the most disciplined version of Trump may well be on display.

Kate Bedingfield served as White House communications director in the Biden administration and was the deputy campaign manager on Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign. 

David Axelrod: A trap Biden must avoid at all costs. And a contrast he should play up

David Axelrod

The contestants will be the same but the circumstances very different when Donald Trump and Joe Biden meet on a debate stage this week, four years after their last face-to-face encounters. This time, Biden is the embattled incumbent in prickly times and Trump has reverted to the role he played in 2016 as an anti-establishment insurgent.

One of the challenges for Biden will be to resist the common, first-debate trap that often ensnares incumbents, who know too many details and are eager to share them in defense of their records. The goal for Biden should be to play offense and set up a contrast with Trump, who has his own, profound liabilities.

Yes, Trump is a convicted felon who refused to accept the results of the last election and stands accused of plotting to overturn it. More fertile grounds for contrast and attack, however, are questions of empathy for people’s struggles and the motivation behind each nominee’s candidacies.

If Biden wants an example of how to do this, he should study one of his own answers from his first debate with Trump on September 29, 2020.

Biden took a question from moderator Chris Wallace on what economic recovery would look like post-pandemic and fashioned it into a populist attack on Trump’s signature tax cut and historic job losses during his presidency.

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2020 presidential debate moment: ‘How well are you doing’

“The difference is millionaires and billionaires like him have done very well in the middle of this COVID crisis,” Biden told Wallace, jibing Trump on a tax plan that disproportionately benefited the wealthy, Trump’s own paltry income tax contribution and the overall loss of jobs during his presidency.

Turning to the camera, Biden continued.

“But you folks at home, living in Scranton and Claymont (where Biden grew up) and all the small towns and working-class towns across America. How well are YOU doing?”

Listen to the whole soundbite. The message was clear: He’s out for himself. I know you. I was one of you. I’m fighting for you.

That contrast still works. Expect to hear it again on June 27.

David Axelrod, a CNN senior political commentator and host of “The Axe Files,” was a senior adviser to former President Barack Obama and chief strategist for the 2008 and 2012 Obama presidential campaigns.

David Urban: A promise kept by Trump to conservatives. And he’ll vow to deliver again

“Elections have consequences.”

So said then-President Donald Trump during the first of the two 2020 debates, as he explained why he was pushing forward with the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the US Supreme Court late in his term. Trump was reminding his supporters that he had delivered on a key campaign promise.

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2020 presidential debate moment: Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court appointment

A lot of people voted for Trump based on his promise to appoint more conservative justices, an issue that I anticipate will sway many voters again in 2024. I expect a similar promise on the debate stage on Thursday, especially now that his backers have had a chance to see how consequential his past Supreme Court picks have turned out to be.

In fact, at a Faith and Freedom campaign event just days before the debate, Trump once again boasted about appointing the justices who overturned Roe v. Wade, while also noting that he would not support a federal ban on abortion.

During Trump’s presidency, he appointed an impressive 234 Article III judges (judges nominated by the president and approved by the Senate). President Ronald Reagan appointed the most Article III judges during his presidency, 383, with President Bill Clinton close behind at 378.

But Reagan and Clinton were two-term presidents. If re-elected, Trump has an opportunity to add substantially to his tally of judges — as his supporters are only too aware.

Of the judges Trump nominated, 174 were appointed to the US District Courts and 54 were judges to the United States Courts of Appeals. Perhaps most importantly, three were associate justices to the Supreme Court of the United States.

What Trump did, with the backing of the Federalist Society, was deliver a durable 6-3 Republican majority on the Supreme Court for Christian conservatives in 2022. And the court subsequently overturned the landmark abortion rights ruling Roe v. Wade.

Two years later, the courts are also a major focal point of Democrats’ 2024 election efforts. The party and the Biden campaign are counting heavily on the high court’s historic Dobbs ruling to drive voters to the polls — in much the way it motivated them to vote in the immediate aftermath of that decision.

That may explain why, the weekend before the debate, First Lady Jill Biden was campaigning in Pennsylvania, on the abortion issue, even though it’s a state with a 23-week abortion law in place, a Democratic governor and state house, and that faces no imminent tightening of abortion access. It’s all about firing up the base on the issue of reproductive rights.

Trump will also be looking to secure strong support from his fervent supporters, including Christian conservatives, on the issue of future federal judicial appointments — not to mention possible Supreme Court picks.

If he were to get a second term and were to appoint as few as 150 judges (a little more than half the number of appointments he made in his first term), he would surpass Reagan as the president who placed the most federal judges on the bench. And he would likely receive the unwavering adulation of the right for increasing the number of conservatives in the judiciary.

But perhaps more important than breaking Reagan’s record would be the role Trump could play in solidifying the rightward tilt of the Supreme Court. In four years, Justice Samuel Alito will be 78 and Justice Clarence Thomas will be 80. A President Trump might make their decisions about retirement that much easier. The stakes for both sides could not be higher.

Bakari Sellers: A side-by-side look at Trump and Biden? For Black Americans, the choice couldn’t be clearer

Bakari Sellers

From job creation to climate change, the records of President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump provide a stark contrast, highlighting Biden’s accomplishments and Trump’s failures. Nowhere is that contrast clearer than when it comes to race.

Trump is fond of saying that he is the best president for Black people since Abraham Lincoln. Looking back four years, when the country was in the grip of the Covid crisis, we are reminded what a ridiculous proposition that is. Black people suffered and died in disproportionate numbers during the coronavirus epidemic. And Biden called him out about it during the first 2020 debate.

“This is a man who in fact, he talks about helping African Americans, one in 1,000 African Americans has been killed because of coronavirus. And if he doesn’t do something quickly by the end of the year, one in 500 will have been killed. One in 500 African Americans,” Biden said.

“This man? This man is a savior of African Americans? Do you think this man cares at all? This man has done virtually nothing,” Biden continued, adding that in nearly four years in office what Trump had done until that point “has been disastrous for the African American community.”

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2020 presidential debate moment: ‘He has done virtually nothing’

Race is not the only issue where Biden stands head and shoulders above Trump, but it is arguably the most obvious.

Biden drove Black unemployment to a record low and sent new Black entrepreneurship to record highs as he secured roughly $100 billion in federal contracts for small disadvantaged and Black-owned businesses and cut child poverty in half. By contrast, by the time Trump left office, Black unemployment was in the double digits and Black-owned businesses were closing left and right, largely because of his failure to act aggressively enough in dealing with the Covid-pandemic.

Biden has appointed more people of color to be federal judges than any other president, appointed more Black women to the federal bench than all others combined and made history by putting the first Black woman on the United State Supreme Court and choosing a Black woman to be his running mate. By contrast, of the 226 judges appointed by Trump, only nine were Black.

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Biden banned chokeholds and “no knock” warrants by federal law enforcement agents, signed the Emmett Till Anti-lynching Act to make lynching a federal crime for the first time in history. He created a national database to track law enforcement misconduct and pardoned all federal offenses for simple marijuana possession, calling on governors in every state to do the same.

Trump, meanwhile, is a convicted felon who called out the National Guard on Black Lives Matter protesters and has pledged to pardon January 6 terrorists.

Who capped the cost of insulin for seniors, secured $146 billion in student debt relief, fought to improve housing and childcare and invested $16 billion in HBCUs? Biden.

Who failed to come through with promised spending increases for HBCUs? Trump.

The record is undeniable. Candidate Biden made that contrast clear at the debate in 2020. On Thursday, President Biden needs to do it again.

Bakari Sellers is a former Democratic member of the South Carolina House of Representatives and a CNN commentator. His book “The Moment: Thoughts on the Race Reckoning That Wasn’t and How We All Can Move Forward Now” waspublished earlier this year. An attorney at Strom Law, he is also the author of  “My Vanishing Country.” 

Editor’s Note: CNN Opinion’s senior editor for political commentary Hilary Krieger contributed to the compilation of these essays.

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