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Workers adjust signage as preparations take place for the first Presidential debate in the Sheila and Eric Samson Pavilion, Monday, Sept. 28, 2020
Patrick Semansky/AP

Why the Debate Is Not the Most Important Thing in the World, According to the Campaigns That Agreed to It

Team Trump says it’s rigged against him and the president is on drugs. Team Biden says don’t expect a massive polling shift from a great performance.

Patrick Semansky/AP

When President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump asked to debate each other, they sounded like two characters facing off at high noon on a dusty Wild West movie set.

“I am calling for Debates, ANYTIME, ANYWHERE, ANYPLACE!” Trump posted to Truth Social in March.

“Make my day, pal,” Biden replied in May.

But now that the debate is here, both campaigns are tempering any expectations for cinematic finality.

The Trump campaign has said, without any evidence to back it up, that Biden might be on drugs, so a good night for him won’t mean anything. Also, host network CNN is biased, Trump allies say, and moderators Jake Tapper and Dana Bash are especially stacked against them. The expectations lowering has been so thorough that it’s unclear why Trump’s allies think anyone should watch the debate at all.

What drugs is Biden going to be on tomorrow?” Republican Rep. Nancy Mace said. “Honestly, I can’t wait to watch Trump wash the floor with him. It’s gonna be great.”

A Biden campaign official, meanwhile, noted the president has not had as much time to prepare for this debate as he did for the last one with Trump in 2020 because he has been busy being president. The campaign projects an image of being very eager for voters to tune in, promising Biden has been using his spare cramming time to practice taking Trump on over issues like reproductive rights, Trump’s economic proposals and preserving democracy.

The debate has been the focal point of Biden campaign organizing efforts in the battleground states, with voter mobilization events all week and hundreds of watch parties set for debate night. But a senior adviser cautioned not to expect a spectacular night for Biden to immediately resonate.

“The June debate is not a moment that we expect to define the trajectory of the election or move poll numbers in the near term,” the adviser said. “We have a largely locked-in electorate and two well-defined candidates — and the voters who will decide this election are going to require consistent time and effort to win for November.”

With the debate coming so early in the cycle, it’s perhaps unsurprising that campaigns with months and months to go before voting begins would be careful to set Thursday night in Atlanta as just part of the election rather than its climax. There’s supposed to be another debate in September, after all.

But the expectations-setting game is not actually a “both sides” story. Biden’s campaign has been hyping the debate and took a victory lap after Trump agreed to it. A Biden spokesperson said Trump and his supporters have turned to “desperate, obviously false lies” about the president ahead of the debate because Trump is “so scared of being held accountable for his toxic agenda.”

It’s a response to the Trump expectations-lowering effort that, in effect, sets expectations for a strong Biden performance.

For its part, the Trump campaign and its allies have engaged in baseless attacks on the moderators Trump officials accepted, even recently going after Bash’s former spouse. Trump officials have suggested Biden has the clear advantage, either because of the evidence-free drugs thing — which Trump also floated against Hillary Clinton in 2016 — or simply because, as top Trump adviser Jason Miller said of Biden on a press call this week, “he has a certain muscle memory that kicks in for having done this for 50 years.”

It’s a surprising shift from a campaign that has repeatedly cast Biden as too senile to find his way out of a room by himself.

“Two things can be true at the same time,” Miller said. Biden can both be old, prone to public gaffes and unfit to be president — and he can also be a strong debater.

Some Republicans seem eager to set expectations for Trump higher — or, at least, lower expectations for Biden.

“It doesn’t matter if he drinks a whole gallon of energy drinks,” Speaker Mike Johnson said of the president. “He’s not going to be able to match the acumen and the readiness of Donald Trump.”

Democrats not on the campaign say there could be some major impact from the debate, even if Biden’s team is downplaying the potential consequences. A good performance by Biden, or even just one where the fullness of Trump’s plans for the future get a good hearing, could be a moment where a fractured Democratic Party could shift into a unified general election mindset.

“President Biden onstage with Donald Trump will mark a really stark contrast between our sitting president who really cares about people and the convicted ex-president who seems really to just care about himself and hear himself talk,” Rep. Greg Casar told NOTUS.

Or, then again, maybe Democrats will need to be mad at each other a little while longer regardless of what happens.

“That’ll come after Labor Day,” Rep. Jim Clyburn said of party unity. “Right now, everybody needs to do their own thing.”

Rep. Max Frost, who has an official advisory role with the Biden campaign, said he’s been happy with what he’s heard from campaign aides when it comes to the president’s debate plans.

“I received a lot of information as to things he’s thinking about, and it seems fine to me and seems like the way to go. So I think he’s gonna kill it,” he told NOTUS. A big night out for the president, he added, will provide real results.

“The presidential debate does have impact,” he said. “It doesn’t shift a lot, but it can buy a point or two, or a couple points, and then that can help with some good momentum.

Republicans expressed excitement at seeing Trump take it directly to Biden, but cautioned him to avoid the kind of chaotic performance of the first 2020 debate with Biden. Some have seen polling trending in Biden’s direction slightly since Trump’s New York criminal conviction, and if the right Trump shows up, he could stop the bleeding.

“Trump’s got a very clear message,” said Rep. Blake Moore. “Inflation is bad for every family, we’ve overreached administratively and we have the worst border catastrophe we’ve ever had. And if you stick to those three things, you should be able to win this one pretty easily.”

“The last time these folks, these two, debated, a lot of stuff was a turnoff to people. Stick to the message and you’ll win this puppy,” Moore said.

But for some observers, there is no need for anyone to set expectations. The debate will be a slog, Democratic Rep. Jared Huffman said, no matter who has the better night.

“It’s just such an unfortunate dynamic where you have Trump sowing chaos in every way that he can, and then Biden sort of having to engage in the food fight with vigor to show everyone that he’s tough enough and strong enough for the challenge,” Huffman told NOTUS. “I just don’t like any of that. It’s not the ideal presidential debate in my mind.”

Evan McMorris-Santoro and Reese Gorman are reporters at NOTUS. Tinashe Chingarande is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.