President Trump’s handling of the Supreme Court nominee to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg has changed the fundamental agenda and direction of the first presidential debate with Joe Biden says Virginia Tech’s Bob Denton, a noted authority on political communication.

“One of the primary strategies within the debate is to control the agenda, the topics, the discussion,” said Denton, a professor of communication. “In terms of Trump, there’s a little bit of advantage here, because we’ll know who his nominee is, and the individual’s potential impact for decades. Voters who may not care much for Trump may find a rationale for being more supportive because of the new direction of the court.”

“In terms of Biden, he can make the handling of the Supreme Court opening a referendum in the debate. He will also talk about Trump and his poor performance. So it’s really going to be a battle of controlling the agenda between the two,” Denton said.

The first debate will be held at Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic. It is scheduled to start at 9 p.m. ET Tuesday, September 28, and is expected to run 90 minutes.

“A very key part of the Republican strategy was waiting for the debates. They thought clearly that in an unscripted environment over the period of an hour and a half that Trump could easily rattle Joe Biden. He might have a gaffe or get something wrong,” according to Denton. “But the expectation game works both ways. If the expectations of him are so low, but Biden survives and performs well, it will seem he exceeds expectations.”    

An X-factor here could be the live auditorium audience in Cleveland, or lack thereof.

“Trump feeds off a live audience and he may find that it’s very different for him. In a sterile studio environment, it might be an advantage to Biden.”

Denton gives the pre-debate advantage to the incumbent.

“For Trump, the best defense will be a very aggressive offense. He’ll be on the attack from the very first second,” said Denton. “How the media will portray that, or if people thinks he goes too far, we’ll have to see. But certainly, we’ll have a very aggressive strategy by Trump of attack, attack, attack.”

Bob Denton

Bob Denton, director of the Virginia Tech School of Communication, specializes in political communication with a focus on media and politics, political campaigns, and presidential discourse. He is the author, co-author, or editor of 25 books and has written numerous scholarly articles, book chapters, and presented over eighty convention and professional papers. In addition to his scholarly pursuits, Denton remains involved with broadcast news media. He has worked in a variety of capacities, including as a senior consultant, a political analyst, and a television host.

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