Your Guide to the 2020 Presidential Debates

Bianca Rodriguez
·7-min read

From Marie Claire

No matter how you're voting this year, and whether you're doing it via mail or in-person, it's essential to keep up to date on each of the candidates' platforms. Nov. 3 is closer than you think, despite how crazy this year has been, which means it's time to get the presidential and vice-presidential debates on your radar. This upcoming election is going to be critically important, and your vote matters more than ever.

Ahead, we broke down who's speaking, how to watch, and when the presidential debates will happen. Get ready to mark your calendar, and we'll see you (at a safe six-feet distance) at the polls!

When are the presidential debates?

All the debates will start at 9:00 p.m. ET and will run for 90 minutes without any commercial breaks. Per the Commission on Presidential Debates, the first and third debates will be six 15-minute segments. Each topic of the segments is selected and announced by the moderators at least one week before the debate.

As for the second presidential debate, the format was intended to be more of a town hall meeting, and questions would come from the citizens of the location. Here's the original schedule of the three debates:

  1. Sept. 29 at Case Western Reserve University (Cleveland, Ohio)

  2. Oct. 15 at Adrienne Arsht Center (Miami, Florida)

  3. Oct. 22 at Belmont University (Nashville, Tennessee)

Update, 10/15: Although the Sept. 29 debate went ahead as scheduled, President Trump tested positive for COVID-19 shortly thereafter and the Commission on Presidential Debates announced that debate number two would be virtual. President Trump immediately said that he wouldn't participate in a virtual debate. Ultimately, on Oct. 15, two town halls took place—one with Joe Biden, which aired on ABC, and one with Trump, which aired on NBC.

Photo credit: Drew Angerer - Getty Images
Photo credit: Drew Angerer - Getty Images

Although the Trump and Biden teams went back and forth about whether to reschedule the second debate and do a third debate, both presidential candidates agreed that Oct. 22, the originally scheduled third debate, would be an appropriate time to meet again face-to-face. This will almost certainly be the last debate.

Who's moderating?

The CPD announced Sept. 2, the moderators for all three events. Fox News anchor Chris Wallace was declared the moderator the first debate on Sept. 29, his second time moderating. He first took on the role of the third debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Photo credit: NBC - Getty Images
Photo credit: NBC - Getty Images

As for the second debate on Oct.15, that was scheduled to be moderated by Steve Scully, who's the political editor at C-SPAN and host of Washington Journal. (Scully was suspended by C-SPAN on the same day he was projected to moderate, though he wasn't involved in the town halls anyway.) The third and final meeting is meant to be moderated by NBC News White House correspondent Kristen Welker on Oct. 22 at Belmont University in Nashville.

Who's debating?

Donald Trump and Joe Biden were intended to debate at all three events. The New York Times said Trump was reportedly "discussing with his advisers the possibility of sitting out the general election debates in 2020 because of his misgivings about the commission that oversees them," but the President later cleared up that claim on Twitter.

He wrote, "I look very much forward to debating whoever the lucky person is who stumbles across the finish line in the little watched Do Nothing Democrat Debates."

His campaign also reached out to the CPD in August, asking the CPD to include a fourth debate in the early part of September. His campaign also suggested moving the final October debate to the first week in September as another option. This would be so mail in-voters would be able to watch a couple debates before voting. Trump voiced his concerns on Twitter:

The CPD rejected the campaign's request early August and wrote a letter to Trump's campaign saying, "While more people will likely vote by mail in 2020, the debate schedule has been and will be highly publicized. Any voter who wishes to watch one or more debates before voting will be well aware of that opportunity."

Which topics will be debated?

Welker and the CPD revealed the six topics President Trump and Biden will discuss for their third debate on Oct. 22:

The topics are:

  • Fighting COVID-19

  • American Families

  • Race in America

  • Climate Change

  • National Security

  • Leadership

They won't necessarily be brought up in that order, according to the CPD. These topics could also change because of news developments. Days after the third debate topics were revealed, Trump's campaign wrote a two-page letter calling for a change in the issues.

"As is the long-standing custom, and as has been promised by the Commission on Presidential Debates, we had expected that foreign policy would be the central focus of the October 22 debate. We urge you to recalibrate the topics and return to subjects which had already been confirmed," said Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien in the letter, which he also posted to Twitter.

Trump's campaign believes the CPD is working in Biden's favor. Stepien voiced those concerns, writing, "It is completely irresponsible for the Commission to alter the focus of this final debate just days before the event, solely to insulate Biden from his own history."

The National Press Secretary for Biden, TJ Ducklo, says that's not the case. "The campaigns and the Commission agreed months ago that the debate moderator would choose the topics," said Ducklo in a statement. "The Trump campaign is lying about that now because Donald Trump is afraid to face more questions about his disastrous COVID response. As usual, the president is more concerned with the rules of a debate than he is getting a nation in crisis the help it needs."

How will the third debate be different?

The first presidential debate was...interesting, for sure. It featured a very loud President Trump, some quotable phrases (a.k.a Biden's "Will you shut up, man?" comment), Wallace's lack of moderating, and by the end of it, I wanted to crawl into bed and never emerge again. And then there was no second debate, so the first debate was all we have to go on in regard to how the third debate might go.

There was plenty of talk about a mute button, and in the days before debate number three, CPD came through, saying that the first debate was “depriving voters of the opportunity to be informed of the candidates’ positions on the issues.” It announced that during the third debate, each candidate will have two minutes to answer the question—this is the same format as the first debate—but unlike the first debate, the other candidate's microphone will be muted during those two minutes. Afterwards, they will be free to engage with one another (read: talk over each other). The moderator won't be in charge of turning the mics on and off; the production crew of the debate will be.

How can I watch the presidential debates?

If you're like a cable cutter like moi and rely on your laptop to get you from point A to point B, you can stream the debate on ABCNews.com as well as the ABC News and ABC mobile apps. You can also watch from the ABC News Live app on your Amazon Fire TV, Android TV, Roku, or Apple TV. You can also watch it on C-SPAN.com or the C-SPAN Radio app.

But if you're not a cable cutter, then you can watch the debate on all the major networks, including NBC, C-SPAN, ABC, CBS, Fox News, and CNN.

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