The presidential debates of 2020’s general election have been steeped in conflict and confusion. The first debate quickly became infamous for its contentious nature. It was an event dominated by cross-talk, with President Trump talking over both the moderator Chris Wallace and his opponent, Joe Biden. And the second presidential debate, of course, didn’t happen at all, with President Trump testing positive for COVID-19 shortly after the first debate, news that Trump tweeted out early Friday morning, October 2.
Soon after, the Commission on Presidential Debates cancelled the second presidential debate, which was scheduled to occur on October 15, as they were unable to reach a compromise after President Trump rejected a virtual debate format. Instead, the candidates held competing town halls.
Even this year’s first and last vice presidential debate between Senator Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence—which was a comparably tame event—featured interruptions and was tinged by a hint of absurdity when a fly landed on top of Pence’s hair and remained there for approximately two minutes.
Now, barring any last-minute complications that might arise—which doesn’t feel like an impossibility, considering the trajectory that the debates have taken so far—the third presidential debate is still on track to occur this Thursday.
Here are the basics of what we can expect from Thursday’s debate:
The format of the third (now second and final) presidential debate will mirror that of the first debate. The ninety-minute debate will be divided into six segments, each fifteen minutes in length. Each segment will focus on a specific topic of discussion selected by the moderator. At the start of every segment, the moderator will ask the candidates a question, which each candidate will get two minutes to answer. The rest of the time in the segment will be dedicated to discussing the topic more deeply and allowing the candidates to respond to one another.
The selected topics were announced last Friday. The chosen topics are: “Fighting COVID-19,” “American Families,” “Race in America,” “Climate Change,” “National Security,” and “Leadership.”
Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien reportedly wrote a letter objecting to the topics selected and pressing for foreign policy to be given a focus in the debate. This year, it was agreed that the moderator would select the topics in the debates. It is currently unknown whether the Commission will accommodate the Trump campaign’s request.
Due to the hostile nature of the first debate, which was widely-criticized for its chaos and consistent stream of interruptions, the Commission met earlier this week in order to discuss potential alterations to the debate format. Ultimately, the Commission announced that during the opening portion of each segment, as the candidates give their two-minute answers to the moderator’s question, the microphone of the candidate who does not have the floor will be muted. The Commission acknowledged that this is not a perfect compromise, but stated, “The Commission is mindful of the distinction between enforcing rules already agreed upon by the candidates and making changes to the rules. The Commission has determined that it is appropriate to adopt measures intended to promote adherence to agreed upon rules.”
After each candidate gets their uninterrupted two minutes and the segment moves on to discussion, microphones will be left open and neither candidate will be muted.
The debate will take place in Tennessee, and like the previous debates it will take place from 9 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.