What you need to know for tonight’s debate: From the Politics Desk (2024)

Welcome to the online version ofFrom the Politics Desk, an evening newsletter that brings you the NBC News Politics team’s latest reporting and analysis from the campaign trail, the White House and Capitol Hill.

In today’s edition, "Meet the Press" moderator breaks down what to watch for in tonight's debate. Plus, Natasha Korecki and Ben Kamisar share the lessons they learned from watching 19 past debate performances from Joe Biden and Donald Trump.

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What to watch for in tonight’s debate

By Kristen Welker

The first 2024 debate between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump will provide plenty of moments of opportunity and potential peril for both candidates. As the moderator of Biden and Trump’s last debate, I will be watching for some particular exchanges that could sway the small group of undecided voters who will be decisive in the election.

1. Which Trump will show up? As I prepared to moderate the final 2020 debate, one question loomed large: Would Trump deliver the same bombastic performance he displayed in the first debate?Trump’s allies urged him to show more restraint in the second debate, and he did.

The former president’s inner circle is advising him to repeat that performance tonight, according to multiple Trump allies. One of them said that includes allowing Biden to speak at length, which Trump’s team believes could lead to moments that suggest to viewers that Biden is not capable of serving another term. Trump advisers also want him to attack Biden on such issues as the economy and border security.

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2. Is Biden able to reverse perceptions about his strength? The Biden campaign and other Democrats view the debate as the first of several pivotal moments before early voting begins that they hope shift the dynamics of a race that remains incredibly close, with Trump narrowly leading in several key battleground states.

Biden’s top aides know he needs to deliver a powerful performance, in no small part to prove to skeptical voters that he has what it takes to serve four more years in office.

“President Biden will have had a good night if he is able to make clear that he is doing this for all of the right reasons,” a top Democratic strategist told NBC News. “There will be some policy back-and-forth and zingers and a lot of disagreements, but at the end of the day the fundamental question will be who appears to have your back.”

3. How does Trump respond when his recent conviction becomes a topic? Trump has consistently and baselessly framed the criminal convictions as purely political and orchestrated by Biden to gain an advantage with voters. Tonight, he will have an opportunity to make that case in front of millions of Americans. So far, Trump’s convictions have done little to shift the overall dynamics of the race.

A Trump adviser familiar with debate prep told NBC News: “Not only is Trump prepared but anticipating that Biden will hit him on the 34 felony counts.”

Read more from “Meet the Press” moderator Kristen Welker on what to watch tonight →

What we learned from watching 19 Biden and Trump debate performances

By Natasha Korecki and Ben Kamisar

In the run-up to tonight’s debate, it’s been clear that Biden and Trump are anticipating a foe they know well.

The two men twice debated each other in 2020 — with a third canceled after Trump contracted Covid. The first, a raucous affair that featured Trump’s constant interruptions and Biden labeling him a “clown” and a “liar,” and the second, a far more subdued event as the candidates made their last pitch to the voters.

In recent weeks, Trump has made sure to raise expectations for Biden, while the president and his team have been strategizing on ways to get under Trump’s skin. The Biden and Trump campaigns have each waged a public war on the other’s mental faculties in the hope of injecting doubt about whether their opponent is up to the task of leading the nation.

NBC News watched a combined 19 debates that Biden and Trump have taken part in, looking for their common strategies, their ticks and how they handle tough moments.

Here’s a look at those key themes to get an idea of what to expect tonight →

Stay tuned for a special post-debate edition of the newsletter tonight

Keep an eye on your inbox for a special edition of the From the Politics Desk newsletter tonight, where we will be recapping and analyzing the first 2024 debate between Biden and Trump.

The 90-minute event, hosted by CNN and simulcast on NBC News NOW, starts at 9 p.m. ET. Follow along with all the action on our live blog.


🗞️ Today’s top stories

  • ⚖️ Abortion decision: The Supreme Court dismissed an appeal in an Idaho abortion case, meaning doctors can perform emergency abortions in the state. But the ruling left the overall legal issue unresolved, and the court could revisit the question in another case. Read more →
  • 💊 Opioid settlement upended: The Supreme Court also blocked the bankruptcy reorganization for Purdue Pharma, threatening the $6 billion settlement with victims of the opioid epidemic. Read more →
  • 💲(Trade) war, what is it good for?: The New York Times explores Trump’s plans for increasing tariffs if he wins a second term, further escalating the trade war from his first stint in the White House. Read more →
  • 🗳️ Ballot drama: The North Carolina state Board of Elections blocked third-party presidential candidates Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Cornel West from the state’s ballot for now. Read more →
  • 🍑 Minding their business – and more: Small-business owners in Atlanta weigh in on their views of Biden and Trump ahead of tonight’s debate, and detail how their votes will be decided by issues beyond their own profits. Read more →
  • 🌵 All eyes on November: Kari Lake skipped a GOP Senate primary debate in Arizona with Sheriff Mark Lamb last night, opting instead to focus on her potential Democratic opponent. Read more →
  • 🥎 Good news for the Bad News Babes: The women of the D.C. press corps (aka the Bad News Babes) defeated the women of Congress in the annual Congressional Women’s Softball Game last night. But the real victory was the record sum raised for the Young Survival Coalition, which supports young women with breast cancer. Read more →

That’s all from the Politics Desk for now. If you have feedback — likes or dislikes — email us at politicsnewsletter@nbcuni.com

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The Politics Desk

What you need to know for tonight’s debate: From the Politics Desk (2024)

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