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The stumbles, Trump's lies, and what's next after the first Presidential debate

President Joe Biden, left, and first lady Jill Biden arrive on Marine One at East Hampton Airport, Saturday, June 29, 2024, in East Hampton, N.Y. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Evan Vucci/AP
President Joe Biden, left, and first lady Jill Biden arrive on Marine One at East Hampton Airport, Saturday, June 29, 2024, in East Hampton, N.Y. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Biden should make as many public appearances as possible following last week’s debate with Donald Trump. That’s the advice of a University of Alabama Assistant Professor who specializes in political communication. APR News spoke with Josh Bramlett during our NPR coverage of last December’s Republican Debate in Tuscaloosa. We interviewed him after last Thursday’s event. Bramlett says Biden should also do a lot of television interviews, both local and national. APR news director Pat Duggins sat down with Bramlett following the debate which aired “live” on APR. CNN says it counted at least 30 lies Donald Trump told during the debate.

Josh Bramlett—So, Donald Trump's performance was clearly better on style than President Joe Biden's. But as we've now had some time to think and reflect on everything. I’m thinking about the history of incumbent presidents in their first debate, we can go to Barack Obama in 2012 George W Bush in 2004 Ronald Reagan in 1984. Incumbent presidents often don't have a great first debate, and they often rebound and do better in the second debate. The problem, though, for President Joe Biden is at the next debate is not in two and a half weeks, it's in two and a half months, and that is a long time for a lot of conversations to happen. We've seen some pretty out there conversations already, but I think that it seems that the Biden campaign is going to keep pushing forward, from a public relations perspective, what the Biden campaign needs to do is get him out there as a candidate, giving speeches, giving interviews to a variety of news outlets and showing that it really is the case that he might have been sick, which is one talking point that Democrats are saying that it was a bad night for President Biden because he was under the weather. And if that was the case, then he needs to get out there and give more vigorous performances elsewhere.

Pat Duggins -- Biden stumbled a lot, and according to CNN’s count, Trump lied at least 30 times so long term in terms of political communication who's going to be who came out worse long term?

Josh-- I think that ultimately, Biden's performance is what will be remembered. So, if we if we're thinking about who won or who lost, to me, it's more clear that Biden lost in public opinion, that's stronger than Trump winning, especially as the debate progressed. There were several moments where former President Trump didn't answer questions, and as we've seen in the news cycle since the debate, specific clips like him not pledging to accept the election results are being shown in presidential debates. We look at the pre debate spin, we look at the post-debate coverage. These can be almost as important as the actual debate viewership. 48 million people watch this debate, according to the fresh numbers on Nielsen, that's down almost, or more than 30% from the first debate of 2020 a lot of Americans will be watching and listening to post debate coverage and specific moments are all that they'll hear so far. What I've seen as moments that really stand out were when Biden stumbled on a question that also ended with a comment about Medicare, and then former President Trump not accepting outright the election results. So the post-debate coverage like this is what will influence a lot of voters.

Pat -- Are they equally getting dinged up by this, or is one going to come out worse than the other?

Josh-- From a performance perspective, President Trump had the better night overall. It'll be interesting to see how that's reflected in public opinion polls about voted intentions and everything that I've seen, including our own research being led by some colleagues at the University of Missouri. Viewers thought that former President Trump won the debate. Viewers thought that former President Trump performed better in that debate compared to President Biden. But performance evaluations are different from candidate evaluations. How will this move public opinion polls about voting intentions that remains to be seen.

Pat-- From a political PR standpoint, what should the Biden team be doing going forward?

Josh-- The Biden campaign needs to go on an aggressive PR campaign, with rallies, with speeches and with interviews with a variety of news outlets that's not just national, but local. The Biden campaign needs to have President Biden talking to local reporters in the swing state markets. I think that that is a way to reach voters, because we watch the news. We listen to the news every single day. Ultimately, the debate could be one day of a news cycle, and if he's out there showing a different performance on a daily basis, then the debate could fade from memory in some ways.

Pat—Early reactions included a lot of Democrats thinking on whether Biden should drop out. What do you think the chances are that this will happen?

Josh-- From what I've understood in reading Biden biographies, one tendency of his, one trait of his, is that He is stubborn and he believes that he is right. I don't think that President Joe Biden would willingly drop out of the campaign because he believes in himself. Now, a different question would be, what happens if very prominent Democrats start to call for that? But it would have to be the most prominent. It would have to be President Obama and President Bill Clinton for the for that momentum to really start to happen and even to eat and even with the immediate post-debate reactions. And even in the immediate aftermath, we've seen Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries say that he stands by Biden. So that's a cue to other Democratic members of Congress. You would have to have a lot of Democratic members of Congress talking about this, not just pundits.

Pat-- There have been certain things about the debate that stick in your head in terms of good teaching points that you're going to bring in a class in the future. Give us a couple of the couple of the “greatest hits” on that.

Josh-- Delivery was the biggest issue for me in watching President Biden's performance was delivery. You could tell that he spent a lot of time studying specific facts and issues to cover, but the delivery was not articulate. He would often bounce from topic to topic, and delivery is something crucial. Another one would be nonverbal communication, especially in a split screen. So we saw CNN utilizing the split screen a lot, and President Biden often would look down, while President Trump often looked more confident. And that split screen dynamic is something that I would consult every candidate to think about what was interesting here is that in the first debate of 2012 President Obama against Mitt Romney, he was criticized for looking down a lot on the split screen. It made him not appear strong. I was very surprised, frankly, to see President Biden repeating that mistake, because I would imagine that he's been coached by Democratic consultants who remember the 2012 debate.

Pat—Assuming that Biden’s cold was really there. That raises the question-- if you say it up front, it's like, Oh, everybody knows it's coming. But if you say it up front does not not give Trump something to pounce on.

Josh-- Expectation setting is so important from a PR perspective and debates and ahead of the debate, the expectation setting from the Trump campaign, where that Biden is a good debater, Trump was talking about his debating. It's Paul Ryan in 2012 he was talking about, will he be juiced up in some way? And they were setting the expectations that Biden have a strong performance, and so in the contrast to that, that makes his actual performance look worse for viewers who watched for everyone catching up on the post debate coverage, it is clear that Trump had the better performance from a style perspective, from an energy perspective, but it's also important to remember policy, and there are plenty of moments from both campaigns that voters, that swing voters, that that leaners will be able to listen to and see that yes, even though I may not like all of the particular characteristics of Biden or Trump, there are still clear differences on polthat will ultimately drive voting decisions.

Pat-- How do you think the average independent voter, in your opinion, viewed the debate?

Josh -- Undecided voters have specific issues that they can care about…the economy, inflation and grocery prices, is a huge thing, and that was discussed. It could be immigration and the border. It could be abortion and reproductive rights. One thing that I noticed in the dynamic of this being two presidents debating for the first time is that we spent a lot of time talking about the past. Presidencies going back to events from 2017, 2020, 2021, there was a lot of time talking about the past. And, so for independent voters, they want to hear about the future. What will you do in 2025 to 2029 there was some discussion of that, but I imagine that many voters would feel unsatisfied in what they heard.

Editor's Note— Bramlett contacted APR News after our interview to comment on breaking news of support for Biden from former Democratic Presidents Clinton and Obama. That, Bramlett says, signals Biden will remain in the race.

Pat Duggins is news director for Alabama Public Radio.
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