Final 2020 presidential debate

By Meg Wagner, Kyle Blaine, Jessica Estepa, Melissa Macaya and Fernando Alfonso III, CNN

Updated 2:27 p.m. ET, November 23, 2020
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7:47 p.m. ET, October 22, 2020

What the road to the presidency looks like for both candidates

From CNN's Aditi Sangal

It takes at least 270 electoral votes for a presidential candidate to win the election.

CNN's John King takes a look at the states that are going to be key in former vice president Joe Biden and President Trump's possible paths to victory.

Watch:

7:34 p.m. ET, October 22, 2020

Trump and Biden's final debate starts soon. Here are key things to watch for.

From CNN's Gregory Krieg, Eric Bradner and Dan Merica

President Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden will face off shortly for their final presidential debate before the election.

The second debate, scheduled for last week, was canceled after the President tested positive for the coronavirus and subsequently refused to take part in a virtual meeting.

The Commission on Presidential Debates has given the green light to an in-person face-off, but with one unprecedented change: The candidates will have their microphones cut off while their opponents respond to the first question of each of the debate's six segments.

The topics slated for discussion over 90 uninterrupted minutes, beginning at 9 p.m. ET, include "Fighting COVID-19," "American Families," "Race in America," "Climate Change," "National Security" and "Leadership."

But that's just where the moderator, NBC's Kristen Welker, will begin. Where the candidates go from there, especially in Trump's case, is the wild card.

Here are five things to watch in the debate:

  • Debate rules: In order to enforce the debate's rule, the commission has resorted to something familiar to a country operating by video conferences: The mute button. But there are questions over how effective the new guardrails will really be. Trump and his allies have been teeing up his plans to attack Welker and the commission by flouting the rules wherever they can. How Trump executes that strategy could provide the voters who haven't already cast a ballot with their last memory of the President before they make a decision.
  • How Trump handles coronavirus questions: Trump wants to avoid the constant drumbeat of coronavirus news. Surging numbers across the country — including swing states central to his victory — make that impossible. Coronavirus remains the most important issue in the minds of voters. How Trump handles questions about the issue will have significant implications in this election.
  • Biden tries to pass one more test: Thursday night's debate is effectively the last major hurdle that must be cleared by Biden, a candidate who — despite his reputation for gaffes, and some minor stumbles along the way — has largely stuck to the same message since launching his campaign in April 2019. If Biden emerges largely unscathed tonight, he'll likely have successfully weathered every key moment with the potential to alter the dynamics of a presidential race polls show he is winning.
  • How Biden handles personal attacks: In the alternate universe of right-wing media, Biden is currently embroiled in scandal — most of it focusing on unproven allegations about his son Hunter Biden. There's also a bogus "Obamagate" conspiracy theory that Trump has promoted, despite its underpinnings all having been knocked down in the real world. None of it seems to have moved voters who aren't already part of Trump's base, and attacking Biden's surviving son could also backfire. But Trump is sure to try to use it all to attack Biden — a candidate who has at times flashed a temper.
  • Who will they direct their closing statements to? With the beginning of early in-person voting and millions of American casting their ballots by mail, the number of undecided voters still up for grabs is likely much smaller than it was just a few weeks ago. Even in more conventional circumstances, debates are as much about narrowcasting your message to potential supporters as they are about "winning" the argument on a given issue.

Read more here.

7:32 p.m. ET, October 22, 2020

How Trump and Biden prepared for tonight's debate

From CNN's Dana Bash and Bridget Nolan

The Curb Event Center is lit in red and white lights two days before the second presidential debate October 20 in Nashville.
The Curb Event Center is lit in red and white lights two days before the second presidential debate October 20 in Nashville. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Inside Joe Biden's house in Wilmington, Delaware, Bob Bauer, the typically soft-spoken veteran Democratic attorney, goes on the attack against the former vice president.

Bauer interrupts and shouts down Biden, who is trying to formulate his arguments for why he should be president.

Bauer is playing the role of President Trump during mock debate prep — often embodying the President as he behaved during the first debate in order to prepare Biden stay on message in the event that Trump blows through new measures put in place by the Commission on Presidential Debates to prevent interruptions.

Team Biden is worried that the plan to mute candidates during portions of the debate will not help with the distraction factor. Even if the audience at home can't hear the President's microphone if he interrupts Biden, the Democratic nominee will be standing right there and will hear him loud and clear. Paying no attention to the man next to him is a significant part of Biden's prep for going into the ring with the President one last time.

Biden and Trump are heading into their final planned showdown of the 2020 campaign, with 12 days to go until Election Day. And their respective teams are studying the first debate, which delved into chaos as Trump continually interrupted Biden. The lessons gleaned from that initial matchup are informing the recommendations being made to the candidates as they prepare to take the stage one last time.

Trump's advisers are have pleaded with the President to try a different tactic this time around.

Republican sources tell CNN that not only did the President's internal polling numbers drop because of his erratic performance during the first debate, his fellow Republicans down ballot, especially vulnerable Republican senators, also took a hit in their own polling because of Trump's behavior on stage with Biden.

Kellyanne Conway, who was part of the team that helped prepare the President for the first debate inside the White House map room, said she warned him not to interrupt too much.

"My last piece of advice to the President, which I shared with him directly and I shared with him before the first debate, let Biden speak," Conway relayed in an interview.

Conway and other Trump advisers are renewing their argument to him ahead of the last debate that the more Trump let's Biden speak, the worse it is for Biden.

Read the full story here.

7:16 p.m. ET, October 22, 2020

Campaigns' focus: Women are pivotal, but college-educated men are a key audience

From CNN's Jeff Zeleny

For all of the campaign’s focus on suburban women, the Trump and Biden campaigns are laser-focused on men in the closing days of the race.

Talking to advisers from both campaigns, their strategies for tonight come into sharper view: President Trump wants to try — once again — to prevent any more erosion to former vice president Joe Biden. He’s particularly concerned about college-educated men, so Trump is poised to sound the alarm about tax increases under Biden and Democrats.

Joe Biden is also hoping to speak to men tonight, intent on hammering home that only households making over $400,000 would see any tax increase.

The bottom line: So many women have decided. Men are key in the final stretch.

7:18 p.m. ET, October 22, 2020

Biden ran through mock debates preparing for Trump's attacks and interruptions

From CNN's Arlette Saenz

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden waves as he boards his campaign plane at New Castle Airport on October 22, in New Castle, Delaware.
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden waves as he boards his campaign plane at New Castle Airport on October 22, in New Castle, Delaware. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden spent three days off the campaign trail, gearing up for tonight’s debate. A Biden adviser said the former vice president held mock debates, running through scenarios where the President continues his interruptions – even if they might not be heard by voters over the television.

Biden expects the President to launch personal attacks on his family once again – a strategy that Biden’s advisers believes backfires on the president.

Biden allies have said they don’t expect the former vice president to try to turn the tables on President Trump and his family, with Sen. Chris Coons telling CNN he doesn’t think Biden will “take the bait.”

Instead Biden’s advisers and allies say he plans to turn this back to the issues impacting American families – Covid-19 and the economy, and Biden’s guests tonight reflect that push.

The former vice president has invited Zweli and Leonardo Williams of Durham, North Carolina, whose small business has been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic – the types of voters Biden hopes to speak to tonight as he makes his closing case in the waning days of the election.

6:56 p.m. ET, October 22, 2020

Trump's guests will comply with wearing masks in debate, White House chief of staff says

CNN's Aditi Sangal

White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows wears a protective mask as he departs the Senate Republican policy luncheon in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill on October 21 in Washington.
White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows wears a protective mask as he departs the Senate Republican policy luncheon in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill on October 21 in Washington. Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images

After a Covid-19 outbreak at the White House, Chief of Staff Mark Meadows says wearing masks “is not the panacea” to make sure the virus doesn’t spread.

“Will it help in confined spaces? Certainly, it helps,” he told CNN's Wolf Blitzer. “But we also need to understand that wearing a mask — if we could say, ‘we mandate masks and everybody can go back to work,’ then that would be something to consider. But even the doctors, even Dr. Fauci would say that that is not something that would protect all Americans.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, has recommended wearing masks to combat the spread of coronavirus on multiple occasions.

Meadows was also asked if he alongside Trump's family and guests will wear masks this time in the debate hall after some from Trump's entourage failed to do so during the first presidential debate.

“That's part of the rules this time. It was not mandatory last time,” he said. “It’s mandatory for anyone in the audience to wear a mask. So, we'll comply with that.”

“We’ve all been tested,” he added.

1:33 p.m. ET, November 23, 2020

Both campaigns agreed to take down acrylic glass barriers at debate

From CNN's Dan Merica

Both President Trump and Joe Biden’s campaigns agreed that the acrylic glass barriers that was once up in the Nashville debate hall was not needed and should be taken down, Frank Fahrenkopf, head of the debate commission, tells CNN. 

Fahrenkopf told CNN earlier today that the acrylic glass barriers was up at the recommendation of the medical advisers on the ground.

Fahrenkopf said this afternoon, the advisers said they believed the barriers “would be helpful under the circumstances” but changed their minds once they “found out the President was tested today and tested negative” and had gone days without any signs of coronavirus.

The medical advisers also called Dr. Anthony Fauci and the public health expert “agreed that the Plexiglas wouldn’t do anything,” Fahrenkopf said.

1:33 p.m. ET, November 23, 2020

Acrylic glass barriers now unlikely to be up for the debate

From CNN's Brian Rokus

It is now unlikely that acrylic glass dividers will be present for tonight’s debate, Commission senior adviser Peter Eyre tells the pool in Nashville.

Circumstances on the ground have changed, he said. There was no further explanation given.

The dividers had been visible earlier on the stage but have now been removed, according to the pool.

Masks are required for everyone at all times and anyone who doesn’t oblige will be asked to leave. Also, everyone within the perimeter, and therefore any debate-related area, will be tested, the commission says.

Earlier Thursday, Frank Fahrenkopf, chairman of the commission on Presidential Debates, had said the large acrylic glass barriers between the two podiums at the Curb Event Center in Nashville would remain in place for the debate at the recommendation of medical advisers from The Cleveland Clinic.

7:32 p.m. ET, October 22, 2020

Tonight was supposed to be the third debate between Biden and Trump. Here's why it's only the second.

Tonight was supposed to be the third and final presidential debate — but instead, it's the second and final one.

Last year, before we even knew who would be the Democratic presidential nominee, the Commission on Presidential Debates scheduled three debates for Sept. 29, Oct. 15 and Oct 22.

But last week, the commission canceled the Oct. 15 debate between President Trump and Joe Biden after the President declined to do a virtual debate despite concerns over his Covid-19 diagnosis, organizers said.

Instead of meeting on the same debate stage and directly taking on each other, Biden and Trump held individual, competing town halls.

How the last week's debate fell apart: Ahead of the scheduled second debate, the Commission on Presidential Debates announced it was shifting to a virtual debate due to concerns about coronavirus, particularly after Trump's positive diagnosis with the virus.

Shortly after, the President announced he would not participate in a virtual debate. The Trump campaign then proposed delaying the the town hall debate a week, and pushing the third and final debate a week as well. Biden's campaign rejected that proposal, and in the meantime, Biden booked a town hall on ABC.

After Trump released letters from his doctor clearing him to resume public activity, his campaign pushed for the in-person debate to be reinstated.

The commission officially canceled the debate just days before it was set to be held. NBC on then announced it would hold a town hall with Trump at the same time as Biden's ABC event.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated which debate was canceled. It was the Oct. 15 debate.