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Tonight Biden and Trump will have their first debate of 2024. Here’s what you need to know

President Biden and former President Donald Trump will face off Thursday night in Atlanta.
Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images; Carlos Osorio/AP
President Biden and former President Donald Trump will face off Thursday night in Atlanta.

Updated June 27, 2024 at 11:44 AM ET

President Biden and former President Donald Trump will face off in the first presidential debate of the 2024 general election tonight in Atlanta.

It begins a new phase of the presidential race, less than five months out from Nov. 5, Election Day, as the matchup remains extremely tight. Biden and Trump stand virtually tied, according to the latest NPR/PBS News/Marist poll, which echoes a months-long trend of recent national surveys.

The debate also breaks with campaign tradition, occurring months earlier than usual and with a new set of rules both candidates have agreed to, including no live audience. It’s also the first debate either candidate has participated in this campaign season. Biden largely ran unopposed, and Trump notably skipped the GOP primary debates.

Here’s what you need to know about this first debate.

When and how to watch

The event starts at 9 p.m. ET and will run for 90 minutes. It will be moderated by CNN’s Jake Tapper and Dana Bash and take place at the network’s studios in Atlanta.

The debate will be available on CNN and the streaming platform Max, formerly known as HBO. Viewers without a cable login can watch on CNN’s website.

NPR will be providing live on-air special coverage of the CNN Presidential Debate Simulcast. Plus, you can follow NPR’s live blog for updates and analysis during the debate.

Who will be there?

Biden and Trump are the only presidential candidates who qualified for the debate stage.

Independent candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. failed to meet the threshold, which required candidates to poll at 15% or higher in four national surveys and appear on enough state ballots that could theoretically push them past the needed 270 Electoral College votes to secure the presidency.

How is this debate different from those in the past?

Typically, presidential debates occur in front of a live audience, often in an event space on a college or university campus, and are coordinated by the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD).

But not this year. Both candidates have said they will not participate in the CPD’s previously scheduled and announced debates, lobbying for earlier matchups.

Instead, Biden and Trump will take part in tonight’s debate on CNN and then a second in September hosted by ABC News.

Biden and Trump have agreed to the following rules:

  • Microphones will be muted unless a candidate is directed to speak.
  • Candidates are not allowed to bring prewritten notes or props. They will receive a pen and paper, as well as a bottle of water.
  • A coin toss determined podium positions and the order of closing statements. According to CNN, Biden’s campaign won the coin toss and chose the podium to the viewers' right. As a result, the Trump team chose to deliver the final closing statement of the evening.

What to watch for

Candidates will likely speak to recent respective legal dramas. The debate comes about a month after Trump was found guilty of 34 criminal charges in New York, becoming the first U.S. president in history to be convicted of felony crimes. Biden’s son, Hunter, who is not running for office, was convicted on felony gun charges in Delaware in mid-June and faces a second federal trial in September over failing to pay his taxes.

Biden will also likely address concerns over his age and ability to serve a second term. At 81, he is the oldest sitting president in U.S. history, and if elected for a second term, he would exit office at 86.

While the president has had public slipups throughout his first term, Trump, who is 78, has repeatedly criticized Biden’s mental ability, most recently speculating he should take a cognitive test. In that same speech, Trump incorrectly named the doctor who conducted his own cognitive exam while president.

On the issues, it’s expected the candidates will discuss the state of the economy and immigration policy, as both are consistently top issues for voters in national polling. It’s also possible the candidates will weigh in on international politics, given voters remain divided on whether the U.S. should be sending military aid to Ukraine and Israel in their respective wars.

The debate may also be an opportunity for Biden to address his decreasing support, when compared to 2020, among key parts of his base, notably Blacks and Latinos and young voters.

Trump is losing some ground among older voters, and the Biden campaign is trying to capitalize on that. Plus, the former president may still need to repair relations with Nikki Haley supporters who remain uncertain about backing him again.

What's next?

Trump will likely announce his pick for vice president in the coming weeks. There will also be a vice presidential debate this summer. The date has not been finalized, but Vice President Harris agreed to one held on either July 23 or Aug. 13.

On the legal front, Trump will appear for sentencing in his criminal trial on July 11, just days before the Republican National Convention, which begins on July 15 in Milwaukee. A month later, the Democratic National Convention will kick off on Aug. 19 in Chicago.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Elena Moore is a production assistant for the NPR Politics Podcast. She also fills in as a reporter for the NewsDesk. Moore previously worked as a production assistant for Morning Edition. During the 2020 presidential campaign, she worked for the Washington Desk as an editorial assistant, doing both research and reporting. Before coming to NPR, Moore worked at NBC News. She is a graduate of The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and is originally and proudly from Brooklyn, N.Y.