Tonight, former President Donald Trump and current President Joe Biden will face off on the debate stage for the first time since 2020. The 9 pm debate on CNN is a long-awaited showdown in the 2024 presidential campaign and both candidates will be scrutinized for their performance under pressure. Beyond policy positions, I will be watching closely to see how each handles the new rules, difficult questions, and rebuttals, but also to see how CNN handles the pressure of such a high-profile event.

In this debate neither candidate will really be speaking to their most loyal base. Trump will likely be focused on reaching more conservative suburban women, plus Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramasamy’s primary voters. For Biden, the bar is lower; he needs to keep it together for 90 minutes with coherent points and win back left-leaning moderates who question his competency. Tonight could make or break the public perception of his physical and cognitive health.

The Republican base has been alarmed that CNN will be at the wheel tonight, setting questions and time limits for the presidential candidates. Trump could have refused, but the image of Trump entering the media lion’s den is a powerful symbol for his supporters. He’s long told them, “They aren’t after me; they are after you, and I’m in the way.”

Agreeing to CNN was a good strategic move by his campaign to reinforce the image that he is fighting the establishment. He can tap into the trust breakdown over the last six years between viewers and CNN. Perceived bias, and the network’s near-continuous coverage of Russian-collusion accusations, alienated a large piece of the news-consumer audience. The eventual findings of the Mueller report, which did not establish that the Trump campaign conspired with Russia to influence the 2016 election, were seen by many as a vindication of Trump and a refutation of the media narrative. For viewers who’d been skeptical of the allegations, the report’s conclusion reinforced their belief that CNN and others pursued a misleading story for political gain.

Now, years later, CNN arguably has as much on the line Thursday night as Joe Biden.

I plan to watch closely how moderators Jake Tapper and Dana Bash choose and frame questions. Both have been critical of Trump; with Tapper once calling the Trump administration “a nightmare.” CNN’s chosen format of the debate also breaks decades-long traditions, ones that could’ve given Trump an advantage. There will not be a studio audience to react to comments, and both candidates will have muted microphones during the other’s allotted time. A downside for Biden, neither candidate will be allowed pre-written notes, nor will they be allowed to sit during the 90-minute debate.

While CNN may be a somewhat hostile environment for Trump, this is where he’s shone in the past. In fact, Trump handily moved to the front of the 2016 primary after dominating the debate stage. Trump is adept at controlling the narrative and turning criticisms into counterattacks. If he can project a confident and forceful image, and draw a stark contrast with Biden, he is halfway home to winning over skeptical voters.

Trump thrives in situations where he positions himself as the underdog fighting against perceived injustices. If he can successfully frame the debate as an instance of biased moderation, it could strengthen his support among voters who share his distrust of mainstream media.

Despite the network’s perceived leanings and approach to political coverage, Biden will not have an easy go of it, if for no other reason that the 90-minute length of the event itself. If Biden struggles to provide clear, concise answers Trump could capitalize on any hesitation or perceived weaknesses in Biden’s responses to paint him as indecisive or out of touch. Trump might try to provoke Biden into making gaffes or mistakes. Given Biden’s tendency to misspeak under pressure, a high-stakes debate with rigorous questioning could lead to moments that Trump can exploit.

The Biden campaign has reportedly built out an airplane hanger at Camp David and brought in a team that includes Obama-era staffers to help him prepare for Thursday. Pieces of their strategy were leaked to media and include teaching Biden tactics to try to “trigger” Trump and make him appear undisciplined or bombastic.

From CNN moderators, I expect a focus on a litany of Trump’s controversies. He will likely have 2 minutes to answer complex questions about Jan. 6 and the 2020 election. CNN may also focus on issues that align with Biden’s policy talking points, such as healthcare, climate change, and social justice.

But do those issues move the voter’s needle? In polling at Carolina Journal, we’ve found that the voters, regardless of party affiliation, name the economy, public safety, and inflation as top concerns.

As you prepare to watch the debate tonight, remember that the winner of the 2024 presidential race will likely be determined by the voter who is skeptical of both candidates at this point in the race. Do not expect to see the same candidate that you cheer for at rallies to be the one on that debate stage.

During rallies a candidate is speaking to their base. People often tune in to those events to confirm their existing choice and candidates know this. They hype their core issues and attempt to build energy and enthusiasm. However, in a debate they will likely be more disciplined, as they try to win over new audiences.

In Carolina Journal’s May poll, Trump had 42.6% of North Carolina voters’ support, compared to 38.1% for Biden.

Thursday’s debate is to be the first of three. The second one is currently scheduled for Sept. 10 on ABC News, moderated by ABC’s David Muir and Linsey Davis. The third debate has not yet been determined.