With their once-planned Thursday night debate canceled, Republican U.S. President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, instead are staging dueling town hall question-and-answer sessions with voters.
NBC News said Wednesday it would broadcast an 8 p.m. prime-time town hall Thursday, with Trump facing voters in the southern city of Miami, Florida.
ABC News had already scheduled a town hall with Biden for the same time in the eastern city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Florida and Pennsylvania are key battleground states for each candidate in the Nov. 3 election. The number of voters tuning in to each of the town halls could give an unscientific indication of whether voters prefer one candidate over the other less than three weeks ahead of the official Election Day.
Switching back and forth between the separate town halls could also give undecided voters a chance to see how the candidates answer many of the same questions less than three weeks before the election.
Almost 12 million Americans have already cast ballots in early voting in most U.S. states. Many voted early because of their intense interest in the campaign, while others wanted to avoid long lines on Election Day and face-to-face contact with other voters during the coronavirus pandemic that remains unchecked in the United States.
Thursday’s two staged events will not replicate what would have been the second encounter between the two candidates after their raucous debate in late September that some analysts said was the worst in U.S. political history. Both candidates frequently interrupted each other in a raucous 90-minute debate, Trump more so than Biden.
For months, Biden has maintained a steady lead in national polling over Trump, leaving the president facing the prospect of becoming the third U.S. leader in the last four decades to lose a re-election bid after a single term in the White House.
Throughout the summer months, Biden typically led Trump by 6 or 7 percentage points nationally in aggregations of polls, about half that in politically key battleground states.
But now, after Trump’s first debate performance and his subsequent COVID-19 diagnosis, polls are showing Biden pulling ahead by an average of more than 10 percentage points nationally. His advantage in key states is moving closer to his national edge.
One poll aggregator, FiveThirtyEight.com, said currently its 40,000 computerized simulations of the election shows Biden winning 87 times out of 100 over Trump, a sharp increase over months ago.
The two candidates had been slated to meet face to face Thursday night. But Trump pulled out of the debate after the independent Commission on Presidential Debates unilaterally declared that the debate would be conducted virtually. The commission made the decision while Trump’s health was in question after his COVID-19 diagnosis.
Shortly thereafter, Biden scheduled his town hall on ABC, and the debate was later formally called off. The two candidates are still scheduled to debate a final time on Oct. 22, 12 days ahead of the election.
NBC said it only agreed to host its Thursday night session with Trump after it received independent proof that the president would not pose a health safety risk to voters attending the town hall, its television crew or the town hall moderator, “Today” show host Savannah Guthrie.
Unlike at Trump political rallies, where few of his supporters wear face masks to avoid transmitting the virus, all the audience members in Miami, seated outdoors at an art museum, will be required to wear a mask. Guthrie and Trump will be seated almost 4 meters apart.
The two candidates this week have traveled to battleground states that could prove crucial to the overall outcome, where state-by-state victors determine the national winner, not the national popular vote. The most populous states hold the most importance in the country’s Electoral College, which Trump won in 2016, even as he lost the national popular vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Trump held a rally in Pennsylvania on Tuesday and on Wednesday heads to the Midwestern farm state of Iowa. Biden campaigned in Florida on Tuesday and is staging a virtual fundraiser on Wednesday.