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Northwestern experts on first presidential debate in Atlanta

The no-audience event will be hosted by CNN on Thursday

EVANSTON, Ill. --- President Joe Biden and former president Donald Trump, the presumed nominees for the 2024 presidential election, will face off in their first televised debate on Thursday in Atlanta.

Hosted by CNN, the debate will be moderated by Dana Bash and Jake Tapper. This is the first of two scheduled debates by the nominees. The second will take place in September.

The following professors from Northwestern are available for comment.

Michael Kang is the Class of 1940 Professor of Law at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law. He is a nationally recognized expert on election law, campaign finance, voting rights, redistricting, judicial elections and corporate governance. He is the co-author of “Free to Judge: The Power of Campaign Money in Judicial Elections.”

To set up an interview with Professor Kang, contact Shanice Harris at

Jon Marshall is a professor in the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. He is the author of “Clash: Presidents and the Press in Times of Crisis” and “Watergate’s Legacy and the Press: The Investigative Impulse.” His areas of expertise include Watergate, media history and presidents and the press. 

Quote from Professor Marshall:

“In today’s media environment, it just takes one moment that goes viral to make the difference between who wins and who loses the debate. The candidate who can deliver a memorable one liner like Ronald Reagan joking about his age and avoid a major flub like George H.W. Bush looking at his watch will be victorious.”

To set up an interview with Professor Marshall, contact Erin Karter at

Erik C. Nisbet is the Owen L. Coon Endowed Professor of Policy Analysis & Communication and director of the Center for Communication & Public Policy in the School of Communication at Northwestern University. His research lies at the intersection of media, public opinion, and public policy in the areas of science, technology, and environmental policy, democracy and elections, and international security.

Quote from Professor Nisbet:

“Trump has been out-polling Biden in the key battleground states and has ended Biden’s only advantage to date when it came to campaign war chest. This debate, therefore, is a must-win for Biden. Any subpar performance by Biden will feed the narratives about his age and mental fitness, recently turbo-charged by viral ‘cheap fake’ videos falsely depicting Biden out of context.

“With the debate historically early in June, it will be the party faithful tuning in with independently minded and low-information’ voters still not paying attention to the election until the fall. Republican and MAGA viewers will be enthusiastically cheering on Trump and hoping to take some revenge for his recent conviction by shaming Biden. Democrat voters will be anxious and nail-biting whether Biden can provide a forceful performance as he did in the State of the Union. The goal of the debate for both sides is to consolidate and mobilize their electoral bases in preparation for the fall – a bigger challenger for Biden – as well as set the initial terms of engagement by presenting their competing overarching narratives and logics for general election campaigns.

“In the end, Biden’s biggest hope for turning the trajectory of the presidential campaign around is to remind Democrats and Progressives why they hate Trump (rather than love Biden) – the question is whether Trump makes it easy for him or not.”

To set up an interview with Professor Nisbet, contact Erin Karter at

Tabitha Bonilla is the associate professor at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern. She studies political behavior and communication and broadly examines how elite communication influences voter opinions of candidates and political policies. Her work focuses on important topics in American politics ranging from gun control to human trafficking and immigration. Her expertise is in campaign promises, political messaging, political representation and voting behavior.

To set up an interview with Professor Bonilla, contact Stephanie Kulke at

Jaime Dominguez is an associate professor of instruction in the political science department at Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. His research focus is on urban politics, race, ethnic and Latino and Chicago politics, as well as the politics of immigration integration.

Quote from Professor Dominguez:

“The challenge for both candidates is going to be the ability to stay on message with regards to public policy such as the economy, immigration, and jobs. For Biden, he must convince middle America and in particular, swing voters, who feel the daily sting of inflation, that the economy is moving in the right direction. He needs to point to the record low unemployment levels, record job growth, especially in the manufacturing and construction sectors. Furthermore, he needs to tout the bipartisan infrastructure bills passed during his administration that has generated thousands of new jobs for middle-class workers. On immigration, he needs to point to the failure of the Republicans for not supporting the bipartisan immigration bill, and highlight his commitment to programs such as DACA, as well as his most recent executive order on immigration which would expedite work permits for Dreamers and bring further protection by legalizing their status. This is one issue that is already positively resonating in immigrant communities like Chicago. In the end, he must convince voters that he is the candidate who will provide the stable hand and govern without the chaos a second Trump administration would bring.

“Conversely, I expect Trump to continue his strategy of casting the Biden administration as incompetent and corrupt and that the country is in financial doldrums. His Achilles heel will be his knowledge on public policy and the types of proposals he will implement to deal with the economy and immigration. It’s clear age will be front-and-center so expect Trump to position himself as the candidate who is more active and in-control and the one with more stamina. He must make clear that he is the candidate that will bring the necessary intestinal fortitude to the job.”

To set up an interview with Professor Dominguez, contact Stephanie Kulke at

Mary McGrath is an assistant professor of political science at Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and a faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern. Her research focuses on political decision making and behavior, partisanship and polarization.

Quote from Professor McGrath:

“Most people will just vote their party identification come November. For those very few people who have not already made up their minds it comes down to under which candidate the future looks better for them. As obvious as it sounds, it's the economy that will matter. Biden's best message to communicate is that by every traditional indicator the economy is strong and to hope that message eventually gets through to people who aren't even watching the debate. Trump is unlikely to persuade anyone by focusing on Biden's age, and Biden is unlikely to persuade anyone by focusing on Trump's convictions. These are sideshows. They might be put forth as justifications for a decision but are not likely to determine a person's vote choice.”

To set up an interview with Professor McGrath, contact Stephanie Kulke at

Check out our Election 2024 press kit for our full list of experts.