US election 2020: A Britons' guide to Trump v Biden, TV debates and what to look out for

Trump (left) and Biden (right) are vying to elected as the US president.
Trump (left) and Biden (right) are vying to elected as the US president. Credit: AP
  • Words by Digital Producer Charlie Bayliss

With the US election a little over a month away, Donald Trump and his Democratic rival Joe Biden are entering the final stages of what has been an unusual presidential campaign.

Coronavirus and nationwide protests have dominated the agenda, but with the upcoming presidential debates between the two candidates looming, Britons are likely going to see more of Trump and Biden.

So just how does the US election work? Who is likely to become president? When is it? And just what is at stake?

Here are some of the answers to some key questions you might have been too afraid to ask.

Who are the two parties and who are the candidates?

The US is predominately a two-party political system, comprising of the Republicans and the Democrats.

The Republicans, also referred to as the GOP (Grand Old Party), are typically more right-wing while the Democrats are categorised as left-wing and centrist.

Typically the Republican Party values free markets, fiscal conservatism, gun rights and are against creating a universal healthcare system.

Gun rights supporters gather at a Guns Across America rally at the Texas state capitol. Credit: AP

Meanwhile the Democrats philosophy tends to be affordable college tuition, in favour of universal healthcare, criminal justice reform, stricter gun laws and abortion rights.

Donald Trump is the Republican candidate while Joe Biden is a Democrat.

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How does the US election work?

The US election happens every four years on the first Tuesday of November, with this year’s election scheduled for November 3.

Joe Biden and Donald Trump have both won the nominations of their respective parties and one of them will be the next US president.

The person who goes on to become president must win what is known as the electoral college.

The electoral college is a system whereby each state is worth a certain number of electoral college votes, based partly on population and other factors.

For example, if you live in California, your vote for president will be counted there.

Larger states, for example California and Texas which are worth 55 and 38 electoral college votes respectively, are worth more electoral votes than smaller states. For example, Wyoming and Alaska are only worth three electoral college votes.

California has a higher weighting in the US election compared to the smaller states. Credit: ITV News

The candidate who secures the most votes in each of the 48 states will win all the electoral college votes in that state. Maine and Nebraska assign their electors using a proportional system.

The winning candidate will need to secure 270 electoral college votes - more than half of the 538 electoral votes available to win.

This can lead to a situation whereby a candidate can win the popular vote and lose the election. In 2016, Hillary Clinton secured three million more votes than Trump but lost the electoral college.

What are the key states to watch out for?

Some states typically tend to vote the same way each election.

For example, California has been won by the Democrats in every election since 1992 and is considered a safe stronghold for the party. You won’t see Donald Trump spending much time campaigning there trying to convince Californians voters to back him.

Meanwhile Republicans tend to win the rural south states and those in the centre of the country.

But its the swing states, or battleground states, which is where our attention should be.

These are states which could vote for either Trump or Biden and where the election will be won and lost.

In 2016, Trump won several of these key battleground states, including Florida, Michigan and Wisconsin. These were states which former Democratic president Barrack Obama won during his time in office.

This year, observers have identified Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida, North Carolina, and Arizona as states to watch out for.

Trump has constantly refused to wear a facemask, including during this appearance to give a speech in the Covid-19 hot spot of Arizona. Credit: Ross Franklin/AP

Florida is perhaps the most interesting of these swing states. Worth 29 electoral college votes, it is one of the largest states in play and has voted the winner in every presidential election since 1964, except in 1992.

You will likely see both Trump and Biden visiting these states in the coming weeks in a bid to convince voters to back them on November 3.

When are the presidential debates?

There are three debates scheduled this year, with the first set to take place on September 29 in Cleveland, Ohio.

The others will take place on October 15 in Miami, Florida and October 22 in Nashville, Tennessee.

The first debate will take place at 9pm EST in the US, which is at 1am on September 30 for UK viewers.

The first debate will cover:

  • Trump and Biden's records

  • The Supreme Court

  • The coronavirus pandemic

  • Race protests and violence in cities

  • Election integrity

  • The economy

Each candidate will get two minutes each to respond to the question before a debate between the pair begins.

The six questions will be broken up into six segments, each lasting 15 minutes.

Fox News Sunday anchor Chris Wallace will moderate the first debate.

Why are the TV debates important?

The debates are crucial moments in the final run-in of the election campaign as they are one of the only times to two candidates appear in the same space.

Unlike in the UK where we have prime minister's questions, there is no real alternative which sees Trump and Biden debate key issues on domestic and foreign policy.

In the US, head-to-head debates between presidential nominees have been a staple of American politics for more 70 years.

Sen. John F. Kennedy, right, speaks and Vice President Richard M. Nixon listens during a presidential debate from a New York studio. Credit: AP

They are seen as a televised job interview, with the candidates trying to convince the American public they are the best man for the job, while the other candidate is just feet away, ready to pounce on any slip up.

With tens of millions of Americans tuning in to watch them, avoiding a debate is a missed opportunity to make a direct appeal to voters.

In 1960, the first televised debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon took place.

Kennedy, a Democratic senator from Massachusetts, and Nixon, the vice president of the United States, met in a Chicago studio to discuss US domestic matters.

Kennedy appeared calm and measured, while his opponent looked uncomfortable and flustered. Kennedy went on to secure a narrow win over Nixon, winning the popular vote by just 0.17%.

There was a hiatus of televised debates until 1976, with JFK’s successor Lyndon Johnson not wanting to take part in debates in 1964, while the Republican nominee, Nixon, had no interest in taking part in televised debates in both 1968 and 1972, having learned the hard way against JFK.

Trump and Clinton in the last US election debates. Credit: AP

The first 2016 debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump attracted a television audience of 84 million, becoming the second most-watched show of that year behind the Super Bowl.

It was one of the most interacted events on social media. Hillary Clinton revealed how Trump made her “skin crawl” as he loomed over her on stage during one of their presidential debates in 2016.

Trump will be hoping to have a similar impact on Biden this time round, as any advantage he is able to get over his opponent could help him on polling night.