The coronavirus pandemic has changed a lot about the 2020 presidential campaign, but at least one thing is set to proceed mostly as planned: the debates. The first of those, between Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and President Donald Trump, is set to take place next month in Cleveland, Ohio.

Currently, the debate is scheduled for September 29 on the joint campus shared by Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic. It will run from 9 to 10:30 pm Eastern time. It will be the first of the three standard debates between presidential candidates; two more will follow in October.

According to Cleveland Clinic chief clinical transformation officer Dr. James Merlino, the September debate audience will be kept small, likely no more than 200 people, and now-familiar public health protocols — “sanitizing hands, testing, doing health screenings, wearing masks, all of that” — will be in place for the debate.

That’s what we know so far. As with everything else this year, though, the debates have been beset with some uncertainty. Though the University of Notre Dame was originally set to host the first debate, it pulled out in late July, citing coronavirus concerns.

“In the end, the constraints the coronavirus pandemic put on the event — as understandable and necessary as they are — have led us to withdraw,” Notre Dame president Rev. John Jenkins said of the change.

Notre Dame isn’t the only host to back out; the University of Michigan Ann Arbor was set to host the second debate but changed its mind in June. And the changes might not stop there: According to reporting by Cleveland’s ABC affiliate, a live debate audience could be nixed entirely if the coronavirus risk is too great.

That’s just the Covid-related uncertainty, though. Earlier this month, the Trump campaign tried to request a schedule change: In a letter to the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, Rudy Giuliani petitioned either for the addition of a fourth debate — there are three currently scheduled — or for the third debate to be moved from late October to early September, arguing that voters need a chance to watch the candidates debate before early and mail-in voting starts.

“How can voters be sending in Ballots starting, in some cases, one month before the First Presidential Debate,” Trump tweeted at the time. “Move the First Debate up.”

Giuliani also included a list of suggested debate moderators, including Fox News’s Bret Baier and Maria Bartiromo and conservative pundit Hugh Hewitt.

The commission, however, roundly rejected the Trump campaign’s requests, writing that “any voter who wishes to watch one or more debates before voting will be well aware of that opportunity.” Moderators for all three presidential debates have yet to be announced.

In addition to the Trump team’s suggested revisions to the debate schedule, there was also a short-lived faux controversy over whether Biden would appear at the debates, prompted in part by a WSJ editorial board op-ed.

As the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel pointed out earlier this month though, “the ‘Biden wants to cancel the debates’ meme is a TV invention” — there are no signs that the Biden campaign ever considered withdrawing from the debates.

A steady lead

When Biden and Trump do take the stage late next month, they’re likely to be facing a political reality — a raging pandemic, an economy in crisis, and a national reckoning over race — that doesn’t look too different from right now.

Biden’s polling lead, which stands at 8.4 points in the FiveThirtyEight national polling average, has remained fairly steady over the summer. And while polls are more of “a ‘snapshot’ in time, and not necessarily predictive of the election’s final result,” as my colleague Li Zhou explained, the underlying structures of American life right now don’t look like they’ll change in the near term. The US continues to report tens of thousands of daily new coronavirus cases. Weekly jobless claims have dipped below 1 million only once since late March. And public approval on Trump’s handling of the pandemic has remained below 40 percent since early July.

Absentee ballots will start going out as early as September 4 (in North Carolina), and the general election will be just 35 days away when the candidates meet in Cleveland.

The second and third debates will take place on October 15 and 22, respectively, in Miami and Nashville, Tennessee. Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence will also meet at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City for a debate of their own on October 7.

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