WASHINGTON - With their once-planned second in-person 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 this evening.
Trump is appearing on NBC News at 8 p.m. EDT, facing voters in the southern city of Miami, Florida, while Biden is on ABC News at the same time answering questions from voters in the eastern city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Florida and Pennsylvania are 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 people prefer one candidate over the other, with under three weeks to go before Election Day.
Trump, trailing Biden by an average of more than 10 percentage points in a wide range of national polls, is likely to draw more town hall viewers since NBC is also airing its presentation on two sister networks, compared with the single showing for ABC.
Switching back and forth between the separate town halls could give undecided voters a chance to see how the candidates answer many of the same questions.
Trump and Biden are set to appear on the same debate stage on Oct. 22, 12 days ahead of the election, for their final confrontation.
More than 16 million Americans have already cast ballots. Many say they voted early because of their intense interest in the campaign, while others say they 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.
This evening'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 contended was the worst in U.S. political history. Both candidates frequently interrupted each other in the 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 battleground states.
But now, after Trump's first debate performance and his subsequent coronavirus diagnosis, polls show 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 its 40,000 computerized simulations of the election show 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. But Trump pulled out of the event 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 he was diagnosed with the coronavirus.
Shortly thereafter, Biden scheduled his town hall on ABC, and the debate was later formally called off.
NBC said it agreed to host its Thursday night session with Trump only after it received independent proof that the president would not pose a health risk to voters attending the town hall, its television crew or the town hall moderator, "Today" show host Savannah Guthrie.
Media critics have assailed NBC for scheduling the Trump appearance at the same time as Biden's.
But NBC news chief Cesar Conde defended his decision, saying, "If we were to move our town hall with President Trump to a later time slot, we would be violating our commitment to offer both campaigns access to the same audience and the same forum."
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 one. Guthrie and Trump will be seated almost four 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.