ATLANTA — Streets in midtown Atlanta are closed off. Pro-Biden billboards dot the freeway. CNN signage is plastered across Georgia Tech’s campus.

Here, the 2024 U.S. presidential election feels like it is in full swing — over four months away from Election Day.

The area will play host to the first of two 2024 presidential debates tonight, a rematch between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump. Instead of waiting for the Commission on Presidential Debates’ events in September and October, the two campaigns agreed to organize their own debates earlier in the cycle.

“This may be the most important presidential debate of all time, given the closeness of the race, the stakes and just how different both candidates are,” said Aaron Kall, the Lee H. Hess Director of Debate at the University of Michigan and co-author of “Debating the Donald.”

Both Biden and Trump are well known to voters — and widely disliked. New Pew Research Center data suggests that a quarter of Americans hold unfavorable views of both candidates, making them the least popular major-party candidates in at least three decades. Both candidates are less popular now than when they ran in 2020. At present, the race is a tossup: according to FiveThirtyEight’s polling aggregator, Biden and Trump are currently tied in national polls.

A third candidate, independent Robert F. Kennedy Jr., attempted to qualify for the debate, but he fell short of CNN’s requirements for participation.

That leaves Biden and Trump in a rerun of 2020′s two contentious debates, though the country is now animated by different issues. Voters say the economy and immigration are the most important issues when considering how they will vote. Moderators will likely ask Trump about his criminal conviction, and what his upcoming sentencing could mean for his campaign. The Supreme Court is poised to rule on Trump’s presidential immunity case in the next few days.

After running a 2020 campaign focused on national unity and restoring civility to the White House, Biden has seen his favorability ratings slip slowly as his term progresses.

Demonstrators expected outside debate

A majority of voters plan to watch tonight’s debate. The event is unique in many ways: while most election years do not see debates until September or October, this year’s debate falls well before Labor Day — the starting point, as tradition says, when American voters begin paying attention to the race. That maxim does not hold true in 2024, when both major parties effectively selected their nominees by early March.

By circumventing the Commission on Presidential Debates and hosting their own events, the Biden and Trump campaigns agreed to a number of base rules. The two candidates’ microphones will be muted when they are not speaking. There are no opening statements. There will not be a live audience. And they will be in a TV studio, not an auditorium — a move CNN has boasted as a “return to the roots of presidential debates.”

The debate will be held in CNN’s studios in midtown Atlanta, just north of the Georgia Institute of Technology. Media is stationed in McCamish Pavilion, Georgia Tech’s on-campus basketball arena, across the street from the studio. Protests are expected in the surrounding area throughout the day, though no demonstrators were present mid-morning.

The two 2020 debates between the Biden and Trump — the third debate was canceled when Trump tested positive for COVID-19 — were marred by interruptions and yelling. CNN’s adjustments aim to mitigate this, Kall said.

“I think the changes make for a more free-flowing, issue-focused, informative debate that should be helpful to the viewers and undecided voters,” Kall said.

But the format may be more difficult for the candidates. “They don’t get any real time feedback,” Kall said, about the audience-free format. “They’re not knowing how their lines are landing.”

That added “degree of difficulty,” as Kall put it, could be beneficial for voters, who are familiar with Trump’s and Biden’s policy proposals and persona, but are interested in gauging their mental competency. Biden is 81, and Trump is 78 — making them the two oldest major-party presidential candidates in history and the two oldest candidates to participate in presidential debates, breaking two records they set in 2020.

Voters are concerned whether the candidates’ ages will interfere with their ability to lead. An Associated Press-NORC poll found that a majority of voters are not at all or not very confident that Biden and Trump have the mental capacity to serve effectively as president.

Tonight’s debate format — without an audience and requiring extemporaneous responses — will be a test of this. “It’s a unique format that gives some people insight into the candidates in a way that they normally don’t see,” Kall said. “For those that may be unsure, this debate, or at least a portion of it, should kind of answer some of those questions.”

How to watch Thursday’s debate

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Time: 9 p.m. ET/7 p.m. MT, 90 minutes

TV: CNN, CNN International and CNN en Español

Streaming: CNN Max

Live updates: Deseret.com

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