Decision 2024

How does the mute button work during the presidential debate?

President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump will have their microphones muted for portions of their historic debate to avoid interruption.

Joe Biden and Donald Trump
Getty Images

What's the only way to silence a politician? A mute button.

It may sound like a bad joke, but it is reality for Thursday's historic debate between President Joe Biden and his predecessor Donald Trump in CNN's Atlanta studio.

The first face-to-face showdown of the 2024 campaign will be the first to feature a sitting and former president. When the two debated in 2020, they repeatedly spoke over one another, with the interruptions making for contentious and audibly unpleasant exchanges.

“Will you shut up, man?” Biden said to Trump at one point.

To avoid a repeat of that verbal clash and maintain order during Thursday's 90-minute debate, only the microphone for the candidate permitted to speak at the time will be turned on. The other candidate's microphone will be muted until it is their time to answer a question or respond.

Here's how it will work.

How will the mute button work for the presidential debate?

A candidate's microphone will be turned on only during their allotted time to answer a moderator's question or during their time to provide a response to the opposing candidate's answer.

How much time do candidates get to speak during the presidential debate?

Candidates will receive two minutes to answer questions, with both then receiving one minute each for a response and rebuttal. Debate moderators, CNN anchors Jake Tapper and Dana Bash, are permitted to allow an additional minute for follow ups or clarifications at their discretion. 

Who turns the mute button on during the presidential debate?

CNN says its debate night control room will mute the microphones of candidates when it is not their turn to speak, per The Hill.

How do candidates know when their microphone is muted?

On each podium are two small, square lights. When turned green, it means that candidate's microphone is on, indicating it is their turn to speak. When the lights are turned off, their mic is muted.

Timing lights will be attached to the cameras in the studio to let the candidates know how much more time they have to speak. Yellow lights indicate there are 15 seconds remaining for the candidate to speak, a flashing red light indicates five seconds remain, a solid red light means the candidate's time to speak is up. 

“At that point, the candidate’s microphone will be turned off and the other candidate will have their microphone turned on,” CNN's Phil Mattingly said during an explanatory segment.

What happens if a candidate tries to interrupt while muted?

If a candidate attempts to interrupt while their microphone is muted, very few people will be able to hear them.

CNN's Victor Blackwell and Phil Mattingly demonstrated this during a segment ahead of the debate.

As Blackwell was speaking at the podium, Mattingly attempted to interrupt while his microphone was muted, showing that he was nearly inaudible to the television audience.

"My volume remains constantly while Phil's interruption can be difficult to understand," Blackwell said. 

Has a mute button ever been used in a presidential debate?

Muted mics were used during portions of the second and final debate between Biden and Trump in 2020 after being implemented by The Commission on Presidential Debates.

Both mics remained on during the "open discussion" period.

"During the times dedicated for open discussion, it is the hope of the Commission that the candidates will be respectful of each other's time, which will advance civil discourse for the benefit of the viewing public," the commission said in a statement at the time.

Overall, the second debate between Biden and Trump was far more subdued than the first.

What are the rules for the presidential debate?

Other than not speaking when your microphone is muted, here are some other interesting notes about the debate.

  • The debate is scheduled to include two commercial breaks, and campaign staff is not permitted to interact with their candidate during that time.
  • The podiums are eight feet apart and were assigned by coin flip
  • Candidates are not permitted to have props or pre-written notes at the podium
  • Candidates are provided a pen, paper and bottle of water
  • There will be no studio audience

When is the next presidential debate?

The next presidential debate is scheduled for September on ABC. No word yet on if mute buttons will be used.

Contact Us