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Politics

Will This Be the Hottest Presidential Debate Ever?

An investigation.

A podium thermometer.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

In spite of a deadly heat wave that has seen temperatures touch 100 degrees Fahrenheit and a first-ever summer date, today’s presidential debate in Atlanta won’t even come close to being the hottest ever. Temperatures will reach 84 degrees this afternoon and are forecasted to settle around 80 degrees by the time the debate begins at 9 p.m. Eastern.

This is the first presidential debate not to be held in September or October, when most American cities have started to cool down. And of the cities that have hosted debates, just four are further south Atlanta. Yet this is just the eighth-hottest debate in history.

The story would’ve been different if the debate had been held in any of the past six days. Thermometers in Atlanta have hit 93 degrees all week — which would’ve made this debate the hottest ever.

Even more remarkably, there have been three previous debates on days when temperatures surpassed 90 degrees.

The high of 92 degrees the day of the third presidential debate in 2004 between then-President George W. Bush and his Democratic challenger John Kerry was ordinary for a mid-October day in Tempe, Arizona, where the debate was held. There, temperatures regularly reach into the 90s late into the month.

But the September 21, 1980 presidential debate in Baltimore between insurgent Republican nominee Ronald Reagan and Independent John B. Anderson (Democrat Jimmy Carter, the incumbent, declined the invitation) saw temperatures soar about 14 degrees higher than average, reaching 90 degrees. And in San Francisco on October 6, 1976, the thermometer also hit 90 degrees — more than 20 degrees above the average for the city at that time of year.

Map of debate day high temperatures relative to average.

On average, debate-day high temperatures have been trending higher in recent years. But in truth, there aren’t many conclusions to be drawn from that metric. Temperatures can vary widely from day to day, and this will be only the 36th general-election presidential debate since then-candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon faced off for the first time on national television in 1960. That doesn’t give us a huge data set to work with.

Of the four cities that have hosted 90 degree debates, temperature variability is especially pronounced in Baltimore, where at least 23 days out of the past year have been 10 degrees hotter or cooler than the day before. The figure is lower but still pronounced for Atlanta, San Francisco, and Tempe, underscoring the difficulty of drawing reliable conclusions on the trajectory of debate-day forecasts.

Plus, every debate has been held in the evening, after heat has subsided for the day. On that scorching day in San Francisco, for instance, temperatures had fallen to the 70s by the time Carter and then-President Gerald Ford were making their opening statements.

But even if presidential debates go back to their usual early autumn time slot, we might still see a rise in debate temperatures as the seasons themselves change. One 2021 study found that climate change had increased the length of summer by 17 days from 1952 to 2011, while spring, autumn, and winter all lost days. By 2100, summer could last up to half the year, the study found.

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Charlie Clynes profile image

Charlie Clynes

Charlie is an intern at Heatmap and senior at Brown University, where he studies applied math and history. He is also the managing editor of digital content at The Brown Daily Herald.

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