Images from the final presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden in Nashville on Oct. 22, 2020. Credit - Morry Gash and Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images
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In a typical election year, we would be seven months away from the first presidential debate of the parties’ nominees. A date and location is already penciled in: Sept. 16 at Texas State University in San Marcos. The campaign teams of President Joe Biden and his predecessor, Donald Trump, would likely schedule days of prep away from the trail, and plan to frame the outcome as a win for their side, and an abject failure for the other.
While that scenario could still happen, a more likelier one is that the Texas event gets canceled, as will the ones in Virginia and Utah planned for October. In fact, we may have already seen the final presidential debate of 2024—the one that took place back on Jan. 10 in Des Moines, between Republicans Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Trump, as he had done for every primary debate, skipped that one, refusing to share the same air as his lesser-polling GOP rivals. (Ratings for these primary events, it must be noted, were terrible without Trump to provide entertainment.)
And now we appear to be heading to a game of debate chicken, where neither of the likely candidates appears ready to state whether they are even willing to step on the same stage with their opponent later this year.
A spokeswoman for Biden’s campaign said headquarters would have no comment about the debate schedule or have anything to add to this piece with fingerprints attached. Two spokespeople for Trump’s efforts didn’t even acknowledge the question. At other times, when asked directly about the debates, top officials dodged the issue as being premature given neither candidate is yet the official nominee.
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But chat with the coterie of advisers that claim to be shaping campaign strategy, and their responses reveal themselves as efforts to set expectations for gameplans that aren’t set in stone. Put plainly: a Trump-Biden debate could still happen (though probably won’t).
How did we get here? Even before Trump won a single vote or earned a lone delegate in his quest to return to the White House, the Republican National Committee told the longstanding bipartisan group that has organized presidential debates for decades that it was not interested in their planning, thank you very much. If the nominee—presumed even back then in 2022 to be Trump—wanted to face off against the Democratic choice for 2024, they maybe could work out a side deal. But nothing was going to be pushed through the Commission on Presidential Debates, whose handling of the events in recent cycles have drawn GOP accusations of bias, and earned a unanimous rules change at an RNC meeting down in Memphis.
Then, a year later, Trump himself contradicted the central party’s choice to accommodate his whims: “He and I have to definitely debate. That’s what I love. The two of us have to debate,” Trump said in June when asked about a head-to-head session against Biden. And a few months later, Trump half-joked in December that he wanted to make debates a centerpiece of his run: “How about 10 debates?”
If given a chance to take on Biden again, it might be too tempting for Trump, who is being counseled to limit his already wide exposure on multiple fronts—including legal—and let the movement he started power him back into office. The same may be the case for Biden, who harbors a visceral reaction to “the former guy,” yet still trusts his inner-circle, many of whom are very much against a face-to-face brawl where things could go sideways at any moment.
Put plainly: debates are one of the easiest ways to reset a campaign’s dynamic, and, at least for now, the two men seemingly heading toward the nominations carry zero interest in messing with those fluid conditions just yet. And, given the talk coming from their advisers and allies, they may well already have boxed themselves out of the debate halls, which are already booked starting in mid-September.
Of course, neither Biden nor Trump is their party’s nominee officially. But this deep into the primary calendar, there’s no reason to think Trump will agree to share a stage with Haley—the last candidate standing between him and a third White House nomination in eight years. For her part, Haley declined chances to again debate DeSantis heading out of Iowa; DeSantis dropped out days later despite his own second-place finish in Iowa rather than face a third- or-worse finish in New Hampshire.
Biden has adopted a similar strategy against his primary rivals. True, Biden is the incumbent President while Trump is just acting like one. Biden has brushed off calls for primary debates, as is the norm for all modern incumbents since Gerald Ford. Incumbents of both parties have blown off intra-party challenges to a second term and have even canceled primaries altogether. Bill Clinton in 1996 won 34 of the 36 primaries that year, George W. Bush won 30 states while 10 states canceled theirs in 2004 and effectively ceded themselves to Bush alone on the ballots. When Barack Obama sought a second term, 10 states bailed on balloting altogether in the primaries; for Trump in 2020, in the midst of a pandemic, scores of states did the same for often-contradictory reasons.
While voters might be jarred by the prospect of the major party candidates never debating one another in person before Election Day, it’s not entirely unheard of. Historically, though, it’s been at the prerogative of the incumbent President as to whether any debates happened. Lyndon Johnson ignored the general-election debate season in 1964, just a year after he moved from the VP’s suite to the Oval Office in the wake of John F. Kennedy’s assassination a year earlier. Jimmy Carter in 1980 decided to miss the first two debates when independent candidate John Anderson was included; only 25% of voters told Gallup ahead of the debate that they agreed with Carter’s decision, and he was moving out of the White House a few months later to make way for Ronald Reagan.
But challengers forcing the situation is not unprecedented, either. Richard Nixon skipped the debates in 1968 as a challenger and did the same in 1972 as an incumbent. (The memory of his disastrous 1960 debate against JFK clearly informed Nixon’s media team.)
The history lessons are at the fingertips of party insiders looking to justify each side’s seemingly inevitable plan to skip the debates. But none of that is very persuasive, nor are the arguments all that relevant to the range of issues being raised this cycle. Trump’s defenders insist the real problem is the debate commission, which they say is beholden to corporate interests that hate Trump and would pick an unfair moderator. A Biden backer, meanwhile, suggested that allowing the President to share a stage with Trump is too much of a risk, noting that the first time they met to debate in 2020, Trump had tested positive for Covid-19 during the days leading up to that clash without disclosing it.
Ultimately, though, there is this reality: Americans are not particularly persuadable, at least not at this moment and when considering these two options. (Plenty of the 67% of Americans who don’t like a Biden-Trump rematch could consider themselves Haley-curious if somehow she could wrestle the nomination away from Trump.) Partisans can pick their own versions of reality, right- and left-leaning networks can amplify messages their hosts find useful, local news has been hollowed out, limiting the extent to which voters are learning about how the outcome of the election will affect local communities. And that’s even before disinformation creeps into the mix.
So while the top spinners at campaign headquarters are playing coy about debate stage-setting and pre-spin, it’s clear it’s partly out of uncertainty. The hired guns may have an idea about what’s coming, but the bosses are their own brands of stubborn. Trump may find the drama too juicy to miss; Biden may want to prove he still has the Trump-slaying skill that gave him the top job four years ago. So while the chances of any general election debate happening this fall appear awfully slim, we still can’t rule them out.
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Write to Philip Elliott at email@example.com.