Will Trump Ever Debate?

[ Posted Monday, November 20th, 2023 – 16:49 UTC ]

Will we ever get to see Donald Trump debate anyone before the next presidential election? That was my immediate thought upon reading that the Commission on Presidential Debates (C.P.D.) has just announced the schedule for their four planned debates (three presidential, one vice-presidential). I consider this to be rather optimistic for a number of reasons, since at this point the safe bet would either be that any debates which are held won't be run by the C.P.D. -- or that Donald Trump won't show up for any debate (no matter who is running it).

This isn't just speculation, either. Over a year and a half ago, the Republican National Committee voted to boycott any debates held by the C.P.D., calling them "biased." So one political party is already on the record stating they won't participate. That's a big hurdle right there.

Even if the C.P.D. somehow assuages the concerns of the R.N.C. enough for them to reverse this stance, that has to be seen as pretty far-fetched at this point. Especially considering that Donald Trump is the odds-on favorite to walk away with the Republican nomination. Trump, after all, hasn't even shown up for any of the primary debates run directly by the R.N.C., so even if the party bigwigs were somehow to get on board with the C.P.D.'s schedule, there is no guarantee that Trump will show up for any of them.

Trump is so far out ahead of all the other GOP wannabes in the polls that skipping the debates has not harmed his political chances at all. Showing up to any of them would have allowed candidates who badly trail Trump to take a few shots at him. And as far as Trump is concerned, that would elevate them far beyond their current importance to the race. It's hard to argue with this logic, after Trump ignored the first three debates and suffered no dip in his polling for doing so. None of the people on the GOP's stages has caught fire in any noticeable way with the Republican voting base, so Trump was probably right to play it safe and blow off the debates. It certainly hasn't hurt his chances in any way.

Of course, it is still an open question as to whether Trump will show up to any of the remaining Republican primary debates which are scheduled. The field is getting winnowed considerably, and the only candidates not named "Donald Trump" with any hope of appearing at the next debate are: Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Chris Christie. Christie will have the toughest time qualifying, but the other three are pretty much shoo-ins. If the R.N.C. keeps upping the debate criteria, eventually Christie may be shut out in the cold, leaving only three possible challengers to Trump. Of the three, one has adopted a "let's move on from Trump" attitude and actually criticizes him on specific issues, but the other two have run pretty strongly pro-Trump campaigns (to differing degrees -- Ramaswamy is much more openly a Trump cheerleader than DeSantis). So if Trump showed up to debate them, you could expect Ramaswamy to defend Trump, DeSantis to twist himself into pretzels to both defend him and criticize him, and Haley strongly saying: "Let's move on, if we want to actually win." That might be tempting enough for Trump to show up for, although probably not. Skipping the debates so far has worked out pretty well for him, so why change that strategy now? None of the others have come within 20 points of Trump in any state, so they're all still pretty small potatoes to Trump.

If Trump sails to victory in the primaries and skates away with the nomination very early on, then there won't be any reason for more GOP debates. Which brings us to the question of whether Trump would also boycott the general election debates.

The first question worth asking may actually be how many other people will be on any of those stages. We may see a bunch of third-party and independent candidates this time around, which already includes Cornel West and Robert F. Kennedy Junior, and will also assumably include a Green Party candidate and a Libertarian Party candidate. Plus there is the multimillion-dollar No Labels effort to put a bipartisan ticket on the ballot, which could result in someone like Joe Manchin or Larry Hogan running. So would the stage actually get kind of crowded?

That is doubtful, at least if the C.P.D. is still in charge of who qualifies. As Politico points out:

In order to earn an invitation, a candidate must be on the ballot in enough states to earn a majority of Electoral College votes, and average 15 percent in surveys conducted by five polling firms to be identified later.

That is a very high bar to clear. But right now R.F.K. Jr. is already pretty close to clearing it. Who knows where he will be in the polling next fall, but he's already showing that it can be done in this particular election cycle. No third-party candidate has qualified for one of these debates since H. Ross Perot in 1992, but Bobby Junior might break this streak. As could (depending on who they pick and how well they are received) whichever candidate No Labels settles on. So it's not inconceivable that we might see four podia on the debate stage. But what's more likely is that the "disgruntled voter" segment splits between Bobby and No Labels enough that neither one of them qualifies, or that one or the other does, but not both. There just may not be enough disillusioned voters to go around, to put this another way.

Another question worth asking is whether Joe Biden will show up or not. Biden may not, if it's just him and one of the independents on the stage (using the same logic Trump has been using to skip the primary debates). But even if it was only Trump and Biden, I could see certain circumstances where Biden refuses to participate. If Trump has gone full-blown strongman during his campaign then Biden may refuse on ideological grounds ("I will not appear with a wannabe dictator!"). Or if Biden is in Trump's position at the end of next summer (stranger things have happened), with a commanding lead in the general election polls, he may give Trump a dose of his own medicine and refuse to show up.

Let's assume Biden does commit to debating, though (perhaps "as long as Trump shows up," to avoid a Biden-versus-R.F.K. Jr. debate). Will Trump? The last time around, Trump did skip one of the scheduled debates with Biden, after he came down with COVID and refused to debate virtually (from a remote location). And in the third debate, the moderators warned that microphones would be cut if the candidates just tried to talk over each other's time -- which Trump really didn't like. Trump's whole debate style (for those who have forgotten) is to be the biggest, loudest bully he can be -- drowning out other candidates with sheer volume and playground insults, spewing a constant firehose of lies so quickly neither his opponent or the moderators can keep up with the fact-checking, and generally being as obnoxious as humanly possible. If he's not allowed to freely vent his spleen, he could easily decide to boycott.

There's a flip side to the hypothetical I mentioned earlier, too. What if Trump holds a commanding lead in the polling? Why would he even bother to show up, if this is true? After all, it seems to be working out just fine in the primaries. So he could refuse on the grounds that he's "already won this race."

Of course, nationally-televised debates are kind of catnip to Trump. While there are indeed reasons he might decline to show up, he might be too tempted by the prospect of giving a verbal beatdown to Joe Biden while the whole country is watching. Trump loves his playground-bully debating style, please remember. He loves ripping into other candidates and then proclaiming himself the clear winner afterwards. And he loves getting under not just Biden's skin, but also that of the media and all of Biden's supporters. Which all might prove to be so tempting that Trump does show up (for at least one or two debates).

The chances of Trump showing up will likely increase the more the R.N.C. gets to influence the debate format. Right now, Trump doesn't have to give any personal reason for blowing off the debates, he can just fall back on the R.N.C.'s announced boycott. But if the C.P.D. is totally cut out of the process (which could happen, just ask the League of Women Voters), then the R.N.C. may get to dictate terms for any debate they deign to put their imprimatur on. Which, obviously, would work to Trump's advantage, since any terms the R.N.C. will be dictating will be coming straight from the Trump campaign. Alternatively (for the sake of completeness), Biden could refuse to debate if the debate format is essentially just everything the R.N.C. demands.

In normal presidential cycles, there is usually some squabbling about the general election debates between the two parties and between the two candidates. Usually, these differences get ironed out or bridged over enough to get both candidates to agree to show up. But any presidential cycle with Donald Trump in it simply can never be called a "normal" one.

The Commission on Presidential Debates has announced their planned schedule for next year's presidential (and vice-presidential) debates. But at this point, this news truly leaves me wondering: "What if they gave a debate and nobody came?"

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


6 Comments on “Will Trump Ever Debate?”

  1. [1] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    Don’t be silly — Trump not only won’t debate Repugs he won’t debate Joe in the general.

  2. [2] 
    John M from Ct. wrote:

    I have to admit I got a little, then a lot bored as I read through this piece. I am never going to vote for Donald Trump. In fact, when Trump's voice is about to be broadcast on my car radio during my morning commute while listening to NPR's news digest, I quickly change channels so I don't have to hear him speak.
    The idea of me watching a presidential debate featuring Donald Trump is absurd - zero, zero chance that will ever happen. I really really hate, loathe, despise, fear, and resent him in every way those emotions can be expressed.
    So this well-crafted essay by Chris falls short with me. It assumes I care whether or not Trump will choose to appear on a TV debate, in the primary or general election. I don't care, speaking for myself -- and projecting, I bet I don't care on behalf of tens of millions of voters who have already made their minds up on the "Trump question". Love him or hate him, you aren't going to change your mind based on a hypothetical debate appearance by that particular candidate.
    I know: "BAD civics!" "What about democracy? What about informed voters looking to make their choices based on actual candidate research and acquaintance?"
    B*** S***. Everyone knows who Trump is. And everyone has already made up their minds, I believe. I don't give a damn about this debate debate - with all respect to Chris W. who has to populate a politics blog with something everyday.

  3. [3] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    I don't give a damn about this debate debate - with all respect to Chris W. who has to populate a politics blog with something everyday.

    I hear you and feel your pain.

    I wonder if Chris has noticed that his non-stop Trump blog has become tiresome for many of his readers in that few bother to comment anymore. I don't get past reading the title, most times.

    What we should all give a damn about is Trump being re-elected. Which, at this point is time, is more than a distinct possibility.

    Consequently, I think these blog pages should be better devoted to Biden - what he and his administration have done for voters, domestically speaking; what still needs to be done; what Republicans have done to stymie progress on any number of issues that are important to voters; how to stop the bleeding.

    Of course, on the foreign policy front - my long-supposed Biden strength - the less said about it, the better!

  4. [4] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    Of course, on the foreign policy front - my long-supposed Biden strength - the less said about it, the better!


  5. [5] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Indeed? So, you finally see the light, the dark!?

  6. [6] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    In case something got lost in translation, I'm saying that Biden's foreign policy is pretty much a disaster and it only looks to get worse.

    You know what Mao said ...

Comments for this article are closed.