Will Biden and Trump debate? The brief history and uncertain future of presidential debates

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To debate or not to debate is a complicated question for President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump as they barrel into an eight-month general election.

Trump’s position: On social media, Trump promised he would debate Biden “ANYTIME, ANYWHERE, ANYPLACE.” He reiterated that commitment Sunday, telling Fox News that he would do it “anytime, anyplace” and would “even debate minutia.” It is a bold claim that is not backed up by Trump’s record.

He failed to participate in any of the Republican National Committee-sponsored primary debates in this election cycle. He’s also the only modern, major-party nominee to back out of a general election debate, during the pandemic four years ago.

The RNC voted in 2022 to end its relationship with the nonpartisan system that has sponsored general election debates since the 1988 presidential campaign. Trump has since cleaned house at the RNC. More on that later.

Biden’s position: Biden only faced token primary opposition this year, and the Democratic National Committee didn’t sponsor any primary debates. But he has remained coy about whether he will debate Trump in the general election.

“I don’t know if he’s serious,” Biden told CNN after the Gridiron Dinner on Saturday when asked whether he expects to debate the former president ahead of the 2024 election. “I don’t know if he’s serious.”

Whether either man will show up to the debate stage is an open question, but there is a detailed plan for three presidential debates and a vice presidential one already in place from the Commission on Presidential Debates. It’s a nonpartisan organization that has leaders from both sides of the political aisle and gets funding from the communities that host debates and also “to a lesser extent, from corporate, foundation and private donors,” per its website.

For more on the context and history of presidential debates, I talked on the phone with two experts:

  • Alan Schroeder wrote the book “Presidential Debates: Risky Business on the Campaign Trail.” He’s also a professor emeritus of journalism at Northeastern University.

  • Aaron Kall is director of debate at the University of Michigan and editor of the book “Debating the Donald.”

Here’s what to know about the US presidential debate system:

How did this system of debates come into being?

SCHROEDER: The history in a nutshell is basically that there were four debates in 1960 between (John F.) Kennedy and (Richard) Nixon. Those were sponsored by the TV networks. And then there were no more until 1976.

In ’76, the president was Gerald Ford. He had come into office because of Nixon’s resignation. So he was in kind of a weak position. He’s the one that actually challenged Jimmy Carter to debates, and that set in place this tradition that has existed ever since then of presidential debates.

There was one year, 1980, where there was only one debate between (Ronald) Reagan and Carter, but normally there are two or three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate per cycle.

The other thing that has changed is the sponsorship. Since 1988, the Commission on Presidential Debates has been the sponsor of the debates.

(Note: Before the commission was formed, debates were organized either by TV networks or between campaigns.)

Sen. John F. Kennedy, left, and Vice President Richard Nixon, right, participate in a presidential debate in Washington, DC, in October 1960. - Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
Sen. John F. Kennedy, left, and Vice President Richard Nixon, right, participate in a presidential debate in Washington, DC, in October 1960. - Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Where and when will the debates happen this year?

While we don’t yet know the exact format or topics for the debates or who will moderate them, the commission announced the schedule last November:

  • September 16 – First presidential debate at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas.

  • September 25 – Vice presidential debate at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania.

  • October 1 – Second presidential debate at Virginia State University in Petersburg, Virginia.

  • October 9 – Third presidential debate at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

There are legitimate questions about whether debates should happen earlier, particularly when so many voters now tend to cast early ballots – something the commission addressed by scheduling the final debate of this cycle for nearly a month before Election Day.

The commission selects these debate locations after accepting bids from locations, which are almost always college campuses.

Who can qualify to participate in the debates?

The commission sets criteria for candidates to meet, and Republicans and Democrats are usually the only candidates to qualify.

In the commission era, the only non-major-party candidate to take part in debates was Ross Perot in 1992. Perot was not included when he ran again in 1996.

Presidential candidates Bill Clinton, right, Ross Perot, center, and President George Bush, left, participate in a debate in 1992. - Wally McNamee/Corbis/Getty Images
Presidential candidates Bill Clinton, right, Ross Perot, center, and President George Bush, left, participate in a debate in 1992. - Wally McNamee/Corbis/Getty Images

For a candidate like Robert F. Kennedy Jr. or a Libertarian, Green Party or No Labels candidate to meet the threshold, he or she would have to be constitutionally eligible to serve as president; appear on the ballot in enough states to mathematically win the election; and get at least 15% support in national polling from five different polling organizations selected by the commission.

Why are debates important?

SCHROEDER: The beauty of debates is it’s the only time during these lengthy, two-year-long campaigns where you see the candidates next to each other and confronting each other.

I think that’s a really important piece of any election, because it’s so different from everything else. It’s the one moment when the campaigns aren’t in complete control … which is why candidates don’t particularly like debates.

Do debates change election outcomes or confirm the trajectory?

SCHROEDER: Rather than change the outcome of the elections, debates tend to, as you said, confirm the existing perceptions that people have of candidates – especially in this day and age when, frankly, there aren’t that many undecided voters left.

What do debates accomplish?

SCHROEDER: I think they motivate voters. Maybe you’ve already decided you prefer one candidate over the other. But does that mean you actually go out and vote?

If you watch the debate and you’re fired up by a strong performance or scared by what the other candidate is saying, then the debate could conceivably lead you to vote.

We have to remember that the ratings for debates are enormous. Typically, in years when debates occur, they’re the second-highest rated programs after the Super Bowl.

Smart politicians can use the debate as a platform in front of tens and tens of millions of people to overcome negative perceptions that exist about them, or conversely, to reinforce the negative perceptions about their opponents.

(Note: Around 73 million people watched the first debate between Trump and Biden in 2020, when it was broadcast on 16 channels. Many more probably watched online or encountered snippets. A record 84 million watched the first debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016.)

Who have been notable debate winners and losers?

KALL: Going back to the first one, Nixon, he was in a car accident and he didn’t perform very well. People thought Kennedy looked better. Kennedy won.

(Note: Nixon was hospitalized for weeks before the debate due to an infection that developed after he hit his knee against a car door.)

Gerald Ford made a mistake about the Russian presence in Europe. (Ford lost to Carter in 1976.)

Ronald Reagan won a landslide reelection. He had a really good zinger answering concerns about his age. (Reagan defeated Walter Mondale in 1984.)

George H.W. Bush, looking at his watch, seeming out of touch, got dinged in 1992.

Bill Clinton was great at connecting with the audience and with the questioners in the town hall format. (Ross Perot was also on the stage. Clinton won the three-person election.)

People didn’t like Al Gore sighing and that hurt him. (Gore got more votes, but lost the election in 2000.)

Barack Obama did terribly in his first debate against Mitt Romney. He was even down in some polls, and then had to really come back for debates two and three to try to win that election. (Obama won reelection in 2012, but it’s also worth recalling Biden’s strong vice presidential debate against Sarah Palin in 2008.)

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama talk over each other as they answer questions during a town hall style debate at Hofstra University on October 16, 2012, in Hempstead, New York. - John Moore/Getty Images
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama talk over each other as they answer questions during a town hall style debate at Hofstra University on October 16, 2012, in Hempstead, New York. - John Moore/Getty Images

It seems like Biden faces extreme risk since any gaffe will be used to raise questions about his age, no?

SCHROEDER: We watched him at the State of the Union address last week and not only did he get through it, and it was a long speech, but then he hung out for another hour afterwards. Just glad-handing with people in the chambers.

But you’re right. It’s a very physically exacting thing to have to do, to be on your game for 90 minutes uninterrupted. General election debates don’t typically have commercials on like the primary debates, so you don’t even have a bathroom break.

Debates are always risky. They’re risky even for people at the top of their game or people who are really good at debates, simply because unscripted politicians at that level are not used to operating in an ad-libbed environment.

KALL: I think they both face risk, although at this time, I think Trump probably faces a little more risk, partly because of the expectations that he’s created.

He’s been so eager about wanting to debate. If he doesn’t totally crush Biden on the debate stage, then it could look like a loss, and President Biden’s kind of benefited from low expectations his entire political career.

Has a presidential candidate ever skipped a commission debate?

SCHROEDER: In 2020, there were only two debates. There were three scheduled, but the second one, the middle one, got canceled because it was during Covid. And the commission decided to do it as a virtual debate instead of an in-person debate. And so Trump basically said I don’t want to do that.

So there were only two that year. But of course Trump did do debates against Biden, as well as against Hillary Clinton in 2016.

(Note: Trump was still recuperating from Covid-19 when the second debate was canceled in 2020. Four days before the second debate was canceled and 10 days before it was to have taken place, he returned to the White House from being treated at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. The commission wanted to do the town-hall style debate virtually, in part because it was not clear if Trump was still contagious. Biden’s campaign refused to move that debate even closer to Election Day.)

KALL: The big barrier, I thought, to having debates this cycle was Trump’s aversion to the Commission on Presidential Debates and the RNC’s aversion to them. But he seems to have kind of backtracked on that, or he just thinks that he wants to beat Biden so much that he’s willing to put that aside, because he thinks he benefits so much from debates and Biden would make a disqualifying gaffe.

Will Trump and Biden end up debating in 2024?

Trump has long argued the commission is biased, even though multiple Republicans are involved with it.

The RNC withdrew from cooperating with the commission in 2022, although Trump has since cleaned house at the RNC, streamlining the organization with his campaign and installing a new chair and his daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, as co-chair.

It remains to be seen if Trump will indeed make use of the commission debates or propose some other platform, or if Biden will agree to debate Trump.

Trump has a history of complaining about debate moderators who he frequently argues are biased. At one point in 2016, Trump suggested debates proceed without moderators. But a candidate would have to be completely confident of victory to forego general election debates altogether.

SCHROEDER: It would be really hard for either candidate to walk away from an audience of 70 to 80 million people, which would be the largest opportunity that either of them would have to make their case before the public, so I remain optimistic.

I really would hate to see us not have a cycle with debates, because then I think that it becomes harder to restart things in the future.

This story has been updated with new reporting.

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