The Memo: After Trump’s boycott and new cancellations, do debates still matter?

Republican primary debates might have come to an abrupt end this year.

Two GOP debates that had been scheduled to take place before the Jan. 23 New Hampshire primary were canceled within 24 hours of each other this week.

ABC News and WMUR were the first to move, canceling a debate Tuesday that had been scheduled for Thursday. Then CNN pulled the plug on a clash due to take place Sunday.

They were left with no choice.

Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley released a statement Tuesday asserting that she would only participate in further debates if they were with former President Trump or President Biden.

Given that Trump, the runaway GOP front-runner, has boycotted all debates to date, Haley’s position in effect stymied any further events. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was left as the only candidate willing to debate before the Granite State primary.

DeSantis responded to Haley’s pronouncement by accusing her of being afraid to answer “tough questions” and claiming that she and Trump were delivering a “snub” to New Hampshire voters.

Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis appear at the CNN Republican presidential debate at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis appear at the CNN Republican presidential debate at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis appear at the CNN Republican presidential debate at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Beyond the back-and-forth over New Hampshire, there are sharp questions being asked about whether debates themselves are becoming less salient — especially in a political age where cable news and social media provide more partisan and less risky ways for candidates to engage voters’ attention.

Trump has famously declined to participate in any of the five GOP debates so far, and his stance has not impeded his progress toward the nomination in any way.

Meanwhile, the Biden campaign has so far declined to commit to general election debates.

In December, Biden’s principal deputy campaign manager Quentin Fulks told reporters that the campaign would “look at the schedule” of debates once it came out and would “have those conversations” about participating, according to The Associated Press.

Some observers say that even though Trump has indicated a desire to debate Biden, the president could use his opponent’s boycott of the GOP primary clashes as a handy rationale if he wants to dodge general election clashes.

“I do have a real concern because I think debates are really important, especially in a general election,” said Steve Scully, the senior vice president of the Bipartisan Policy Center and host of “The Briefing” on SiriusXM.

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Scully, who is a contributor to The Hill, had himself been due to moderate one of the 2020 presidential debates until Trump pulled out in protest after the decision was made to make the clash virtual amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“My concern is that if Donald Trump does not participate in any debates in a primary, that gives the Democrats political ammunition to say, ‘You didn’t participate in a primary, I won’t debate you in a general election,’” Scully said.

But Trump loyalists push back hard against that parallel.

“Ridiculous,” said Hogan Gidley, who served as national press secretary for the 2020 Trump campaign and is now senior adviser for strategic communications at the America First Policy Institute. “Like comparing apples to car keys.”

Gidley added that there is a world of difference between the two contests, given Trump’s gargantuan polling lead in the primary.

“One is a presidential primary when you’re up 50 points — and by the way, Joe Biden isn’t debating his rivals either,” Gidley said. “Once you have nominees from the two major parties, it would make sense for them to debate.”

At the root of all these tussles is a simple calculation of risk and reward.

Trump’s lead is so commanding in the primary that there is no real incentive for him to give his rivals a chance to force a gaffe or even present themselves on equal footing with him. Likewise in New Hampshire, Haley doesn’t want any late debates to open the door for DeSantis, who lags her by a long way in Granite State polls.

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Glen Bolger, a veteran Republican pollster, contended that Trump was not a particularly great debater.

“Trump is, at best, uneven,” Bolger said. “When he’s good, he is really good; when he is bad, he is really bad. Why take the risk now? But he will flip a switch for the general.”

Gidley, the onetime Trump aide, predicted that Democrats “most likely won’t allow Joe Biden to debate. He can’t get through a sentence without stumbling.”

Democrats counterargue that Biden has often been underestimated as a debater, that Trump sprays untruths around, and that Trump came off the worse in the 2020 encounters between the two.

Then there is the larger point about whether debates are quite as vital as they once were.

Skeptics point to how fast the news cycle moves these days.

They say this reduces the chances of a big debate moment becoming so determinative as it did in the years when President Ford wrongly asserted there was “no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe,” Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis gave an infamously passion-free response to a question on the death penalty, and President George H.W. Bush was caught impatiently looking at his watch during a debate with Democratic nominee Bill Clinton.

It’s notable that some recent debate performances that were almost universally panned as weak have not caused much of a blip in the polls. The clearest recent example was Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.), who was still in the long process of recovery from a stroke, when he debated GOP nominee Mehmet Oz in October 2022. His halting performance raised Democratic concerns, but he won the general election regardless.

But debates clearly can matter even now, especially when gaffes occur.

In a 2021 gubernatorial clash in Virginia, Democrat Terry McAuliffe said that he didn’t think “parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

The remark dogged the closing days of McAuliffe’s campaign and probably aided the election of Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R).

Other experts point out that there is another obvious example of how debates matter — Haley herself, whose polling rise was largely propelled by strong performances in the first three debates.

Before that, “Nikki Haley was an afterthought, polling in the low single digits,” said Aaron Kall, the Lee H. Hess director of debate at the University of Michigan, and the editor and co-author of a book about Trump’s debates, “Debating The Donald.”

“She has benefited most from debates this cycle.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

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