Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 25 books, including the New York Times best-seller, “Myth America: Historians Take on the Biggest Lies and Legends About Our Past” (Basic Books). Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Former President Donald Trump is considering sitting out one or both of the first two Republican primary debates, three sources told CNN. During a campaign event in New Hampshire this week, Trump pointed to his recent poll numbers and questioned why he would participate in the debates given his lead over the other GOP candidates.
Meanwhile, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) doesn’t have any primary debates scheduled – a move that helps President Joe Biden and hurts his challengers Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Marianne Williamson. It’s clear the DNC doesn’t see Kennedy or Williamson as serious contenders, and Biden seems to prefer a Rose Garden strategy, where the focus of his campaign revolves around being the president and showing the country how he does the job.
Having fewer debates, however, is not necessarily a bad thing. But quantity is not the issue here. Quality is.
Of course, the number of debates for each party is subject to change. Trump, for instance, could simply be bluffing to add some intrigue. And a more serious Biden challenger could enter the race, prompting the DNC to schedule a debate.
But, at this rate, it’s possible that the debates will play a much smaller role in 2024 than they did in 2016 or in 2020. And if the two parties end up nominating Biden and Trump, many Americans may also choose to tune out any debates, thinking they are already quite familiar with both candidates.
That would be a departure from the norm, since debates have been a big part of presidential politics since World War II. Richard Nixon famously squared off against John F. Kennedy in 1960, with an estimated 70 million Americans tuning in to the first of a series of live televised debates between the two major presidential candidates. Nixon seemed nervous and sickly next to the young senator, whose charisma and good looks became the stuff of TV legend.
In 1976, tens of millions of Americans watched as a technical glitch knocked out the sound and forced President Gerald Ford and former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter to stand in awkward silence for 27 minutes while the cameras continued to roll.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan, who decided to pay for a Republican primary debate in New Hampshire with his own campaign funds after the Federal Election Commission ruled against a newspaper-sponsored debate, famously snapped at a moderator, saying: “I am paying for this microphone.”
Debates also played a huge role in the 2016 campaign. Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders participated in a number of high-profile battles, duking it out over the principles that should define the party.
Meanwhile, the Republican primary debates in 2016 often felt like professional wrestling matches as Trump hammered away at a crowded field. Through name-calling, insults and lacerating quips, Trump took down each of his opponents, one by one. Not only were these primetime events, but clips of these attacks were posted and reshared over and over again on social media.
The 2020 debates were not quite as thrilling, even though they continued to play a key role in the election. Biden had to survive a number of tough moments in the Democratic primary debates, like when then-Sen. Kamala Harris criticized him for his opposition to school busing as a means of desegregation in the 1970s. (Biden later said he supported school integration, but opposed busing because he thought it had a negative impact.)
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On the Republican side, Trump refused to debate his primary opponents. When it came time to face off against Biden, voters got a taste of each candidate’s demeanor. Biden, who was sharper than many expected, showed that he could land a good punch, while Trump continued to display his in your face, say anything, chaotic approach.
Things might play out differently in 2024. Trump has very little incentive to debate, especially since he can command plenty of attention with his campaign events and social media outbursts. And if he continues to poll well above his opponents, he won’t feel the need to grant them opportunities to gain more exposure. Biden, meanwhile, would rather focus on showing he can govern, as opposed to engaging in verbal combat, which has never been his forte.
This isn’t to say debates have no value. Debates, if and when they happen, should serve the purpose of informing voters about the candidates. The organizers and hosts of these events should figure out a way to take this responsibility seriously – that means pushing back on the theatrics and showmanship in real time, asking candidates to answer policy questions and pressing them to demonstrate their ability to govern. Too much is at stake, from an unstable economy to continued war in Europe, to get this wrong in 2024.