In my defense, this Republican presidential campaign is weird. Frontrunner Donald Trump leads Republican presidential hopefuls on average- and I stress average- by 43.7 points according to RealClearPolitics, without having attended one of three debates. Barring injury or a legal setback, the former President will be the 2024 Republican presidential nominee. Debating seems anticlimactic.
My initial reaction to Trump’s absence was “so what?” I tend to get my political information from campaign websites, YouTube, political studies, and so on. I get very little from political debates. However, I have a passion for politics and know which sources I trust and don’t trust. Many Americans don’t have the experience or desire to do the same — and I can’t say that I blame them, considering the tone and temperature of our current political discourse.
Nevertheless, there’s some history being made here. Trump is continuing a trend of politicians skipping debates. While both parties do it, it is more pronounced among Republicans, per the New Jersey Monitor. Some presidential candidates have skipped general election debates — Richard Nixon did so in 1968 and 1972, after his appearance in the 1960 debate, for instance — but I couldn’t find a presidential candidate who wasn’t an unchallenged incumbent skipping every single primary debate.
The receding of political debates can have some negative effects. According to political scientist Nicholas Valentino, “when political candidates refuse to step on the debate stage to either defend or explain their policy position, it makes it difficult for voters to be informed on what their representatives are doing.”
I needed to be reminded of this. I get distracted with the stock phrases and jargon of political debates, so I tune them out. But even if I don’t get much out of them (and perhaps I should), they are valuable for the little accountability they put on our elected officials.
Furthermore, the lack of political debates might increase partisanship because when voters don’t know the nuances between the candidates, they vote for who and what are comfortable: their usual party. This is similar to when local newspapers go out of print. Less information brings more partisanship, according to political scientist Daniel Hopkins.
It makes sense for Trump to skip the debates until the candidates have been winnowed down to a few viable options. If he continues to skip them after that point, he continues a dangerous precedent. Much has happened since the 2020 election, including January 6th and the considerable Republican resistance building against the former president from figures such as former Representative Liz Cheney and Senator Mitt Romney. Shouldn’t the other candidates have the opportunity to challenge Trump face to face? Shouldn’t Trump have to answer for some of his behavior?
Yes, political debates can be boring and can appear pointless. Yes, they need considerable reform.
But wouldn’t you rather have more information than less? Wouldn’t you rather have the leaders of our country interview before the American people prior to assuming office?
We voters have got to impose what accountability we can on our political candidates.
Otherwise, the smoke-filled room may again dominate.