Neither President Joe Biden nor former President Donald Trump, the leading presidential candidates for their respective parties, seems to have any plans to participate in primary debates in 2024.
The Democratic National Committee isn’t organizing any debates, which has drawn condemnation from Biden’s two Democratic challengers — anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Marianne Williamson, who also sought the nomination in 2020 — as well as from some figures on the right, including Georgia Republican Rep. Majorie Taylor Greene.
And Trump signaled on his social network TruthSocial Tuesday that he wouldn’t be participating in the GOP primary debates. “I see that everybody is talking about the Republican Debates, but nobody got my approval, or the approval of the Trump Campaign, before announcing them,” he wrote. “When you’re leading by seemingly insurmountable numbers, and you have hostile Networks with angry, TRUMP & MAGA hating anchors asking the ‘questions,’ why subject yourself to being libeled and abused?”
In Biden’s case, it’s nothing out of the norm for the party of the incumbent president to forgo primary debates when they’re running for reelection. At least the last four sitting presidents, including Trump, did not participate in primary debates when they sought a second term. That’s by design: The parties do not want to entertain challengers when the incumbent president typically has an inherent electoral advantage.
It might be more unusual for a candidate not to participate in a debate in an open primary, as is the case with Trump. But he’s also in the rare position of a former president who has only served one term, and he has little to gain by participating as the clear frontrunner, leading in the polls by more than 20 points. “It’s smart for him to not want to give anybody else all that free airtime,” said Elaine Kamarck, senior fellow in governance studies and director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution. “It makes perfect sense to not debate a bunch of lesser mortals. If you’re a really serious frontrunner, all you can do in a debate is lose.”
That might come as somewhat of a relief to Trump’s challengers, given how he managed to eviscerate his Republican opponents in 2016 on the debate stage by unleashing petty insults that ultimately stuck.
“They’re absolutely thrilled because they’re not going to get named-called or the mudslinging that comes with Trump being on a debate stage. He sucks the oxygen out of every room,” said Todd Belt, a professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.
But to launch a serious challenge to Trump, candidates may also need the platform to boost their profile. Debates don’t do much to directly and immediately change viewers’ minds about candidates, researchers found in a 2019 paper studying the influence of 56 televised debates on 31 elections in the US and six other countries. But winning the “news verdict” on a debate and outperforming expectations observably boosts candidates’ fundraising numbers, media coverage, and social media engagement, and that can have downstream effects on their campaigns, Belt said. That’s certainly what happened to Kamala Harris after a notable moment in the 2020 Democratic primary debates where she criticized Biden’s record on school busing programs.
“These debates are really an opportunity for lesser-known candidates to introduce themselves to the voters and to try to gain traction,” he said.
Will Trump and Biden debate at all?
A big question is whether Trump and Biden will debate each other if they both make it to the general election. Most remember the first debate between the two in 2020 not for its content but for its chaos: They were speaking over each other so much that it was practically unintelligible. They turned the temperature down in their second debate that year after a mute button was introduced.
Kamarck said it’s typically in candidates’ interest to debate in a general election because presidential elections have recently been very close and they can’t pass over the opportunity to speak to a national audience. But it’s unlikely that either Trump or Biden will be eager to rehash past clashes in 2024. (We reached out to the Trump campaign and the DNC but did not immediately hear back.)
Though debates have become an unofficial requirement for running for president, there are modern precedents for presidential candidates refusing to debate in a general election. After the first televised presidential debate in 1960, there was a period of 16 years in which there were no presidential debates, with former Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon both refusing to participate. And in 1980, former President Jimmy Carter opted not to participate in the first presidential debate over objections to the inclusion of an independent candidate.
It’s not clear whether Biden and Trump will opt to break the streak. If they do, it would be another symptom of the larger breakdown in American political dialogue.
“It is important that the electorate hear directly from the candidates instead of just from advertisements and stump speeches,” Belt said. “It’s important to have somebody be asked pointed questions if they want to be president in the United States and be able to defend their record. And I think if you lose that, then I think you’ve lost something important in the larger discourse around presidential politics.”