Last week, the Republican National Committee announced its plans to prohibit Republican presidential candidates from participating in the official general election debates sponsored by the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates.
According to a New York Times report, there were plenty of complaints on both sides of this conflict, too. RNC officials objected to the timing of the presidential debates and accused the debate commission of being biased toward Democrats, while members of the debate commission expressed frustration that the RNC confuses the rules for primary and general election debates — the debate commission deals only with the latter. It’s also worth noting that the debate commission usually works with specific presidential campaigns, not party committees, such as the RNC.
The possibility, though, that the RNC tells its 2024 presidential candidate to boycott the official debates is still a remarkable prospect — perhaps no more striking than the RNC’s decision not to write a 2020 party platform. It seems like a significant norm violation since presidential debates have been a part of the general election campaign for more than 40 years. But then again, presidential debates never were one of the most consequential parts of the presidential campaign process. What should we think about this development?
For starters, the RNC’s reasons to prohibit participation in the debates are important. And that’s because they fall in line with an important strain of Trumpism: a claim to being the victims of unfair treatment. To be fair, evidence does show that some important cultural institutions, including the news media, are more likely to be populated by Democrats than Republicans, but conflict between presidential campaigns and debate organizers about the journalists who moderate the debates is hardly one-sided — or new. After all, the purpose of debates is to allow voters to see candidates perform under pressure and to evaluate their responses — tension with the campaigns on how to best facilitate this is to be expected. But this move represents the Trumpist Republican Party only further rejecting established institutions and democratic practices.
It’s worth taking a moment to think about the kind of institution that the Commission on Presidential Debates is, too. It was formed in 1987, after several decades of contention over presidential debates — whether and when they would happen, who would participate and who would moderate. The debate commission is, in other words, a product of a very specific time in American politics — when bipartisanship among powerful, established politicians was possible. It also represents the weird ambivalence around political parties representative of that time; the debate commission works with individual presidential campaigns, not parties, demonstrating the candidate-centered nature of presidential politics in that era. But the debate commission has also been criticized for having a high polling threshold — 15 percent — that makes it difficult for third-party candidates to participate. Only one candidate outside the Republican and Democratic parties, Ross Perot, has qualified for the debates since the debate commission was formed.
As commentators consider whether debates matter at all, presidential candidates have certainly acted as if they do. Major candidates and front-runners — especially incumbents — have sometimes been reluctant to debate. Campaigns have also put restrictions on debates and tried to manage the questions that their candidates will face. And third-party candidates, like those from the Green and Libertarian parties, have pushed for inclusion in the debates, sometimes to the point of lawsuits.
Strife over debates in some ways reflects the assumptions of a bygone era, one in which party labels mattered less and debates might offer some illumination about candidates’ issue positions or leadership abilities. There are just fewer voters up for grabs now, and among those engaged enough to watch debates, most will have already made up their minds.
So what would be different if the Republicans refuse to participate in the next round of presidential debates? One possibility is a more stable campaign, even if not much changes about the outcome. Analysis here at FiveThirtyEight suggests that debates do move the polls — it’s just that those “bounces” tend not to last long. It’s possible that this kind of campaign stability would be beneficial to some candidates over others. It’s also the case that presidential elections have gotten much closer in our era of heightened polarization, and in an especially tight race, anything can matter.
The larger stakes of this decision, though, are whether the Republican Party can continue to pull out of institutions that it can’t control, without facing much in the way of consequences. This is especially significant to the key democratic values that are on display in these events. Candidates show their acceptance of legitimate opposition by appearing on stage in a civil exchange with their opponents. For the major two parties, this has generally been a steady feature of debates, even when they’re heated. They also signal their commitment to accountability by submitting to moderators’ questions, displaying for the voters what they do and don’t know, and how well they’re able to perform under pressure. But in this case, the GOP is taking an old, bipartisan tradition of discomfort with that scrutiny to a new level.
We don’t know for sure what would change if presidential debates didn’t happen. It could be that nothing changes. However, the RNC’s latest move shows how much the party is willing to break away from practices that exemplify core democratic values, and from established institutions that used to enjoy bipartisan buy-in and support. For one political party to pull out of presidential debates — years in advance — signals a further retreat from the basic ideas of democracy.