Donald Trump thumbed his nose at traditional retail politics, preferring large rallies and appearances on conservative TV. In defeat, he refused to deliver the familiar concession speech and instead falsely claimed that his Republican or Democratic opponents stole elections.
Now it’s the presidential debates that are about to get a Trump makeover. They may never be the same again.
With last week’s Trump-inspired threat to boycott 2024 debates sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates, the Republican National Committee began priming the electorate for a race in which the GOP nominee might not debate at all.
“It certainly gives the candidate more of an out if they’ve decided debating is to their disadvantage to be able to say, ‘The party rules prevent me from accepting’ the commission’s invitation,” said Trevor Potter, a former chair of the Federal Election Commission who served as general counsel to Republican John McCain’s two presidential campaigns.
The RNC, he said, is attempting to “blow up the structure and therefore change the expectation to ‘will they or won’t they‘” debate.
If there was any possibility that the GOP, following Trump’s loss in 2020, would take a more traditionalist turn in the next election, the RNC’s war on the debate commission will serve as yet another reminder of how expansive the former president’s influence remains — and the stamp he’ll put on 2024 regardless of whether he runs. The debate commission was a joint creation of top officials at the RNC and the Democratic National Committee. But that was in the 1980s. Today’s populist-oriented GOP is far more mistrustful of traditional political institutions — including independent, nonpartisan organizations like the commission, which exists only to facilitate general election debates and receives no funding from the government or any political party, political action committee or candidate.
“To the average Republican voter, the response to this action will be some variation of, ‘It’s about time,’” said James Dickey, the former chair of the Texas Republican Party.
From the media to universities to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he said, “We’re seeing institution after institution prove they cannot be trusted. It’s about time one of them paid the penalty for it.”
In its plan to amend party rules to prohibit future nominees from participating in commission-sponsored debates, the RNC is doing the work of an aggrieved former president who complained bitterly about the debate process in 2020, and who is now expected to run again in 2024.
Yet it’s also reflecting popular sentiment within the party. Republicans have long complained that debates and their media moderators are biased against them — what Saul Anuzis, a former chair of the Michigan Republican Party, called “a very serious frustration among Republicans in general, and many of the candidates in the campaigns, that we don’t necessarily get a fair deal.”
Even if “the RNC did this because they’re upset about the way the commission treated Trump,” said Scott Reed, the Republican strategist who managed Bob Dole’s presidential campaign in 1996, “this issue’s been boiling for cycles now.”
The debate commission, he said, “has outlived its usefulness.”
Jeff Roe, a Republican strategist who managed Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign in 2016, said that “the days of playing ball with the insider media moguls is over.”
Few Republicans expect debates will not occur in some form in 2024. The commission may still mollify the RNC. Or debates could be arranged through some other organization or through candidate-to-candidate negotiations directly — the way it worked prior to the commission’s establishment. As Dick Wadhams, a former Colorado Republican Party chair and longtime party strategist, put it, “I don’t think God sent down tablets from heaven saying that the debate commission is the final word.”
“On the other hand,” he said, “any time you get Trump involved with these kinds of things, it gets excessive and it gets out of line.”
“There’s no doubt in my mind that what Trump would want is basically cheerleaders for him to be the moderator,” Wadhams said. “That’s not right, either. I think there’s some middle ground there that needs to be reached.”
But with the commission still in charge of the debate process — and with the RNC threatening to pull out — there is no guarantee that a compromise will be reached or that debates will go on in 2024. When it was formed, the debate commission was designed expressly to institutionalize a process that had become mired in haggling between campaigns. And Democrats are not likely going to let Republicans dictate the terms of 2024, touching off one of the confrontations between the parties ahead of the campaign.
“This is part of the Trumpified Republican Party’s war on institutions,” said Pete Giangreco, a Democratic strategist who has worked on nine presidential campaigns. “They don’t want every citizen to vote. They only want their voters to vote. They don’t want everybody’s vote counted. … And now they don’t want honest debates.”
He added: “This is totally in line with everything they’re about now. They don’t want institutions. They want everything to be wild, wild West.”
Trump, if he runs, will likely be advantaged by increased flexibility to debate or not. His performance in his first debate against Biden in 2020 was widely viewed as a disaster, and he was perceived by viewers as the loser of both that and the second debate. More important, even if commission-sponsored debates ultimately go forward, the RNC’s criticism of the process is telegraphing to the public that, if they go poorly for the party’s nominee, the GOP will complain they were unfair.
It’s a tactic straight out of the Trump playbook, similar to how the then-president worked for months before the 2020 election to sow distrust in the outcome by claiming without evidence that it would be rigged.
“Trump got his ass kicked in these debates, so they want to change the rules,” said Stuart Stevens, who was Mitt Romney’s chief strategist in 2012 and who worked against Trump’s reelection in 2020. “It’s like a football team that can’t pass, so they want to make it illegal to pass.”
But that is exactly where the Trump wing of the GOP is today. Before Trump’s takeover of the party, presidential debates — and general elections, broadly — were seen as an opportunity to draw in moderates and independents or other late-deciding voters who might still be persuadable late in a campaign.
But partly because of voting rules that were modified amid the Covid pandemic, the first debate in 2020 was not held until more than 1.2 million ballots had already been cast and millions more Americans had already made up their minds — one of the complaints of the RNC, which wants them held earlier. And the modern GOP, which since the 1990s has won the popular vote only once, in George W. Bush’s reelection campaign in 2004, is no longer chasing moderate voters in the way that it once did, instead shifting its imperative in national elections to expanding its base.
For a populist like Trump, railing against the debate commission and its media moderators may be more valuable than debating.
“It’s sort of become like a litmus test,” said Kirk Adams, a former Republican state House speaker from Arizona, where Trump held his first rally of the year, on Saturday. “Where do you get your news from, and what organizations do you talk to and participate in, particularly in the far-right Trumpian wing?”
The risk to Republicans, he said, is that the party’s “narrow-casting of the message” can fall flat in swing states where presidential elections are decided.
It’s not clear how much voters will miss if traditional debates do not go forward. They are typically not decisive in elections, and most viewers came away from the first debate in 2020 simply feeling “annoyed.”
Still, elections are often won and lost on small margins, and Michael Brodkorb, a former deputy chair of the Minnesota Republican Party, said the GOP “is making a mistake by not embracing every conceivable opportunity to bring its message to voters.”
“I think it is insane to even entertain the possibility of Republican candidates not participating in presidential debates,” he said. “If you’re running for office and you’re not shaking hands, kissing babies or going to debates, I’ve got to tell you, I don’t think you’re going to do well.”