DNC should be cautious about overemphasizing debates, as Trump may skip them in 2020

DNC should be cautious about overemphasizing debates, as Trump may skip them in 2020
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The primary debate schedule constructed by the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 presidential election cycle was an unmitigated disaster for the party and its candidates. Former Maryland Governor and presidential candidate Martin O'Malley candidly referred to it as "a thinly veiled sham and a fraud." 

Only six debates were initially sanctioned and they didn't begin until October of 2015, just months before the first votes were cast in Iowa. To add insult to injury, several of the debates occurred on weekends and holidays, which generally ensures less attention and media coverage. 

Analysis by a Democratic think tank found that television viewership of the 12 Republican primary debates was more than double the audience that Democrats had.


The DNC and its former chair Debbie Wasserman SchultzDeborah (Debbie) Wasserman SchultzLobbying world On The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Democrats advance tax plan through hurdles Florida Democrat says vaccines, masks are key to small-business recovery MORE were accused of trying to protect frontrunner Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonCountering the ongoing Republican delusion Republicans seem set to win the midterms — unless they defeat themselves Poll: Democracy is under attack, and more violence may be the future MORE through a "rigged" debate process. After internal party and campaign e-mails were released by WikiLeaks, these accusations of bias only gained additional traction. Supporters of Vermont Senator Bernie SandersBernie SandersSenate GOP blocks defense bill, throwing it into limbo This week: Congress starts year-end legislative sprint Restless progressives eye 2024 MORE were especially incensed by these revelations, which further complicated party unity at the conclusion of the Democratic primary. Many of these voters refused to support Clinton in the general election and some even ended up backing Donald TrumpDonald TrumpPence: Supreme Court has chance to right 'historic wrong' with abortion ruling Prosecutor says during trial that actor Jussie Smollett staged 'fake hate crime' Overnight Defense & National Security — US, Iran return to negotiating table MORE for president.

Given the nightmare that previously transpired, new DNC chair Tom PerezThomas PerezClinton’s top five vice presidential picks Government social programs: Triumph of hope over evidence Labor’s 'wasteful spending and mismanagement” at Workers’ Comp MORE proactively sought input from major stakeholders and formally released a comprehensive debate plan for the 2020 presidential primary cycle late last month.

Twelve debates will be scheduled in advance this time and they will start in June of 2019. The DNC plans to alter the threshold for participation in debates to go beyond national polling data. Additional factors such as fundraising and staffing will be considered before making final invitation decisions.

In light of Trump's continued unpopularity and the pickup of 40 House seats in November, dozens of Democratic candidates are expected to run for president in the coming months. While it remains unclear how many candidates will appear on stage simultaneously, the DNC is committed to dividing debate events between consecutive nights. Republican "kiddie table" or "happy hour" debates  were roundly criticized during the last cycle because they were seldom watched by voters and lesser-known candidates weren't given the opportunity to breakthrough or compete against upper echelon competition.

In order to avoid a repeat of this dynamic, the DNC will institute a random public selection process to determine on which night and against whom a particular candidate will debate. These new DNC efforts to democratize the debate stage should no doubt increase transparency and give every interested candidate a fair shake in the process.

There is no question recent DNC debate tweaks are a marked improvement from the previous cycle. The major concern with the proposal is the risk of overcorrection, where the importance of primary debates becomes too heavily weighed when determining the candidate best qualified to challenge Trump in 2020.

Which candidate possesses the superior debate skills and is best prepared to tangle directly with Trump should be only a minor factor in this equation. Unfortunately, sanctioning at least 12 debates that begin in June could have the opposite effect. Given the frequency and high-profile nature of the debates, candidates that lack quick wit and comedic timing may not survive long enough until actual votes are cast.

Twelve primary debates that were viewed by hundreds of millions of viewers did produce Trump as the Republican nominee during the last cycle.

Some Democratic candidates are already envisioning themselves on a debate stage with Trump and explain why they are best positioned to defeat him. Though some commentators have called for eliminating all the debates, this is obviously unwise and not realistic.

The importance of primary debates in this cycle should be especially devalued because there is a good chance that Trump doesn't participate in any 2020 general election debates.


Refusing to attend any general election debates would certainly break with recent presidential norms, but Trump has engaged in a lot of norm-breaking during his first two years in office.  His assault on the Justice Department and Federal Bureau of Investigation have spawned numerous investigations and scrutiny. He would be the first president since Richard Nixon in 1972 to spurn general election debates, which would actually be appropriate as numerous parallels have been drawn between the two.

Nixon refused to engage Hubert Humphrey in 1968 because he was stung by his debate experiences with John F. Kennedy in 1960. Similarly, polls showed that Hillary Clinton defeated Trump by double-digits in all three 2016 debates. An incumbent president would likely see little upside to taking part in debates that he was likely to lose and would only further elevate the stature and profile of his opponent.

The Republican National Committee already voted to abolish a standing committee on primary debates in May to ensure that Trump wouldn't have to debate someone like John Kasich or Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeRubio vows to slow-walk Biden's China, Spain ambassador nominees Senate confirms Thomas Nides as US ambassador to Israel Flake, Cindy McCain among latest Biden ambassadors confirmed after delay MORE if they decided to mount a primary challenge.

Finally, let's also not forget that Trump has a track record of skipping debates or threatening to do so. He famously boycotted a Republican primary debate in Iowa because of a dispute with moderator Megyn Kelly. Trump's NBC interview with Lester Holt was disastrous and he's shunned interviews with CNN and MSNBC while president.

It strains credulity to believe that Trump would agree to debate with a moderator selected by the Commission on Presidential Debates. He previously complained that two debates they scheduled purposely conflicted with major National Football League games. 

For all of these reasons, betting that Trump will appear on the debate stage again in the fall of 2020 is a losing proposition.

The DNC primary debate plan for this cycle is infinitely better than the last one, but an overemphasis on their importance would be a giant mistake. Other important attributes such as retail politicking, fundraising, electoral math considerations, etc. should all be prioritized in the search for the candidate best suited to take on Trump in 2020.

Aaron Kall is the director of debate at the University of Michigan and editor/co-author of "The State of the Union Is ... Memorable Addresses of the Last Fifty Years," and “Debating The Donald.” Follow him on Twitter @AaronsUKBBBlog.