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Do presidential debates still matter?

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Over the past several decades, debates between presidential candidates have produced memorable moments, moments that have bolstered, reshaped and even ended campaigns. There was a zinger from the 1984 presidential debate between Republican Ronald Reagan and Democrat Walter Mondale.

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RONALD REAGAN: I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience.

(LAUGHTER)

DETROW: Reagan, who had faced questions about his age, ended up winning 49 states that year. Then there was this less auspicious moment during a Republican primary debate in 2011, when then Texas Governor Rick Perry couldn't remember the third government agency he said he had planned to cut.

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JOHN HARWOOD: You can't name the third one?

RICK PERRY: The third agency of government I would do away with - the education, the...

HARWOOD: Commerce.

PERRY: Commerce. And let's see. I can't - the third one, I can't. Sorry. Oops.

DETROW: Perry washed out of the race. Zingers and gaffes aside, debates can also get pretty heated. Listen to this exchange during the 1988 vice presidential debate between Senator Dan Quayle and Senator Lloyd Bentsen.

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DAN QUAYLE: I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency.

LLOYD BENTSEN: Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.

DETROW: Then there was 2020, the first general election debate between then-President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden went off the rails when Trump wouldn't stop interrupting.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The question is...

DONALD TRUMP: ...Radical left...

BIDEN: Would you shut up, man?

TRUMP: Listen. Who is on your list, Joe? Who's on your list?

CHRIS WALLACE: Gentlemen, I think this...

(CROSSTALK)

DETROW: Now, this practice could be fading away. Former President Donald Trump has refused to participate in the Republican primary debates, the norm-breaking president blowing up yet another norm. And this week, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said she would no longer participate in debates as well, since Trump wasn't there. When it comes to the general election, the Republican National Committee has taken a hard stance on who they want to see moderating these debates, and Joe Biden's campaign has yet to commit to them, so they may not happen. The prospect of that is something I talked about with Aaron Kall. He's the director of debate at the University of Michigan.

I mostly want to zoom out and talk about debates as a whole and this broader trend, but, of course, this came after a series of Republican primary debates that Trump skipped entirely. You saw viewership drop and drop and drop as that trend continues. And just looking at the 2024 primary cycle, did you see any value in the debates that were held with Haley and DeSantis and the others when they were still in the race?

AARON KALL: Definitely. It was frustrating that the front-runner, Trump, didn't participate in them, but even without him, I thought - I do think that they were valuable. Going back to the first one in Milwaukee in August, it still, even without him, drew about 12.5 million viewers, which is pretty good for a primary debate and a much larger debate stage at the beginning. But I think you could see the impact just in this cycle they had even without Trump.

Nikki Haley, part of the reason now she's in the upper tier and, you know, very competitive in New Hampshire is debates. She started out just polling in the low single digits, was all the way off on the side at the first debate in Milwaukee but did very strong, held her own. And people liked what they saw and kind of gave her campaign a second chance and really helped her. Where conversely, someone like Tim Scott came in with a lot of fanfare but just wasn't very natural on the debate stage, kind of disappeared, made some gaffes, and his campaign didn't last very long. We saw that in previous cycles.

So just like in previous cycles, yes, I do think this - the five debates that we had and even the wild card with DeSantis and Newsom, I thought they were very valuable, but they were much less watched this time and didn't have the front-runner participating.

DETROW: What else do you think voters lose if this trend continues and debates become more of an endangered species? Because there's the cynical view that these aren't actually debates. These are just people repeating stump speeches, regardless of what the question is, like, kind of parallel stump speeches that you see sometimes. But on the other hand, there's a lot of conversation about policy in a way that doesn't seem to make its way into other parts of a campaign. Like, if debates would be gone, what would voters miss?

KALL: Yeah. I think that, you know, the candidates really have to subject themselves and put themselves out in these debates, and they would be invaluable and missed a lot if they totally went away. And you're on a stage for two hours, depending on how many candidates there are. You don't know how much time you're going to get or when you're going to be called upon. So you really have to stay engaged and on your toes throughout the debate. Moderators can ask some excellent questions, ones that hadn't been on the campaign trail or maybe some of the candidates hadn't thought about before. And you're really - you're seeing the candidates process that and come up with an answer in real time, how quickly they can think on their feet.

Those are all kind of qualities that I think voters, undecided voters especially want to get out of their presidential candidates, especially to see if there was a crisis, an international crisis that happened in the middle of the night, and the president had to deal with that, how they operate in a two-hour debate with other very accomplished candidates gives them a real big insight to that. In the last Republican cycle, I think there was about 13 total debates going all the way through March, and you'd have them right before voting commenced in important states. And those - sometimes we'd talk about important issues specific to voters of those states. And so we're going to miss out on those if the last one we had was just in Iowa.

DETROW: How concerned are you about the future of the general election debates? In 2020, one of them was skipped. The first one was unique, I'll put it that way. The third one was surprisingly typical, I think, given those other issues. But right now we're talking about the Republican National Committee having a real skeptical stance of how and when their candidate would participate in these debates. And you have Joe Biden's campaign also not committed to them. How worried are you that they just won't happen?

KALL: I'm, I'd say, mildly concerned. You know, as you mentioned, we just had two last time. There was some consternation over format and the moderator for one of them. But yeah, I think the - Nikki Haley's decision to kind of not debate in these may make that even a little bit more likely because just kind of normalizes it a little bit more. And yeah, I mean, certainly President Biden could say, you know, Donald Trump didn't participate in debates in the primary, so, you know, why should I debate him now? And that's something the RNC had warned Trump about when trying to get him to do at least those early debates, that if you don't do that, there will be a risk that you may not have general election debates. There's also controversy over those, the RNC specifically not liking the (inaudible) presidential debates they've been involved in these for the last several decades and the moderators they select and who's on their board and things like that.

But, you know, Trump hasn't signed that pledge, and so he's not technically bound to it. And if Trump decides that he wants to debate, the RNC is going to get in line there. And at least as of now, all indications are he wants to debate in the general election, doesn't want to be in the primary because there's - he's up a lot and doesn't want to kind of dignify the other candidates that are on stage but thinks there'd be a lot of value in debating 81-year-old President Biden, thinks he could maybe commit a gaffe that would be disqualifying.

And so, you know, a little yet to be seen. I think there'll be a lot of pressure to do it, especially at the presidential level. And hopefully we'll get at least two, like we did last time. But just like these past primary ones were canceled, know that there's a chance that we may not have them, which would be a shame. I mean, we went a large period without having them. After the Kennedy-Nixon debates, all the way through 1976, there was a period of about 15, 16 years where there were no presidential debates. And so I definitely don't want to return to a time like that.

DETROW: That was Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan. Thanks for joining us.

KALL: Anytime. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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