Americans have become accustomed to watching presidential debates, or at least seeing excerpts of them or reports on them, as part of the process of deciding who to vote for. These debates have become a routine, expected part of the election process. But, there is no requirement for successful candidates to participate in debates. This year looks like it could be the first time in a long time in which an American president is elected who has participated in zero debates, either in the primary contest or the general election.
So far, Donald Trump and Joe Biden, who respectively are leading in the Republican and Democratic primary races, have chosen not to take part in any primary election debates. Meanwhile, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., running as an independent, has also not debated candidates, both since becoming an independent candidate and before when he was seeking the Democratic Party nomination. And there is no indication that any of these three candidates widely expected to be the top three vote winners in the general election are planning to change course and start debating other candidates before the Republican and Democratic nominees are selected.
What then will happen debate-wise in the general election should Biden and Trump become their parties’ nominees? Trump can be expected to want to debate Biden. Debating is a strength for Trump and not so much so for Biden. But, would not it be likely for Biden to decline the opportunity? Biden’s incoherence and apparent confusion in speaking engagements as president is notorious. And, Biden has been shielded much more than other recent presidents from being questioned by reporters.
Say Biden responds “no thanks” to any debate opportunity, might Trump and Kennedy have a debate of their own? Maybe. In 1980, there was one general election presidential debate between just Republican nominee Ronald Reagan and independent candidate John Anderson. If history were to repeat itself with another Republican-independent general election presidential debate this election, it would likely only come about after serious deliberation by each of the campaigns leading to the conclusion that participation in such a debate would be the best course for their respective campaigns. Should just one campaign decide against it, there would be no debate.
Of course, there will be other candidates from third parties who will certainly want to debate against Trump, Biden, and Kennedy. But, through the last few decades, major party nominees and prominent independent candidates Anderson and Ross Perot have not debated such candidates. Taking part in a debate against such candidates with a much lower amount of support among voters was likely seen as having much more downside than upside. Trump and Kennedy may well come to the same conclusion.