To Debate Or Not?

If you are a political junkie like me (and since you are reading this there is a decent chance you are) one of the things you look forward to are the presidential debates. There is legitimate reason to question whether they will take place in 2016. Let’s explore.

Donald Trump is making a lot of noise about his displeasure with the proposed schedule for this cycle’s debates. Two of them are schedules opposite NFL games and he is claiming this is another example of Hillary Clinton’s campaign rigging the system. I think there is much more reason to believe that this is a combination of a diversion and creating a possible escape hatch if Trump decides to bail rather than debate.

The first two debates, September 26th and October 9th, are scheduled to go against the Falcons@ Saints and Giants @ Packers games respectively. This is neither a first nor unique situation. In previous cycles debates went head-to-head with NFL games.

The debate schedule was announced on September 25, 2015 by the Commission on Presidential Debates which is a completely non-partisan group that has been in control of the presidential debate process since the 1970’s. Trump announced his candidacy on June 16, 2015. Why did it take him until very late July of 2016 to notice the schedule?

There is both political strategy and ego at play here. It could be advantageous for Trump to skip either the first two or all of the debates. Also by talking about the debates he doesn’t have to talk about policy which he oscillates between being devoid of or insane on. Policy is definitely not his strong suit. Neither is knowledge.

Trump has viewed the entire campaign as a marketing campaign. He judges success by ratings, crowd size and press coverage. Mr. Trump, train wrecks get great ratings. People rubberneck at accident scenes; the more gruesome the accident the more significant the slowdown. George Wallace (who you sound a lot like) drew large and spirited crowds also. I don’t remember a President Wallace. The press covers heroes and villains; their decision is based on whether the story sells.

With Trump’s convoluted thinking I can see a genuine fear that the NFL will get higher ratings than the debates. Trump can’t stand the thought of a team he wants to buy (he was unsuccessful in buying the Buffalo Bills) getting higher ratings than him. Of course, in his mind everyone tunes in to see him; Hillary is just a prop.

All his bravado aside, Trump must be aware of polling. He has to have seen that the recent Republican National Convention which (despite his denials) he controlled actually made viewers 15% less likely to vote for him. Never before in American political history has a candidate emerged from their convention losing ground. What could three debates which he does not control and against a superior opponent do. Skipping the first two and hoping for a victory in a “short game” third debate – remember the delay game in basketball before the shot clock – could be his best strategy.

If the debates are judged fairly Hillary should be a huge favorite. In fact it might be like one of those NFL teams playing your local high school team. Trump’s only chance of victory is if the bar is set at limbo contest finals level for him and Olympic pole vault medal level for Hillary. He’s not up against 16 mainly stiffs and in front of a room full of Bubbas.

If you look back Trump employed the very successful strategy of mainly remaining silent during the GOP debates. You can do that in a large field; it is difficult to hide in a one-on-one. How many more nuclear triad moments will there be in a matchup with Hillary? There is also a very real chance of Trump just blowing up and saying something totally unacceptable. I can see him calling Hillary an obscene and/or sexist name(s). Hillary is way too cool of a customer to succumb to that kind of temptation.

I remember watching the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates. They were a factor in that election and the father of the modern Presidential debates. Debates are not a given; the candidates have to agree to participate. The last presidential election sans debates was in 1972. A child born in that year will be 44 this year. That means many Americans can’t even remember a presidential election without presidential debates. It could happen this year. We’ll see.

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