Could This Be the End of Traditional Presidential Debates?

Trump and Biden at a 2020 debate


Republicans are taking aim at a mainstay of presidential elections.

After decades of complaints, the Republican National Committee is threatening to block GOP presidential nominees from participating in debates run by the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD). We’ll explain this major potential shakeup — and what it means for presidential elections moving forward.

What is the RNC’s issue with the current debate process?

In a letter to the Commission on Presidential Debates, RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel accused the organization of failing to enact reforms “necessary to restore its credibility with the Republican Party as a fair and nonpartisan actor.” Specifically, the GOP wants the commission to make its selection process for moderators more transparent and hold a debate before early voting begins.

McDaniel warns the RNC is now preparing to change its rules to require presidential candidates seeking the party’s nomination to sign a pledge agreeing not to participate in any debates run by the commission — and the move could become official as soon as February, when the RNC holds a vote at its upcoming winter meeting.

What’s the history behind this?

These grievances are nothing new: Republicans have long claimed that the debate commission’s processes tend to favor Democrats (though the CPD is independent and has no party affiliation). In 2012, conservative pundits took issue with the way a CNN reporter fact-checked then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney in his debate against former President Barack Obama. 

But the tension really came to a head during the 2020 election, when former President Donald Trump repeatedly attacked the commission. In 2019, he tweeted the commission was “stacked with Trump Haters & Never Trumpers,” and he went on to skip a debate when CPD officials decided to make the event virtual in light of his Covid-19 diagnosis.

What’s at stake?

The CPD has been sponsoring debates since the 1988 presidential election, and a pullout by Republicans would mark a seismic shift in the way presidential and vice presidential match-ups are carried out.

If the RNC delivers on its warning, that leaves a major question mark hanging over future debates. But, as the New York Times notes, the two parties could go back to how things were done before the commission — when Democrats and Republicans had to negotiate directly on a deal, or there was no debate at all.

How is the Commission on Presidential Debates responding?

The commission issued a statement saying that it deals directly with the candidates who qualify for the debates, not their parties. It also added that its 2024 debate plan “will be based on fairness, neutrality, and a firm commitment to help the American public learn about the candidates and the issues.”