Will Biden and Trump face one another in presidential debates?
Published Monday, February 12, 2024 8:19AM EST Last Updated Monday, February 12, 2024 8:19AM EST
WASHINGTON -- Nikki Haley is challenging Donald Trump to debate. Trump is challenging Joe Biden to debate. And Biden is laughing Trump off, at least publicly.
But there are real questions about whether any of them will confront each other on a stage this year.
Biden's reelection campaign has repeatedly declined to commit to joining debates with Trump, his likely opponent in the November general election. Trump, meanwhile, has feuded with the Republican National Committee and refused to join its primary debates. In 2020, he objected to the rules of the nonpartisan commission that has hosted general election debates since 1976.
While any disputes could be resolved by the fall, the uncertainty reflects how both Biden and Trump are increasingly choosing to reach voters in environments they control at the expense of nonpartisan interviews or events where they might face unfriendly questions. Both the 81-year-old Biden and 77-year-old Trump have at times confused names and countries and face widespread doubts from voters about their age and readiness.
There's also lingering animosity over how their debates went four years ago.
Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, a longtime Biden confidant, noted that he was in the room for the chaotic September 2020 debate when Trump repeatedly interrupted Biden and moderator Chris Wallace.
Lowering his voice to a whisper, Coons said: "That was bad."
He then questioned whether a general election debate this year would be worth it.
"It's challenging to imagine, given that the RNC and the Trump campaign have said they will have nothing to do with the Commission on Presidential Debates and given his previous conduct, it's hard to imagine it being productive," Coons said. "But this is ultimately a judgment call for President Biden."
Debates are not mandatory, but they are considered a traditional test for candidates where they have no aids or teleprompters. The first televised presidential debate was in 1960 between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, but it didn't become a recurring event until 1976 when the League of Women Voters begin sponsoring presidential debates. They are now sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates, a nonprofit established in 1987 that outlines the rules for each debate and selects the location, dates and moderators.
Frank Fahrenkopf, co-chair of the commission, says it's too early to entirely write off the prospect of debates in 2024.
"There's a history of candidates not being happy," he said. "Despite that, it's been part of American culture since 1976. There's no question the American people expect the men and women who want to be president of the United States to appear on the stage and answer questions and debate."
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a member of the Biden campaign's national advisory board, also said Biden and Trump should debate.
"They're about democracy," Khanna said of the debates. "And it's important for the American people to understand the different visions of the candidates. Absolutely, the president should debate in the three fall debates that are traditional, and Donald Trump should debate and not be afraid of that."
While many political observers are looking ahead to a Biden-Trump rematch, Haley is still trying to get the former president's attention in the Republican primary. The former U.N. ambassador has challenged Trump to "man up" for what she calls the "ultimate mental competency test," referencing the exam for early onset dementia and other cognitive disorders that he took while in the White House. Her campaign has had someone dressed in an inflatable chicken costume appear at events holding a sign reading, "Trump Too Chicken To Debate."
But the Republican National Committee stopped scheduling primary debates after the fourth debate in Alabama in December. The last one-on-one debate between Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was hosted by CNN on Jan. 10 in Iowa.
Trump is pushing Haley to drop out of the primary and taunting Biden instead. He called on Biden to start debating now "for the good of the country" despite the general election being eight months away.
"I'd like to debate him now because we should debate. We should debate for the good of the country," Trump said last week on The Dan Bongino Show, saying that Biden "can't do it because he can't talk."
Biden in response laughed and said, "If I were him I'd want to debate me too. He's got nothing else to do."
Biden's staff has repeatedly declined to commit to his participation in debates. His campaign visited Alabama before the last GOP primary debate to hold a press conference. Asked then if Biden himself would debate in the fall, deputy campaign manager Quentin Fulks said officials would "look at the schedule."
"We will have those conversations," Fulks said. "But right now," Fulks added, "our focus is on making sure we continue to build out a campaign and infrastructure that's going to be able to be competitive in 2024."
Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, who was the GOP's 2012 nominee and participated in three debates against President Barack Obama, said "of course" Trump and Biden should debate.
"This is a democracy of the United States of America. We need to hear from the people who want to be president and see if they have mental capacity and see what their positions are on issues," Romney said. "It's one thing to say you passed a competency test. But it's another thing to actually have the American people listen to you debate. I want to hear both President Biden and President Trump."
Romney dismissed Trump's vendetta against the debate commission, as well as the Biden campaign's noncommittal position on debates, as "excuses."
"People always find excuses for why they don't want to debate," Romney said. "But you got a couple of old guys that don't want to have people see how old they are."
There's at least one example -- albeit in a key swing state rather than a national election -- of a Democrat skipping debates and winning the election anyway.
Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs refused to debate Republican Kari Lake in 2022 on the grounds that Lake, a former television news anchor well-known for her polished presence on screen, had spread falsehoods about elections, with her staff labelling Lake a "conspiracy theorist." Hobbs won a tight race anyway.
In addition to his rallies where he speaks to cheering supporters sometimes for two hours at a time, Trump has also tried to pursue viral moments -- visiting a fraternity before a college football game, going to a sports bar, and frequenting mixed-martial arts events.
Biden, meanwhile, has done fewer larger rallies and instead focused on small events like recent stops at a boba tea shop and a family's kitchen. His team argues that's more effective in a changed media landscape because TikTok videos and Instagram stories from those events reach more voters than television ads and speeches.
Patrick Stewart is a political science professor at the University of Arkansas who wrote a book titled "The Audience Decides: Applause-Cheering, Laughter, and Booing during Debates in the Trump Era." He said debates are perhaps even more necessary in the era of deepfakes, where manipulated video or digital representation is generated by artificial intelligence.
"I trust my eyes if I can go ahead and watch it in real time," Stewart said. "That's why they matter very much because the viewers can make up their own mind by watching the candidates."
But Jacob Thompson, 29, a firefighter and constable from Knoxville, Tennessee, who recently stopped by a Trump rally in Las Vegas, said Trump doesn't really need to debate anymore as voters are familiar with his views and platform.
"We all know the real Donald Trump. And we're all very proud of him," he said. "People get offended by things that he says. And there's a lot of things that he says that I wish he didn't. However, I'm basing my opinion off of what he has done."
Gomez Licon reported from Miami. Associated Press writers Jonathan J. Cooper in Phoenix, Darlene Superville in Las Vegas and Jill Colvin in New York contributed to this report.