Historical Primer: Debate Cancelled After Trump Refuses to Attend

by Scott Wagner

First 2020 presidential debate on September 29 in Cleveland, Ohio. Photo by Adam Schultz

What You Need To Know

Historical Background

If you thought trying to figure out Zoom conferencing was hard, spare a thought for Bill Shadel, former news anchor with ABC and host of the first “virtual” presidential debate in US history.

1960 marked the first ever US presidential campaign to feature televised debates. While the first of these debates is more famous due to the contrasting images of the youthful John F. Kennedy and the pallid Richard Nixon, the third was groundbreaking in its own right. The debate was held remotely, with Kennedy speaking from a studio in New York City, Nixon appearing from Los Angeles, and Shadel moderating from Chicago. The event was a far more staid and stately affair than this year’s tempestuous first debate.

The last of the four Kennedy-Nixon debates, October 21, 1960. Associated Press

Televised debates took a hiatus during the 1960s but returned in 1976 and have been a critical part of the campaign calendar ever since. The candidates from both major political parties have participated in every subsequent presidential debate, with one exception: the 1980 presidential campaign.

The United States was mired in problems as it approached the 1980 election. President Jimmy Carter had been unable to solve the energy crisis or the punishing stagflation that accompanied it. Abroad, the situation in the Middle East deteriorated as the Iranian hostage crisis threatened American lives and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan threatened American interests.

In short, Carter had an uphill battle for reelection in 1980. His Republican opponent, former Governor Ronald Reagan, proposed a rosy narrative of American resurgence. Voters warmed to his vision; after the Republican National Convention, Gallup showed Ronald Reagan with a 16-point lead over the incumbent president.

The first presidential debate organized by the League of Women Voters was scheduled for September 21, but Carter was adamant that he would not attend if the independent candidate, John Anderson, was also admitted. The debate went ahead without the sitting president—though plans to denote the president’s absence by placing an empty chair on the debate stage eventually fell through.

Carter and Reagan did take the stage together for a single debate on October 28, though Carter may have been better off skipping that one, too. The main talking point after the debate was a gaffe Carter made in an answer on nuclear weapons, when he mentioned discussing nuclear policy with his thirteen-year-old daughter Amy.

Ronald and Nancy Reagan campaigning in South Carolina, October 10, 1980. Ronald Reagan Library

Reagan won the 1980 election in a landslide, winning by 9 points over Carter and carrying 44 of the 50 US states.

What It All Means

When your only historical comparison is the 1980 Jimmy Carter campaign, it’s safe to say your situation is bleak.

Debates offer a chance for a candidate to change the momentum of the news cycle. President Trump currently trails Biden by ten points, according to polling averages at data news website FiveThirtyEight. By that logic, Trump’s withdrawal from the debate makes little sense; he would want to seize any chance he could to alter the trajectory of the race.
But debates bring risk; a win might propel a series of positive news cycles, but a loss could be catastrophic. Trump can ill afford a spectacle like the first debate. A CNN snap poll found that voters thought Biden beat Trump in the first debate by a margin of 60 to 28 percent. Trump has fallen in the polls since then—though with the recent torrent of news, it’s hard to attribute that shift to his debate performance alone.

Additionally, the new debate format could bring new restrictions—namely, a mute button. Trump’s debating style, for better and, more often, for worse, tends to be antagonistic and heavy on interruptions. A moderator with the ability to mute Trump and prevent him from speaking out of turn could bring more decorum to a chaotic affair and turn the debate into a battle of substance rather than style.

Carter’s initial refusal to debate Reagan in 1980 did not cost him the election; it is unlikely that Trump’s refusal to debate Biden today will cost him the race. But, like Carter, Trump faces an uphill climb towards reelection, and the cancelled debate is another missed opportunity in a race that is increasingly looking grim for the incumbent.

Scott Wagner is the supervising editor of INTERZINE.

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