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Does Trump Need The Next Debate?

UPDATE (Oct. 8, 2020, 12:45 p.m.): President Trump has now agreed to participate in an in-person presidential debate on Oct. 22, an idea that the Biden campaign had initially proposed after Trump said he would not participate in the virtual debate scheduled for Oct. 15. The third presidential debate will take place Oct. 29, according to Trump’s campaign manager, Bill Stepien.

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

sarah (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): On Thursday, the Commission on Presidential Debates announced that next week’s presidential debate would be held virtually. President Trump, however, has said that he isn’t going to waste his time with a virtual debate, promising instead to hold a rally.

Trump is down 9.8 points in national polls and is steadily losing ground each day in our forecast to Biden, as we inch ever closer to the election. Refusing then to participate in the debate when he could use it as an opportunity to mount a comeback against former vice president Joe Biden is a curious choice. Doesn’t Trump need the debates to mount a comeback?

Let’s talk Trump’s case for — and the case against — needing the debates.

OK, what’s the case for him needing them?

geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, elections analyst): He needs something. #analysis

But seriously, the debates are among the few, regularly scheduled major moments in the fall campaign, so they do present an opportunity to shake things up, even if they’re not certain to do so.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): To a first approximation, I agree with that, although it’s overstated. Our research on primary debates suggested that a debate is equivalent to something like six to 10 days of normal campaigning and news, in terms of how much they move the polls. So it’s as if Trump is taking a week off the clock in an election in which he trails by 10 points.

With that said, maybe this ups the importance of the third debate — if there is one.

geoffrey.skelley: But we also can’t know given Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis whetherif Trump is really up for a two-hour debate right now, so perhaps he’s avoiding something that could be even more damaging.

sarah: One thing we talked about a lot going into the first presidential debate, is how much that first debate (more than the others) can really shake things up, but as former FiveThirtyEighter Harry Enten has also written, the second debate is not necessarily a game changer, and there’s no reason to believe that the person who didn’t do well in the first debate rebounds in the second.

Isn’t it possible then, that Trump, holding his own rally in which he doesn’t have to play by any moderator rules, isn’t necessarily a terrible move?

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): The problem is that he’s been holding campaign rallies all year long, and they haven’t helped him overtake Biden in the polls.

The days when cable news would air his rallies nationally are over. Maybe they get some nice local earned media, but that simply isn’t gonna measure up to a debate, as Nate mentioned.

geoffrey.skelley: It depends on the coverage. If it’s “Trump hasn’t recovered from COVID-19 and it’s irresponsible to be holding rallies,” I can’t imagine that helps him when 60 percent of the country said Trump was wrong to say we shouldn’t be afraid of COVID-19, and two-thirds said if he’d taken the coronavirus more seriously, he probably wouldn’t have gotten sick.

natesilver: Yeah, Trump is a fairly bad debater to begin with and it’s fairly likely that he would still be experiencing physical or mental ailments by next week thanks to his COVID-19 diagnosis. So the CPD gives him an excuse to pull out rather than him looking like a 🐔.

geoffrey.skelley: And what if his rally is sparsely attended or looks that way in pictures? It’s his Tulsa rally all over again.

natesilver: Nobody will give a shit about the rally either way, I don’t think.

Unless, again, Trump appears sick or something.

sarah: OK, but from Biden’s POV, a skipped second debate is … fine by him? If anything, he would have more to lose than Trump in the second debate?

nrakich: Right. Traditionally, the front-runner wants fewer debates and the underdog wants more. That’s why you always see hopeless Senate candidates challenging their opponent to 10 Lincoln-Douglas-style debates or whatever.

natesilver: Unless Biden thinks Trump would be so bad that it would be worth debating him even if he’s being risk averse. Like if Biden’s up by 10 points now, and on average he’d gain 2 points by debating Trump, you might do that even if there’s a chance you’d decline instead. It depends on what the variance is.

geoffrey.skelley: A town-hall format would probably play better to Biden’s style, too, answering people directly, etc.

But the debate wouldn’t be in-person, so maybe that’s less relevant.

nrakich: That strikes me as overconfident, Nate. Biden could screw up too. I don’t think you can just assume he’d gain an average of 2 points by debating Trump.

natesilver: I’m not assuming he’d gain 2 points, I’m saying conditional on that assumption, it might be worth debating.

But also: Trump has lost every general election debate he’s conducted, per post-debate polling.

And he has COVID-19 and is on steroids and is acting erratically, even for him.

geoffrey.skelley: Who knows how a virtual town hall debate would go, but Trump was seen as the main cause of the disruption and chaos at the first debate, so it wouldn’t shock me if he did the same thing in that format — if the debate were held.

nrakich: That would be so awkward with the potential lag. Imagine all the stops and starts!

geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, you thought the interruptions were bad when they were in the same room!

sarah: Yeah, Trump really doesn’t seem to like debates, he skipped some in the primaries in 2016, too. But this brings us back to the original question: Trump is really far behind Biden in the polls, and Biden just got some of his best polls of the campaign this week. His margin over Trump is growing. What — if not a debate –- is going to shake things up for Trump?

nrakich: If Trump is going to shake up the race without the debates, he needs something external to happen — for example, a major Biden gaffe or crisis. There is some evidence that politicians in trouble try to stir up international conflict to create a rally-around-the-flag effect. Or there could be a Comey letter redux; the Department of Justice just changed its policies to allow prosecutors to continue their investigations even close to an election.

sarah: Nate, Trump is losing a little ground each day in our forecast if his standing in the polls doesn’t improve, right? Tell us more about that, and what that means for Trump’s ability to close the gap between him and Biden at this point.

natesilver: Trump’s chances are at 15 percent in our forecast now, but my guess is that he’d be at something like 5 percent if the election were held today.

He’d need a VERY large polling error to win if Biden is up 10 points nationally and 7 points or so in the tipping-point states. So most of his comeback chances still stem from being able to turn the race around somehow, and debates are one way to do that … maybe the best way at this stage.

geoffrey.skelley: Right, in terms of predictable events, things you know are coming, the debates are really it.

sarah: On that note, in the unpredictableness that is 2020, do we actually think Trump actually pulls out or is this just a publicity stunt? Something our colleague Perry Bacon Jr. had mentioned in our chat Wednesday before the VP debate, was how he was skeptical that the CPD could stop Trump from participating in a debate if he wanted to. Do you think Trump is just trying to negotiate the terms of the second debate?

nrakich: I think he’d actually pull out. Our colleague Kaleigh Rogers said something smart in our office Slack this morning, so I’ll just quote her: “Trump knows the last debate didn’t go well for him and this is a way for him to not participate while saving face with his base.”

geoffrey.skelley: Well, there is a little bit of precedent for presidents threatening to withdraw from a debate in order to change their terms.

President George H.W. Bush refused to debate under the commission’s plans in 1992. But he eventually agreed to some debates.

And Jimmy Carter refused to participate in the first debate in 1980 because it included independent John Anderson. I would say, though, in both the 1980 and 1992 cases, neither incumbent was rewarded for their intransigence.

natesilver: How’d that go for Jimmy Carter?

geoffrey.skelley: Exactly.

nrakich: Either way, I don’t think we will get an in-person debate. I think if Trump successfully negotiates them back to an in-person debate, I think Biden will be the one to say he won’t attend.

geoffrey.skelley: The commission is in danger of losing face in any of these situations, but I’d think holding an in-person event with Trump fresh off of COVID-19 (or still suffering lingering effects) would be pretty terrible.

Now, in 1980, Ronald Reagan debated just Anderson at the first debate. Does Biden get to hold a solo “debate” with Trump not participating? I assume it would just be canceled.

nrakich: Interesting. The town-hall style does make that easier. …

sarah: What do Americans think about holding the debate next week? As we’ve said before, there just aren’t that many undecided voters this year, so is it possible that many Americans don’t need the debates to help them make their decision on how they’re going to vote?

nrakich: Two polls conducted before today’s announcement actually had contradictory findings about whether Americans think the rest of the debates should go forward. Reuters/Ipsos found that 59 percent of Americans thought that the debates should be postponed until Trump recovers. But Americans told CNN/SSRS, 59 percent to 36 percent, that the debates should be held.

But regardless of whether people want to see more debates, I agree that it’s unlikely to change their votes. Our polling with Ipsos has shown that most voters are either absolutely positive they’re going to vote for Trump or absolutely positive they’re going to vote for Biden.

geoffrey.skelley: What format the debate should take seemed to really affect how people responded, too. Pluralities have told pollsters that they wanted the next debate if it was virtual.

sarah: Yeah, and with a split screen … it wouldn’t necessarily feel all that different than if Biden and Trump were in the same room.

geoffrey.skelley: 100 percent. Look, a presidential debate has been held remotely before. John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon’s third debate in 1960 took place with the candidates in different studios. Kennedy was in New York City, Nixon was in Los Angeles.

natesilver: I don’t know about that. The conventions produced very little in the way of bounces this year, which could be evidence that virtual vs. in-person matters.

nrakich: How do we tease that out from polarization, though, Nate?

To be honest, I feel like if the conventions in, say, 1988 had been virtual, they’d have still produced pretty big bounces.

Maybe just not as big as they were.

natesilver: Well, we got a decent-sized bounce from the Democratic convention four years ago. McCain/Palin got a pretty big one in 2008. They can still happen.

nrakich: But there were also more undecided voters in 2016. Everyone already has an opinion of Trump and Biden this year.

natesilver: The virtual conventions were well-produced, but fairly boring and I’m not sure why people tried to pretend otherwise.

nrakich: “Well-produced but fairly boring” kind of applies to every political convention, though!

At least if you’re watching from home.

natesilver: More boring than usual.

natesilver: Ratings were down. The polls didn’t move. In person matters.

nrakich: Eh. I’m not convinced. (There are other reasons the ratings might have been down, like people switching their viewing habits from network TV to online streaming.)

natesilver: The thing, though, is that you like politics and I don’t, despite covering it for a living. So I’m more like a typical American in those ways. 🇺🇸

nrakich: 😂

sarah: OK, final thoughts — it sounds as if we all agree on this one — the case for Trump skipping the debate next week … doesn’t hold a lot of upside for him?

geoffrey.skelley: Skipping the debate isn’t likely to help Trump, although it’s unclear if it will hurt him. At the same time, not knowing Trump’s current health condition in the wake of his COVID-19 diagnosis, means it’s possible he’d have had a bad showing at the virtual debate and hurt his standing more. In other words, the move to a virtual debate may have given him the out he was seeking because of that — or he just doesn’t want to debate anymore.

But I do think if he skips the debate and holds a rally instead, it could end up damaging him, considering how many voters don’t think he’s taken the coronavirus seriously enough. Such an event would seem to play right into that narrative.

nrakich: Yeah, Sarah, I think skipping the debate would be the latest in a long line of poor political decisions by Trump. Although to Nate’s point, I’m not sure he would be able to take advantage of the debate to turn his numbers around anyway.

It’s just increasingly hard to find any political upside for Trump.

Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s former politics editor.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.