I can’t be the only one who loves a good debate. During election seasons past, I’d get as excited for a big debate as others do for a major sporting event. But there has been a sharp drop in candidates willing to participate in a classic, no-holds-barred verbal rumble.

Starting at the top, former-President Donald Trump has flatly refused to debate his primary rivals. Being so far ahead, Trump didn’t even want to dignify any rival’s place in the race by standing on a stage with them as equals. It was probably good strategy, even if it’s frustrating to debate-fans or those who just want to weigh their options.

It’s unlikely that the General Election will have any debates between Trump and current President Joe Biden either. The reasoning is still because the candidates don’t want to legitimize the other by standing next to them, but not because one of the two is so much further ahead of the other. It’s more because both of them are running on the message that the other guy is too flawed to take seriously.

This debate-avoiding dynamic is not just at the top of the ticket. Debates are largely absent from the important North Carolina races too. Current Republican gubernatorial frontrunner Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson has repeatedly refused to participate in any debates against his rivals, which include his fellow Council of State member Treasurer Dale Folwell.

Other examples abound. Trump-endorsed 2022 NC-13 candidate Bo Hines showed up to a Harnett County GOP primary debate, then, according to the attendees, looked around and quickly left. While this offended many in attendance, who said they felt like he was saying they weren’t worth his time, it was made strategic sense. Hines went on to win the primary after a Trump rally in the district consolidated support around him.

Raleigh political consultant Jim Blaine told Carolina Journal that this strategic approach to debates, which often leads to candidates skipping the events, is due to the high risks and small payoff associated with debates in such a fractured media landscape.

“It is mostly the fault of the people that put on the debates, not the candidates,” Blaine said, estimating that “about 80%” of the blame lies with the organizers for not providing an attractive-enough audience to justify the risk of things like a negative viral moment.

If a candidate is invited to do a debate by a local Republican club, like Hines was, the upside may just not be there, especially for a frontrunner. And in a General Election, the audience that a candidate wants to reach would include many unaffiliateds and swing voters. The partisan organizations that often put on the events likely will not provide access to these voters.

In the past, people relied on the major networks — like NBC, ABC, and CBS — to both provide the large broad audiences and to remain relatively neutral. With countless options for media consumption and increasing left-wing bias among “mainstream” sources, the major networks no longer hold this trusted role.

One solution is for more than one organization or outlet to collaborate on putting together a debate. But even when this happens, like when Carolina Journal and ABC-11 jointly put on a 2022 Republican senatorial primary debate, not everyone shows up, as evidenced by now-US Sen. Ted Budd’s empty podium at the event.

Budd’s calculation — as well as Hines’, Robinson’s, and Trump’s — seemed to be that laying out their views and allowing them to be challenged by rivals, moderators, and audience members isn’t worth the risk. Debate participation has always been a bit less predictable and mandatory for state-level races than national, but there was some level of obligation to face the public in more challenging venues, rather than only friendly crowds.

The symbiosis of TV networks and presidential debates

Of course there were famous political debates before television, like the Lincoln-Douglas debates. But the tradition of debates between major candidates as a default assumption was created by TV news stations. Now that these networks are just one player among many and aren’t trusted as neutral, the tradition seems to be faltering.

The first televised presidential debate was in 1960 between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. Nixon had suffered a major knee injury (getting out of a car here in North Carolina), and looked pale and sickly after a time in the hospital. Some say because color television was a relatively new medium, his advisers also didn’t know to insist on makeup. Either way, JFK looked far better to the audience and went on to win.

When Kennedy was assassinated, Lyndon Johnson took over and decided in the 1964 election not to debate Barry Goldwater. Reportedly, he was far-enough ahead to see only risk and no reward after what happened to Nixon. But starting in the 1976 race between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, it became a mandatory part of the campaign.

When Ronald Reagan missed a Republican primary debate in Iowa, it was seen as so insulting to the voters that his support fell from 50% to 26%, causing him to lose the caucuses to George HW Bush. Reagan had been so far ahead that his campaign manager didn’t want him to appear as “just one of the pack” by debating the others. Reagan went on to win without Iowa, but the lesson seemed to be not to take a large lead for granted by skipping out on debates or the voter may see your overconfidence as arrogance.

Bob Dole also skipped a South Carolina primary debate in 1996 to participate in congressional budget discussions, and George W. Bush missed two new Hampshire primary debates to focus on Iowa. Both Dole and Bush were seen as insulting voters by skipping the events and paid a political price.

Ironically, the article where I got some of this information, written by CNN contributor Bob Greene in 2012, concludes by saying, “It’s unlikely that there will ever be another autumn in which the candidates do not debate, but you never know. It’s a pretty safe bet, though, that come nightfall Wednesday in Colorado, Obama and Mitt Romney will be at their appointed places on the stage. It’s how we do things now.”

What Greene likely missed is that the candidates had been operating on their strategic interests the whole time. Just like LBJ against Goldwater and Reagan against Bush in Iowa, those who are choosing to skip debates do so because they think the risk of lowering oneself to being “one of the pack” or of having an embarrassing moment outweighs any benefit. During the time when all candidates debated, they did so only because the benefit outweighed the risk. It no longer does to many candidates.

If debates are going to return to their former glory, new models of organizing them will need to emerge — ones that are able to deliver what the old television networks could, the appearance of neutrality and large audiences of persuadable voters. The public would also need to decide to care enough about debates again to punish frontrunners for skipping out.