Four days ago that question was upside down: Is Trump still going to debate Hillary? He hinted on Twitter and in interviews that the schedule was unfair because it conflicted with NFL games, a convenient pretext for boycotting the debates later. That was good strategic sense on Trump’s part: A 90-minute one-on-one debate with a thoroughly prepared Clinton would present lots of traps for him to expose how thin his policy knowledge is. So long as the race is close he has a strong incentive to either skip the debates or insist that Gary Johnson and Jill Stein be included in order to reduce his own speaking time.
But what if the race isn’t close in late September? How do the incentives work then?
If the polls are going to look like this, why would Clinton want to debate?
— Michael Brendan Dougherty (@michaelbd) August 4, 2016
Yeah, why? Why would a candidate who’s coasting to victory take a needless risk by giving Trump an opportunity to get back in the race? Hillary could have a terrible debate like Obama did in his first contest with Romney in 2012; Trump could surprise everyone by preparing diligently and have a great debate himself, convincing swing voters he’s prepared to be president; or Trump, through sheer bravado, could do his alpha-male shtick effectively enough to persuade undecideds that he’d be a strong leader while Hillary would be soft and weak. Even if Trump doesn’t prepare on policy, he’ll come armed with plenty of populist ammo about jobs, free trade, Libya and Iraq, and so on. If she’s up 10 points at the time, she’ll have nowhere to go but down. So why would she assume the risk (or, at the very least, why would she agree to more than one debate)?
The best reason I can come up with is that ducking Trump would send a soft/weak signal in its own way. The girl’s afraid to take on the bully; who else would she be afraid to take on as president? On top of that, I think Clinton takes pride in her debating ability. She went toe-to-toe with Obama a few dozen times eight years ago and then held off Bernie Sanders this year. Even in a “bad” debate for her, it’s unthinkable that she wouldn’t display a tighter grasp of policy than Trump would. She probably figures she can’t lose. And if she did want to skip them, what would her pretext be? She had no problem with the primary debates this year being scheduled on weekend evenings and in other garbage time, the better to keep undecideds from tuning in and getting a look at Bernie. If the presidential debates are up against the NFL, so what?
If Clinton’s playing a prevent defense in the fall, though, then Trump will be in a position where he has to throw deep. The worse the polls get for him, the less of a choice he has on whether to debate or not. The debates would be his hail-mary chance to reset the race by impressing viewers. A series of strong performances would smash the image he’s built for himself as an ill-informed blowhard — and the amazing thing is, there isn’t much Clinton could do to prevent that. She’d challenge him on his points, of course, but most viewers don’t know policy well enough themselves to tell who’s right and who’s wrong. They’d be watching mostly as a referendum on Trump: Does he sound like he knows what he’s talking about? If so, maybe he’s presidential material after all. All Trump has to do is prepare. But he probably won’t. Because Trump.
There’s still a chance that he and Hillary won’t be alone onstage, which is good news if you think that more speaking time for him is mostly just more opportunities for him to screw up. Red State noted this tidbit in a CNBC story a few days ago:
While the commission vehemently denies it, Fahrenkopf acknowledged the prevailing sensitivity about political elites obstructing outsiders. He even suggested it might consider giving an inch to a third-party candidate who is close enough to the cutoff point. Former Bill Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry, the CPD’s other co-chair, said his group will consult Frank Newport, editor in chief of Gallup, in the event that a third-party candidate polls within the “gray zone.”
“If someone came in and let’s say he was [polling] at 14.5 percent and the margin of error in five polls was 3 points, we are going to have to sit down and look at it,” Fahrenkopf said. “But right now that person would not be included.”
Gary Johnson’s at 11-12 percent in some recent polls. If he’s at 13 in mid-September and both libertarians and Republicans are clamoring for him to be allowed onstage, will the commission really say no?
Answer: They might if Trump himself opposes including Johnson. Which, inexplicably, he’s currently doing:
RUCKER: What would you negotiate for? Do you want for example Gary Johnson and Jill Stein?
TRUMP: No because they’re not getting any . . . I’d rather have head to head and right now they’re not getting any numbers. She’s doing better than he is, but right now in some polls she’s actually not doing badly.
RUCKER: There were some Jill Stein supporters in Philadelphia.
TRUMP: She doesn’t get media coverage only because people perceive her as hurting Hillary Clinton. I’m not sure that that’s true.
RUCKER: I don’t know about that.
TRUMP: People perceive her as hurting Clinton. I think she’s doing very well. I don’t think the numbers will be good enough for them to be in the debate.
He said that shortly before the barrage of terrible polls this week started falling and shortly after Roger Stone had called for including Johnson and Stein, no doubt to provide more anti-Hillary voices onstage. I can see why, if Trump is way behind and desperate to catch up, he might prefer a higher-risk strategy of debating Clinton one-on-one. But if he’s only a few points behind, as he was when he gave that last quote, why wouldn’t he want the help? Pure ego or is there something else driving it?