The third Republican debate of the 2024 United States presidential race came and went this week with a whimper.
The New York Times dismissed the event as “the undercard that underwhelmed”. The Washington Post cast it as “a lower-tier competition”. And The New Yorker brushed it aside as “an incredible waste of time for any but the most masochistic of Republican viewers”.
What prompted the withering criticism was the seeming insignificance of a debate without the Republican Party’s heaviest hitter, former President Donald Trump.
Now one year into his 2024 reelection campaign, Trump remains far and away the party frontrunner, trouncing his Republican rivals in seemingly every poll. Confident in his lead, he has skipped every Republican debate so far this election season.
Experts say this creates a novel dynamic: one where Trump is acting more like an incumbent than a candidate trying to unseat a sitting president.
“What’s unusual about this is there’s a former president, not a sitting president, who is dominating the field and skipping debates,” said Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institute and author of the book Primary Politics.
Above the fray
Traditionally, in the US, the incumbent’s party never holds primary debates, even if other candidates from the same party enter the fray.
That is the case with current President Joe Biden. Though he faces Democratic challenges from long-shot candidates like Marianne Williamson and Dean Phillips, he will not have to confront them on the debate stage.
The decision is largely a practical one. Incumbents have name recognition and a track record of success at the ballot box — and public spats within a party could dent the prospect of a repeat victory.
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