So much for presidential debates. Everyone (except DeSantis) has given up on them

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We’ve grown used to the campaign routine. There are some intraparty debates, followed by the primary elections. Then a few general-election debates, after which Americans vote for their favorites.

Presidential elections have been run this way since 1976, when President Gerald Ford agreed to three debates with rival Jimmy Carter. But, after a nearly five-decade run, debates might be a thing of the past.

Well before this year’s voting began, Donald Trump proudly refused to debate his GOP rivals. Earlier this week, Iowa Republicans rewarded his intransigence with 51% of their votes, compared to 21% for Ron DeSantis and 19% for Nikki Haley.

In other words, voters punished the other contenders for defending their ideas before other candidates and the press. How dare they?

Haley is done debating DeSantis

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley listens as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a Republican Presidential Primary Debate at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa hosted by CNN, Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024.
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley listens as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a Republican Presidential Primary Debate at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa hosted by CNN, Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024.

President Joe Biden also refused to debate his party rivals, a move much more common among incumbents. All expect him to sail easily through the Democratic primaries.

After Haley’s third-place showing in the Hawkeye State, she decided to follow Trump into hiding.

“We’ve had five great debates in this campaign,” Haley said on Tuesday, bragging of her second-place status in New Hampshire. “The next debate I do will either be with Donald Trump or with Joe Biden.”

You’d think any candidate would want all the airtime they could get, but this year, everyone is camera-shy.

Having dominated the GOP debates, as well as a freelance effort against California Gov. Gavin Newsom, DeSantis is the only candidate still willing to face his opponents.

“I won’t snub New Hampshire voters like both Nikki Haley and Donald Trump, and plan to honor my commitments,” the Florida governor said. “I look forward to debating two empty podiums in the Granite State this week.”

Or not. CNN canceled the event.

Neither Biden nor Trump will debate

Presidential debates regularly pull big ratings, offering a rare apples-to-apples comparison of contenders. Voters can see who knows the issues, who loses their cool under pressure, and who freezes under the spotlight.

Debates are responsible for defining campaign moments. Reagan telling Carter, “There you go again.” Clinton empathizing with common folk as Bush Sr. repeatedly checked his watch. Gore droning on about his lockbox and Obama claiming Romney’s anti-Russia stance was a Cold War relic.

This year, politicians don’t want to win over voters. Candidates just hide in their basements while their supporters angrily type at each other on social media.

A 'landslide' win in Iowa: Spells trouble for Trump

To date, only the primaries have been impacted. But does anyone believe Trump or Biden will step behind lecterns this fall to take tough questions from reporters?

Biden will claim he can’t “platform” an evil demagogue. Trump will say he’s too busy fighting his latest indictment.

This election, it's about who we hate more

In reality, both candidates are too scared to take the stage, defend their records or risk a career-ending gaffe. They’re well past their prime.

The 2020 matchups were ugly enough. Now imagine a rerun — but older.

The closest voters will get to a general election debate has been taking place on X (the app formerly known as Twitter). The 81-year-old is bickering with the 77-year-old about Herbert Hoover, of all people.

Glad they’re focused on the big issues facing America in the 21st century. Next, they can complain about “Ziegfeld’s Follies” showing too much skin or the pressing need to regulate zeppelins.

I’m not surprised geriatric candidates would rather watch “Matlock” reruns than be grilled for 90 minutes on live TV. I’m slightly surprised a weak candidate like Nikki Haley would join them.

But most surprising is that voters seem fine with it. They hate Trump, so they want to keep him out of the White House, or they hate Biden and want to send him back to Delaware.

They know who they despise the most, and that’s all they care about.

Jon Gabriel, a Mesa resident, is editor-in-chief of and a contributor to The Arizona Republic and On Twitter: @exjon.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Presidential debates are already done for 2024? Seems so