The 2024 presidential race has barely begun and the last debate may have already happened.
Republican front-runner Donald Trump has refused to attend any of the five primary debates so far, indicating that he does not see any benefit due to his large lead in the opinion polls.
After the Iowa caucuses, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley pledged that she would not participate in another debate unless her opponents included Trump or President Biden, effectively ending all similar events in the future.
Haley finished a distant third in Iowa and quickly lost by a wide margin to Trump in the New Hampshire primary — but has emerged as a major challenger to Trump in the GOP after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis ended his campaign.
But so far, like Trump’s other rivals, she has failed to lure him on stage.
At a rally on Saturday in South Carolina, Haley invited Trump to participate in the primary showdown, calling it “the ultimate test of mental competency” for presidential candidates.
“Let’s see what happens. Let’s let this election play out the way it’s supposed to run,” she told an audience in South Carolina.
This is unlikely to sway Trump: His campaign and a growing number of Republicans have indicated they expect him to cruise through the remainder of the primaries and should focus on a potential general election rematch with Biden.
Experts said that if this happens, there may not be any debates during the general’s term, which is unprecedented in modern American presidential politics.
In April 2022, the Republican National Committee voted unanimously to withdraw from the Commission on Presidential Debates—the nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that has sponsored and produced all presidential and vice presidential debates since 1988.
RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel called the group “biased” and accused them of refusing to “enact simple, common-sense reforms” in Official letter After the party withdrew. (The committee did not respond to a request for comment on this story.)
Without the GOP’s cooperation with the Democratic Party, it is not clear how the general election debates would be scheduled.
For his part, Trump said in December that he would continue to conduct discussions through the committee. “They are terrible. However, I will do 20 debates, even if they are organized by them. I will do as many debates as they want,” he told Hugh Hewitt at the time.
The Biden campaign was more cautious. Deputy campaign manager Quentin Fowlkes in December declined to commit to future debates.
“The campaign will take a look at the timeline, and we can have those conversations. But as of now, our focus remains on building the campaign and the infrastructure,” Foulkes said.
Do discussions make a difference?
The first televised debate between presidential candidates was between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960, and general election debates became commonplace after the 1976 presidential election — which have occurred every four years since Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford battled it out three times on national television.
While the lack of debates in 2024 would be historic, Dean Lacey, a professor of government and director of the Politics and Law Program at Dartmouth College, said he’s not convinced how much general election debates will influence voters’ political views.
Lacey said primary debates appear to have a greater impact on shaping voters’ opinions of the candidates. Because there is a broader field of candidates who often have overlapping policies, such as members of the same political party, primary debates can provide some distinction between generally like-minded candidates.
Lacey sees the general election debates as different.
Although they were widely watched — at least 73 million people watched the first two debates of 2020 between Biden and Trump — “I think it’s hard to say whether the debates make much of a difference,” Lacey told ABC News.
“People watching have probably already made up their minds, even if they tell us they haven’t,” Lacey said.
This assessment is likely to be more correct in the event of a rematch between Biden and Trump.
In this case, Lacey said, “I think most of the impact will not be on converting the voter from Trump to Biden or from Biden to Trump, but from converting the voter from Biden or Trump to staying home on Election Day.”
However, Lacey warns that holding a general election in the absence of the usual presidential debates could lead to lower voter turnout in other ways.
“It may prevent these swing voters from caring enough to go to the polls if the candidates don’t care enough about the debate,” he said.
Some presidential debates in recent election cycles have also been markedly different, in style and tone, from those of past decades: “They no longer feel presidential,” Lacey said.
For example, former President Trump hurled personal insults on stage in 2016 and 2020 and was quick to attack social media moderators after debates — making them “less respectable,” in Lacey’s view.
Discussions also often lack detailed enough policy discussions to capture the different positions of the public, he said.
He added, “Debates tend to focus on issues but not in depth enough for the candidates’ positions to become fully known to voters.”
Lacey links this to a larger phenomenon.
He said, “I believe that the decline in the candidates’ abilities to debate and the ability to tell the truth about their political experience is the reason for the decline in the public’s distrust of political institutions.” “We see that in all kinds of measures of declining public confidence.”
What voters think
Thalia Floras, a lifelong Democrat turned undeclared voter from New Hampshire, said she was not “surprised” that Biden and Trump might not debate.
“Both men have a lot more to lose by arguing than if they stayed home and kept their mouths shut,” she told ABC News.
Floras said she wasn’t sure if Biden would come across as “sharp” on stage, and speculated that would likely be to Democrats’ advantage if he didn’t debate Trump.
But she said that the possibility of not holding discussions on the general elections was not in the country’s interest.
“It is unfortunate for the American people,” she added. “This is not what tradition is and is not what we expect.”
Marikat Tillinghast, a student at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, shared this sentiment. She said debates are “essential to democracy,” and although she had no confidence in the quality of the debate between Biden and Trump, she said they needed to happen.
“I believe that although the debate may become like a sibling quarrel, it is essential for independent voters to cast their ballots,” she said.
Lauren Blois, a sophomore at Saint Anselm College, hopes the presidential candidates can overcome that in the debate. She said that voters must be informed before going to the polls, and debates are important for that.
“As a young, first-time voter, I want to hear the candidates’ opinions on some of the issues Americans face every day,” she said. “I hope that each party’s candidates will participate in the discussion so that every voter can cast an informed vote.”
There’s another problem: Lacey said a prominent third-party candidate, especially in light of some voters’ stated unease about a Biden-Trump rematch, could create pressure for a general election debate — something that hasn’t happened since Ross Perot has been in office. Stage with Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush in 1992.
Lacey insisted that he did not think the lack of debate this year meant the end of debate in future sessions. In four years, 2028 will likely bring new faces to the presidential race, and those candidates will need to take the stage and on television to get their names recognized.
But he expressed concern about what it means for the overall health of American democracy.
“I think it’s troubling when major party candidates can’t just agree on the issues of the conversation, they can’t agree on how to have the conversation,” he said. “I don’t know what’s next for democracy.”
And in what Lacey described as a “strange election year,” no discussion of the general election will make it any stranger.
ABC News’ Gabriella Abdelhakim, Hajja Bah, Libby Cathy, Fritz Farrow and Mary Alice Parks contributed to this report.
This article originally appeared on abcnews.go.com