I was just reading this months Atlantic article, which discusses the upcoming presidential and vice-presidential debates.

The article mentions the very real possibility of Trump choosing not to attend the debates and the question of whether Hillary would then be questioded by the moderator alone or whether she would be joined by Libertarian canidate Gary Johnson.

My question is: Does Hillary have anything to gain by participating in the debates if Trump fails to appear? While I do not believe Hillary would have much difficulty successfully debating Johnson, do the benefits outweigh the risks? Would it be the perfect opportunity to excoriate Trump in front of a large audience?

These are the questions I am hoping someone can answer for me.

  • 1
    I fail to see what "risks" you see here. Screentime on national television is always good for a political campaign.
    – Philipp
    Sep 18, 2016 at 10:57
  • 2
    If she is "questioned by the moderator alone" then it is not longer a debate but an interview.
    – SJuan76
    Sep 18, 2016 at 10:58

2 Answers 2


The very purpose of public debates is for attracting the undecided voters. Both candidates do this by clarifying their own positions and criticizing the position of their opponent. If there is no opponent, the remaining candidate has twice as much of time.

While many analysts say that Trump’s decision is near unprecedented, a similar situation has happened in the past; in 1980, Ronald Reagan skipped the final debate before the Iowa caucus. Reagan was leading at that time, and he arguably had solid reasons to think he wins the state. However, George H.W. Bush had a strong performance, and Reagan has lost the caucus.

Even Reagan's former staff members admit that was a mistake, giving Bush new momentum.

"We blew Iowa, and I take responsibility for that, because I should have insisted on having him in there more," said Charlie Black, a veteran GOP campaign operative who was Reagan's Midwest political director.

  • 1
    This is normally true, but this year it seems that whoever is getting media attention goes down in the polls, not up.
    – Cyrus
    Sep 19, 2016 at 8:57
  • Maybe the media attention reminds people of how bad that candidate is? It'll be a pretty sad election if this really is true.
    – Nelson
    Sep 28, 2016 at 1:29

I would argue that the answer is different depending on the two scenarios.

If Clinton is, effectively, being interviewed by the moderator then she would probably attend. As bytebuster wrote, it is an opportunity to get her point across to what is likely to be a sizeable audience. Although the questioning might be tough, it is likely to be fairly predictable and Clinton is capable of dictating the direction and tone.

Conversely, if the option is to debate with Gary Johnson she will absolutely refuse. The reason is that Johnson is seen as having no hope of being elected and this will come across as a debate between the also-rans. If she is seen to lose the debate it would be a disaster. If she wins, well, she beat a no-hoper.

  • I don't know. I agree with your projected downside, but the fact that there's a Not-Republican to sit across from the Democrat would legitimize both the debate and the upstart, which, contrariwise, erodes the legitimacy of the Republican party itself. I don't know if Hillary is interested in courting that sort of rancor, but there's some merit in the notion of "moving the show," so to speak.
    – Eikre
    Sep 19, 2016 at 12:43
  • I mean, let's put it this way- Clinton has given an interview on essentially every single day since the beginning of the campaign, and hundreds of public speeches. What would make a "debate" with no opponents any different? Who is going to take pains to listen? Possibly more importantly, what broadcaster is going to spend time or money trying to gin up excitement for such an exercise? A debate is a battle, a showdown. It's sexy; good television. An interview is slush for the next morning's drive to work with the radio tuned to NPR.
    – Eikre
    Sep 19, 2016 at 12:53
  • @Eikre The premise of the question was that there was a debate requested and Trump refused to participate. Obviously, if the relevant network pulled out then what Clinton would or would not want to do is moot. If, however, it was up to Clinton then there's probably a fair amount of mileage to be had in repeatedly pointing out that Trump was too chicken to debate with her. Something that speeches on her terms couldn't use.
    – Alex
    Sep 19, 2016 at 13:59
  • Oh, absolutely. I just dispute the validity of the term "debate" at a de-facto Q/A. I guess you could arrange for an acid test where the "moderators" were explicitly biased against her and challenged everything she said.
    – Eikre
    Sep 19, 2016 at 14:02
  • @Eikre - Moderators are supposed to be neutral to both parties and ask equally challenging questions of the candidates positions.... granted it never works like that Sep 19, 2016 at 17:30

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