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A recently published op-ed in the NYT entitled Let’s Scrap the Presidential Debates argues against televised presidential debates and suggests that candidates should not participate in them.

Is there any historical precedent, since Presidential Debates became commonplace, for a candidate refusing to participate in them?

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    Worth noting here that that the presidential debates are organized by the non-profit, non-partisan Commission on Presidential Debates, which notes that "candidates for federal office are not required to debate." That is, the debates are a product of public expectation, not part of a process managed by the government or the political parties. – jeffronicus Aug 5 '20 at 17:04
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The only occasion I'm aware of where a US presidential candidate unilaterally refused a debate, resulting in it taking place without them was in 1980 when President Carter refused to join the initial three-way debate which included independent candidate John B. Anderson, as well as his Republican opponent, Ronald Reagan. According to Anderson, he "feared that it would legitimize my campaign to an even greater extent."

Before that, the only refusals came in the wake of the first televised debates in 1960; in '64, '68, and '72, no debates took place. (Source)

Apart from that, John McCain tried to postpone the first debate in 2008, even going so far as to suspend his campaign, ostensibly to respond to the financial crisis. He resumed his campaign two days later, and participated in the debates.

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  • Per your source: "There was another factor arguing against presidential debates in the 16 years after Kennedy-Nixon: the Federal Communications Commission's equal-time provision, which mandated the inclusion of all candidates -- fringe ones as well as the nominees of the major parties. (It had been suspended for a year in 1960, when Kennedy and Nixon debated)." and then "By 1976 a way around the equal-time rule was found ..." The 1960 debate was the anomaly. The only refusal to debate under the current rules is Carter's refusal to attend the first debate on Sep 21, 1980. – Just Me Aug 5 '20 at 17:02
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France 2002

In France Presidential election in 2002, right-extremist Front National's Jean-Marie Le Pen shockingly qualified for the second round against incumbent right-wing RPR's Jacques Chirac.

Jacques Chirac then refused to participate in the traditionnal debate between the two finalists, that was due to happen five days before the final vote. Chirac stated reason was to deny a platform to Le Pen's hate speach. More prosaically, he also had nothing to win by facing Le Pen's critics and aggresive rhetorics while all opinion surveys (and huge anti-Le Pen demonstrations) predicted a large Chirac's victory.

Indeed, the electors didn't blame Chirac for the canceled debate and he was reelected with the largest margin in French 5th Republic's history, 82% to 18%.

Take it with all the salt of the Atlantic Ocean that separates the two countries and their political cultures, but one could argue that Chirac (establishment, held various offices for 30 years, right-wing in France which might be associated with centrists/moderates in the USA...) vs Le Pen (populist, far-right, militarist, anti-abortion...) in 2002 was a similar political configuration as Biden vs Trump 2020.

Notably, in a similar configuration in 2017 when he was facing Jean-Marie Le Pen's daughter Marine Le Pen, then-centrist Emmanuel Macron accepted to debate with her. He won the debate according to all media reports - later his opponent admitted it herself, and he acceded to the French Presidency.

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    A noticeable difference between your Trump/Biden 2020 and France 2002 comparison being that Trump is already the incumbent President, not just a fringe candidate (anymore) – YellowBadger Aug 5 '20 at 19:52
  • @yellowbadger I agree. – Evargalo Aug 5 '20 at 20:44
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Sort of... Since formation of the Commission on Presidential Debates in 1987, the major party candidates have appeared in debates for each subsequent election: 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2016.

History channel has a good article on debates.. According to them, there were no broadcast debates before 1960. After that, in 1964, 1968, and 1972 there were no general election debates in which both major party candidates appeared. Then in 1980 the incumbent president Carter refused to appear in a three-way debate with Ronald Reagan (R) and John Anderson (who was running as an independent), although he did appear in a one-on-one debate with Reagan.

In the above-mentioned cases after 1960, it has been the incumbent president who chose not to debate, rather than a challenger. Given the history, its hard to say debates became commonplace until the 1990s.

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