In December 2019, riding high over sustained economic growth and a crowded primary field in the opposition party, Trump didn’t appreciate the democratic importance of presidential debates. According to a report from the New York Times, the president was considering skipping the debates in 2020. Eventually, he laid the groundwork to avoid the electoral tradition dating back to Kennedy-Nixon, saying that he would “make a decision at an appropriate time” on whether or not he would entrust the “very biased” Commission on Presidential Debates to pick moderators to his liking.
Six months and several historic crises later, it appears to be the appropriate time. On Thursday, the Times reported that the Trump campaign informed the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates that the incumbent wants to debate presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden a total of four times, citing the conservative specter of mail-in voting as a rationale for the additional contest. Per the Times:
The Trump camp pushed for four debates, one more than is typically held in the general election, and argued that they should start earlier because there may be an increase in early voting as people struggle with fears of the coronavirus in crowded places, according to a person briefed on the meeting. Traditionally, the first debate is held in September, after the nominating conventions. Mr. Trump’s advisers want them to begin soon after Labor Day.
Mr. Giuliani, who advised the Trump campaign in 2016, also proposed that both campaigns get to recommend a set number of moderators, and that they each get to strike some of them from the other person’s list before they reach an agreement, the person said.
The Biden campaign responded warily to the prospect of a back-and-forth on moderators with a candidate who notoriously attacked a debate mediator from his favorite network. “We are not going to ride the roller coaster of the ever-changing Trump campaign position on debates, nor are we going to be distracted by his demands,” said Biden’s deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield.
While Trump has publicly rejoiced about a head-to-head with his “sleepy” opponent, there’s a more worrisome reason for the Trump campaign’s newfound excitement in the democratic process. In recent national polls, Trump is trailing Biden by a notable margin: On Thursday, the president was eight points behind Biden in a new Quinnipiac poll, while a Fox News national poll also published Thursday found that Trump was down 12 points. And as CNN’s Manu Raju notes, calling for additional debates amid iffy polling numbers is traditionally a sign of a campaign scrambling for opportunity: “The rule in politics — whether it’s for a seat in Congress, the presidency or on the local level — if you’re demanding more debates, you know you’re losing.”