Sabatos Crystal Ball

Notes on the State of Politics

Farewell Ross Perot; Senate races on the fringe of the competitive map; the curious case of Justin Amash

Larry J. Sabato and Kyle Kondik, Sabato's Crystal Ball July 11th, 2019



— Ross Perot, who died earlier this week, provided something of a template for Donald Trump. He also was the best-performing third-party presidential candidate since Teddy Roosevelt in 1912.

— They are not top-tier races, but there have been noteworthy Senate developments on the outer fringes of the competitive map in Kansas, Kentucky, and Virginia.

— Justin Amash’s decision to leave the GOP creates another House swing seat.

Ross Perot, political prophet

There is a great quote from George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee and South Dakota senator: “You know, sometimes, when they say you’re ahead of your time, it’s just a polite way of saying you have a real bad sense of timing.” Given how American politics has developed over the past half-century, that may be a fitting way to look at businessman Ross Perot, who died Tuesday at the age of 89.

Perot ran two of the most credible third-party presidential bids in American history, garnering 19% of the vote in 1992 and a still-impressive 8% in 1996. Despite his showing, he didn’t win any electoral votes, confirmation of how the Electoral College helps perpetuate the nation’s two-party duopoly.

Nonetheless, the themes of Perot’s campaigns provided something of a preview of Donald Trump, as he ran an outsider, populist campaign that was critical of free trade. Perot’s economic orthodoxy, at least as expressed in his campaign, probably existed to the left of the GOP, which one could also say about Trump, at least as a candidate if not necessarily in practice as president. This is not to say that Perot and Trump were platform twins. Contrary to Trump, Perot was pro-choice on abortion, and the Texan did not engage in race-baiting, which has been a staple of Trump’s career before and during his White House years.

Perhaps if Perot had been 25 years younger and came around for the 2016 Republican primary instead of Trump, he’d be in the White House right now. Instead, Perot ended up as something of a forerunner to Trump. Perot’s homespun quips and memorable soundbites were different than Trump’s often coarse ones, but they had the same effect on his followers; the most fervent base prior to Trump’s may have been the so-called “Perotistas” of 1992.

As it was, Perot produced the best presidential vote share of any non-Democrat or non-Republican since former President Theodore Roosevelt, running as a Bull Moose Progressive, won 27% of the vote in 1912. Table 1 shows the history of third-party performance since 1912.

Table 1: Third-party presidential performance, 1912-2016

Note: *In 1968, one faithless elector in North Carolina cast his vote for George Wallace rather than Richard Nixon. In 1972, one faithless elector in Virginia cast his vote for Libertarian John Hospers rather than Nixon.

Source: Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections

Perot’s passing reignited a long-simmering debate about who Perot hurt and who he helped in 1992, when Bill Clinton unseated incumbent President George H.W. Bush. Some Bush backers are still convinced that without Perot in the race, Bush would have beaten back the Clinton challenge. Hypotheticals are difficult to prove, but we believe the evidence accumulated from 1992 onwards strongly suggests that Clinton would have won a two-way contest — and received the elusive majority he failed to win in both 1992 (43%) and 1996 (49%). But judge for yourself — here are some useful pieces about this enduring political question:

— First, we recommend this instructive video from FiveThirtyEight about the “myth” that Perot cost Bush the 1992 election.

— This New York Times article from just after the 1992 election discusses a poll of Perot voters. When asked if Perot had not been on the ballot, 38% of respondents said they would have voted for Bush and 38% said they would have voted for Clinton. Since Clinton already had over a 5% lead on Bush, this even split would have given the election and a majority of the vote to the Democrat.

— This Washington Post article was published after the 1992 election and focuses on the Election Day exit polls. It concludes that Perot did not change the outcome of the election.

— MSNBC published this analysis in 2015 when Trump was considering running as an independent rather than a Republican. It shows that Bush would have needed to win two-thirds of Perot voters to win the 1992 election — a very unlikely outcome given the hostility to Bush among a large percentage of Perot’s base.

Action in fringe Senate races

National Republicans groaned Monday as Kris Kobach (R), a far-right former Kansas secretary of state and weak 2018 gubernatorial nominee, announced a bid for Senate. While Kansas is a very Republican state — it hasn’t elected a Democratic senator since 1932 — it also has a significant contingent of moderate Republicans that might recoil at a Kobach candidacy. We moved the race from Safe Republican to Likely Republican earlier this week, just as a precaution. Outside Republicans groups are openly slamming Kobach and assuredly will work against his nomination if needed. Trump endorsed Kobach in the 2018 gubernatorial primary.

Table 2: Crystal Ball Senate ratings change

Senator Old Rating New Rating
KS Open (Roberts, R) Safe Republican Likely Republican

The seat became open after Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS), himself a weak performer in 2014, announced his retirement. Roberts beat independent Greg Orman by about 11 points in 2014, which amidst a sterling GOP environment was still the weakest showing for a GOP Senate candidate since a 1996 special election there held to replace Bob Dole, who had resigned his seat in the midst of his unsuccessful presidential bid.

In any event, there very well could be competitive primaries on both sides. For the Republicans, besides Kobach, state Treasurer Jake LaTurner and former NFL player Dave Lindstrom are already in the mix, and Rep. Roger Marshall (R, KS-1) and state Senate President Susan Wagle may also join the race. Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union and frequent TV defender of the president, is another possibility (his wife, Mercedes, recently joined the president’s reelection campaign after serving in a top White House communications position).

Former U.S. Rep. Nancy Boyda (D, KS-2) and former U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom are running on the Democratic side, but the most intriguing potential candidate hasn’t officially entered the race yet: state Sen. Barbara Bollier, who switched parties after the election and who is representative of the kinds of Kansans (moderate Republicans) that any Democrat would need to win.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has made no secret of the fact that his dream candidate is U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who represented KS-4 in the House before becoming CIA director and then leading the State Department. Pompeo seems to still be entertaining the idea.

Speaking of McConnell, he got a notable challenger in his own reelection bid earlier this week when retired Marine pilot Amy McGrath (D) entered the race. McGrath lost a close race against Rep. Andy Barr (R, KY-6) last fall, but became something of a national sensation thanks to a splashy announcement video and her primary upset against former Lexington Mayor Jim Gray (D), who himself challenged Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) in 2016. We are holding Kentucky at Likely Republican: Even though McConnell carries baggage as the leader of his party’s Senate caucus and isn’t popular, Kentucky has become very Republican. Readers may remember that McConnell’s 2014 race seemed very competitive throughout that cycle, but we never bought the hype, holding that race at Likely Republican the whole time. McConnell ended up winning by 15 points. McConnell likely will run behind Donald Trump in Kentucky — the state is less Republican down the ballot than it is for president — but we need to see a great deal of persuasive evidence before declaring him truly vulnerable. The gubernatorial election this fall will provide some clues: If Gov. Matt Bevin (R-KY), who has very weak numbers himself, nonetheless triumphs against a Democratic challenger who is more proven than McGrath, state Attorney General Andy Beshear (D), that will be even more of a signal that the Bluegrass State just isn’t really open to voting Democratic for much of anything these days. It is also not a guarantee that McGrath will have the Democratic field to herself.

One other note: Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) also picked up a challenger this week, former Rep. Scott Taylor (R, VA-2). Taylor, a former state delegate, defeated a sitting House member, Randy Forbes, in a 2016 primary after Forbes switched districts following court-ordered modifications to the state’s congressional districts, which effectively made Forbes’ old district, VA-4, unwinnable for a Republican. Taylor won in 2016 but lost in a close race to Rep. Elaine Luria (D, VA-2) last November, and he found himself bogged down by a scandal in which members of his staff allegedly forged signatures to help his 2016 challenger get on the ballot as an independent as a way to hurt Luria. One of those staffers was indicted in May, and the investigation continues.

Taylor has his problems, but he also is a better candidate than Republicans might have otherwise fielded; certainly he is more credible than Corey Stewart (R), the neo-Confederate rabble-rouser who ran a weak challenge to Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) last cycle. Taylor’s chances are probably dependent on Trump winning Virginia in 2020, which seems unlikely although is not impossible if the president is otherwise running considerably better than he did in 2016 nationally. That said, Taylor seems capable of at least converting Trump votes into votes for himself, which should keep him within range of Warner, who shockingly nearly lost in 2014. We continue to rate the Virginia Senate race as Likely Democratic.

None of Kansas, Kentucky, or Virginia is likely to make or break the Senate majority next year: Realistically, we’re closer to rating all of them as Safe as opposed to Leans in our ratings. But the action in those states reminds us that there is more going on in the battle for the Senate than in just the topline races.

Map 1: Crystal Ball Senate ratings

Amash switch endangers his House seat

The morning of July 4, Rep. Justin Amash (I, MI-3) declared his independence from the Republican Party. Amash, a conservative who has long been a thorn in the side of party leadership, stuck his neck out when he endorsed opening impeachment proceedings against President Trump in the wake of the release of the Mueller Report. He had at least four primary challengers, according to Politico.

It seemed possible, at least to us, that Amash could emerge from a primary if the vote was splintered, given that Michigan has no runoff. But he decided to simply leave the party.

It’s hard to be a true independent in the House, because even independents typically need to pick one party caucus or the other to get committee assignments. For instance, even though Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Angus King (I-ME) are technically independents, they are members of the Senate Democratic caucus, which allows them to serve on committees in the Senate. Amash left the Republican caucus and resigned his post on the House Oversight Committee. To borrow the immortal words of Keith Richards, he walked before they made him run: Republicans were not going to allow Amash to remain in their caucus or serve on Oversight following his departure from the party.

Amash said he will run for reelection as an independent, although it seems possible he may run as a protest presidential candidate, either as an independent or as the Libertarian nominee. If Amash does remain on the ballot, a three-way race would be hard to predict. His western Michigan-based district, MI-3, is effectively a version of the seat that former President Gerald Ford (R) held while he was in Congress. MI-3 definitely leans Republican, though not overwhelmingly so: Trump won it 51%-42%, and it was considerably closer in the state’s gubernatorial and Senate races last year, according to Bloomberg’s Greg Giroux. The heart of the district is the Democratic city of Grand Rapids, county seat of Kent County, a usually Republican but Democratic-trending swing county. Indeed, if you’re looking for a place that voted for Trump in 2016 but might vote Democratic for president in 2020, Kent County, which is mostly contained in Amash’s district, is a good possibility.

The combination of a potential blue trend in MI-3 and a possible three-way race pushed us to move MI-3 from Likely Republican to Toss-up. We might move it to Leans Republican, though, if Amash leaves the race and it becomes a standard Republican vs. Democrat contest. We do think it should be competitive regardless, though.

Table 3: Crystal Ball House ratings change

Member/District Old Rating New Rating
Rep. Justin Amash (I, MI-3) Likely Republican Toss-up

2 Debates, 20 Candidates, 26 Hours

And some words, more than one, on all the participants

Larry J. Sabato and Kyle Kondik, Sabato's Crystal Ball June 28th, 2019



Editor’s note: The Crystal Ball will be away next week for Independence Day. We wish all of you a safe and enjoyable holiday.

— The Editors



— Do not necessarily assume that this first debate will dramatically reshape the Democratic primary race.

— The biggest moment from either night was almost certainly Kamala Harris’ attack on Joe Biden.

— The leftward shift of many Democrats may be heartening to the president as he tries to turn a referendum election into a choice election.

Referendum or choice in 2020?

The opening two debates of what Democrats hope is the 2020 Donald Trump Demolition Derby are in the books. Ultimately, the polls and maybe the upcoming donation totals will tell us whether there were any clear winners, and whether the debate changed anything.

We are now in what feels like a disorienting part of a four-year presidential cycle featuring a presidential incumbent. Even though any president is essentially the center of the American political universe — particularly Donald Trump, who insists on dominating the day-to-day news — he is strangely sidelined in the race that will produce his opponent. Other than the State of the Union, the regularly-scheduled big primetime political events of the next year — the debates, and the caucus and primary results — will not include him as a major participant, in all likelihood. On one hand, that’s great for the president: He has a clear path to renomination. On the other hand, Trump — like Barack Obama at this same point in the political calendar eight years ago — has to share the spotlight with a huge number of competitors.

Then again, the president may enjoy what he’s hearing. Three of the leading candidates — Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Bernie Sanders — raised their hand when asked if they would abolish private insurance as part of a Medicare-for-all plan. One wonders if that would be a position that’s a bridge too far in a general election: a lesson of the last three decades seems to be that proposing change from the health care status quo is politically problematic. Republicans also will use the concept of providing health care coverage for undocumented people against the eventual Democratic nominee.

The next election may be similar to the last couple of elections featuring incumbent presidents: 2004 and 2012. The incumbents those years, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, wanted the election to be a choice between them or their challengers; the challengers, John Kerry and Mitt Romney, respectively, wanted the election to be a referendum on the incumbent. Bush and Obama found enough cracks in their opponents that they avoided the kind of straight referendum that could have doomed either. Trump is clearly trying to make this election a choice, too; if it’s a referendum on him, he probably won’t win, given his middling approval ratings. It may be that the policies some of the Democrats support give Trump weapons to use as he tries to present the election as a choice.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves – the candidate who will emerge to be the alternative to Trump remains a mystery. Here’s what we thought of every candidate over the two nights of debates:


Vice President Joe Biden: The former vice president was the quasi-incumbent on stage. Standing right behind him was the outline of Barack Obama, still enormously popular among Democrats. Just as you would expect, Biden invoked Obama to good effect on several occasions, but Biden was forced to own his pre-vice presidential years all by himself. Biden escaped unmentioned and unharmed the first night, but once present, he wasn’t so lucky. Bernie Sanders made sure the audience recalled that Biden voted for the Iraq war and Sanders voted against. Michael Bennet clocked Biden for a compromise with Mitch McConnell that preserved the Bush tax cuts. But it was Kamala Harris who memorably confronted Biden about the vice president’s praise for segregationist senators with whom he had worked in his early Senate career (Biden denied his comments were praise). Harris powerfully reproached Biden for his opposition to school busing to achieve racial balance in the 1970s, noting that she had benefitted from busing. It was another time and place, and older observers (including one of us) recall that plenty of Democrats were damaged or defeated because of their support of busing, which was greatly unpopular among whites and also disliked by many blacks, because it limited extracurricular activities and resulted in many students leaving home very early and returning home after dark. But none of that matters now, and Biden is paying a price. Biden didn’t answer these criticisms well, and some of his staff privately said he hadn’t followed the script they’d devised. Yet while Biden didn’t soar, we doubt he was fatally damaged by any of this. Nonetheless, as frontrunner, Biden can look forward to many more attacks. Whether this sharpens Biden for the campaign against Trump (should he win the nomination) or deconstructs Biden on his way to losing the Democratic nod, we cannot guess.

California Sen. Kamala Harris: As just suggested, Harris was widely viewed as the winner of the second night’s debate since she managed to corner Biden while most of her rivals steered clear of challenging the former vice president. Some critics found her to be too hard-edged, even mean, but that was not a view widely shared among Democratic pols and pundits. Simply put, Harris is a contender. We’ll be surprised if she doesn’t show movement in the next round of polls. Harris’s objective is clear. She needs to shake or split Biden’s strong African-American support so she can scoop it up (presumably, though Cory Booker and others have a different plan for those voters). At the very least, debate watchers in July and beyond are going to pay close attention every time she has the floor.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders: The irascible independent senator came off almost exactly the same as he did in the 2016 debates: Aggressively liberal and on message, and confident in his beliefs. The difference is that the surroundings around him have completely changed: He is no longer the sole alternative to Hillary Clinton, but rather just one of many options for Democratic voters. Elizabeth Warren and Sanders are going to come into conflict sooner rather than later given that they are directly competing for the same liberal bloc of the electorate. From that standpoint, the pair being split in this first round is only delaying what may be inevitable.

New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand: Gillibrand tried to inject some issues of importance to herself, and many Democrats, into the overall conversation, such as abortion rights, but it’s hard to see how her underwhelming candidacy will get a jolt from this first debate.

South Bend, IN Mayor Pete Buttigieg: “Mayor Pete” displayed many of the attributes — such as introspection and intellect — that won him attention and praise over the past several months and allowed him to surpass many Democratic pols with better resumes. He is often compared to Beto O’Rourke –- his rise probably came at some expense to O’Rourke’s numbers — and Buttigieg impressed more than O’Rourke did on Wednesday (more on the former Texas Senate candidate below). However, it felt like the action in this debate was elsewhere, and his already very long odds of winning meaningful black support have not been helped by a recent officer-involved shooting in South Bend that he tried to show contrition for during the debate. For all of Buttigieg’s progress, he either needs to attract many more liberals to his side (and he may be blocked in doing so by Warren and Sanders) or many more black voters (where he is blocked by Biden and probably Harris and Booker, among others). So we’re struggling to find a path for him even as he ranks among the better-polling candidates.

Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet: If the eventual Democratic nominee is someone other than a white male, Bennet may very well get a look as a running mate. He displayed both knowledge of the issues and a bit of fire and passion in discussing them; he also mixed it up with Biden to some positive effect, as noted above.

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper: Hickenlooper must be very frustrated because his credentials equal or exceed anybody else’s on stage, except for Joe Biden. He was a successful mayor of a major city, Denver, and then a durable, popular two-term governor of Colorado. Yet he hasn’t found his niche in this presidential race, and so far is a minor figure — a status very probably unchanged by the debate. Snappy soundbites are not his strength, nor is he inclined to interrupt others — normally praiseworthy but unhelpful in the dog-eat-dog world of politics.

California Rep. Eric Swalwell: The debate was probably the first time most Americans have laid eyes on him, and the impression was likely favorable. Unlike most of the others, Swalwell is not afraid to lighten up a bit when the opportunity presents itself, and his responses are pointed and often effective. Like Buttigieg and Gabbard, he is young and uses that to his advantage, quoting Joe Biden (quoting John F. Kennedy) about “passing the torch to a new generation of Americans.” Having said all this, the California congressman doesn’t have the money or standing to become one of the top contenders, and his oxygen is being sucked away by fellow Californian Kamala Harris.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock: The successful vote-getter from Montana spoke to… oh wait, he actually wasn’t there. Instead…

Former tech executive Andrew Yang: A single-issue candidate who seems to have devoted support in at least some corners of the Internet, Yang actually came across as a fairly normal and reasonable person pushing the idea of a universal basic income. That said, Yang also didn’t really stand out compared to the other nonpolitician on the stage…

Author Marianne Williamson: Whatever we write about her will not be as funny as what the late-night shows and The Onion come up with. We will defer to them.


Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren: It seemed like she would dominate the debate in the early going, as the moderators routinely went back to her. But then she was largely ignored in the second half, although she closed the night with what we thought was a powerful concluding statement that encapsulated her worldview: government played a powerful role in her life, and can play a powerful role for others. Whether one agrees with her, she has a plan, or plans, to make government do precisely that, and she summed it up in 45 seconds effectively.

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker: A couple of months ago, many of us were wondering why Warren’s campaign didn’t seem to be taking off. Now that Warren has emerged as one of the frontrunners, it’s been reasonable to wonder the same thing about Booker, who like Warren is a nationally prominent member of the Senate. Maybe Booker can get going following the first debate, when he got the most speaking time — though still only about 10 minutes out of two hours.

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar: As much as anyone else, Klobuchar needs Biden to fall apart fast so she can try to step into the vacuum his collapse would create among the less liberal voters in the party. That she didn’t even get to share the stage with him may have been bad luck. Her contributions on the debate stage were perfectly fine, but not very memorable.

Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro: Generally an inert presence in the campaign so far, Castro ended up getting a surprising amount of time and seemed to make the most of it. The Associated Press’s Alexandra Jaffe noted Thursday morning that Castro parlayed his well-reviewed debate showing into a bunch of additional media appearances. For successful candidates, the debates need to be a springboard to something else. Could it be for Castro? Has he now eclipsed his fellow Texan, O’Rourke, to inherit the money and votes in the Lone Star State?

Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke: One of us has been arguing that O’Rourke had a real chance to shine during these crowded debates given his rhetorical talents. natural charisma, and experience debating Ted Cruz. It’s hard to argue that he did, at least in his first appearance. He appeared nervous and intimidated by Castro and de Blasio — not a presidential image, to be sure.

Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard: It is possible that Gabbard was a hidden winner of the evening, given that she ended up being the leading candidate in Google search trends on Wednesday. However, such searches do not necessarily equate support: Williamson, for instance, led on Thursday night. Here’s the thing: If Gabbard has true and growing support, we’ll look for it in the polls. We also thought she got the better of Tim Ryan during their back and forth on American involvement in Afghanistan, and there is undoubtedly a constituency on the left (and the right) for Gabbard’s anti-interventionist stances. Like any other candidate, if she does emerge a bit from the pack, she will face more scrutiny, both on her curious relationship with the Assad regime in Syria and her past anti-LGBTQ stances (both of which were mentioned during Wednesday’s debate).

Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan: Speaking of Ryan, we thought he had some decent moments but didn’t quite nail his discussion of the Lordstown, OH GM plant closing (which essentially provides the rationale for his candidacy). Ryan did provide something different on stage — a candidate making an explicit argument about the Democratic Party’s decline with white voters in small towns and rural areas (a trend that was exacerbated by Trump but also precedes the incumbent’s presidential candidacy) — but it’s also hard to say Ryan made a lasting impression.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee: Climate change did not get much attention at the first debate. That’s probably not a great thing for the candidate who has premised his campaign around the topic. Remarkably, the only state governor on stage was unable to assert himself to grab his fair share of time because the moderates weren’t going to give it to him. His five minutes of airtime was smaller than any other participant that night.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio: We give de Blasio credit for one thing: The fringe candidates need to make their own time or else they will be ignored. De Blasio butted in whenever he could. That said, he seemed arrogant and pushy and, all in all, he didn’t come across as very appealing, and he made a boneheaded move on Thursday when he used a rallying cry associated with Fidel Castro and Che Guevara in Miami, a city whose politics has long been influenced by anti-Castro Cuban exiles. Oops.

Former Maryland Rep. John Delaney: Closing now?

Yes, we are.

OK, more fairly, Delaney had a lot to say from a moderate perspective and has honed his appeal during near constant-campaigning for many months, but he just didn’t seem to fit on this presidential stage. No offense, Rep. Delaney, we don’t fit either, and 99% of our fellow citizens wouldn’t make the cut.

Presidential Primary Debate History: Lessons for 2020

Candidate showdowns go back many decades, but have only recently become part of the nomination fabric

Kyle Kondik, Managing Editor, Sabato's Crystal Ball June 26th, 2019



Editor’s Note: This is the first of two issues of the Crystal Ball this week. We’ll be back after the conclusion of the second Democratic debate on Thursday night with an assessment of how the debates went. In the meantime, we present an updated history of modern presidential primary debates, which date back to 1948.

— The Editors



— There have been nearly 200 presidential primary debates since 1948.

— Almost all of them have been held in the last four decades.

— Although Democrats have a record-breaking primary field, they do not appear likely to break the record for the number of candidates appearing on a stage at once, 11, set by Republicans last cycle.

— No incumbent president has participated in a primary debate, and Donald Trump seems likely to continue that trend.

Five angles on primary debates

The race for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination has been going on for months (and it feels like years). Yet in some ways the battle only begins tonight with the first televised debate.

The specifics of this first round of debates on the Democratic side are historically novel. While there have been debates on back-to-back dates in a nomination campaign, this is the first time that two totally different slates of candidates will debate each other. The Democratic National Committee opted to use a drawing to determine the 10 candidates who will debate tonight and the 10 who will debate tomorrow. Four years ago, and in the midst of a field that was very large (although not as large as this two-dozen member field), Republicans opted to hold double-header debates in the pre-primary season, with the lower-polling candidates participating in a so-called undercard debate before the better-polling candidates debated at the main event.

The DNC has sanctioned up to 12 debates, although the total number of discrete debates will almost certainly be larger than that because the first debate, happening tonight and tomorrow, really counts as two debates, not one. Or at least that’s how we’re counting them as part of our updated history of presidential primary debates. We debuted this history four years ago and have updated it, adding all of the 2016 primary debates.

Including both the undercard and main event debates from the 2016 Republican race, plus the Democratic debates featuring, most notably, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders that cycle, there have now been 92 Republican primary debates and 104 Democratic bouts since 1948, when the first modern presidential primary debate was held. That Democratic total will grow by four this month and next, as the party is set to hold back-to-back debates tonight and tomorrow in Miami and then July 30-31 in Detroit. Presumably, the back-to-backs will become unnecessary at some point as the DNC ratchets up the polling and donor thresholds for inclusion (as it has done for debates in September and October).

The full history is included in Tables 1 and 2 at the end of this article. But first of all, here are some quick observations. For more trends from history, see our piece from four years ago, when we first released this historical background on presidential primary debates.

1. Bulk of debates held recently

While we count 196 debates in modern presidential primary history, almost all of these have come within the last four decades. Prior to 1980, Republicans held just one debate, in 1948 (more on that below), while Democrats held 11 in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. That means that 94% of all presidential primary debates have been held just since 1980. Figure 1 shows the trend.

Figure 1: Primary debates, 1948-2016

It may not be a coincidence that the rise of presidential primary debates has come in the post-primary reform era. Following the chaotic and explosive 1968 Democratic primary, when Vice President Hubert Humphrey won the Democratic nomination despite not competing in the primaries, both parties eventually reformed their processes to give voters significantly more say in who the presidential nominees would be. Debates therefore became more important because presidential nominations were being decided by a portion of the larger electorate as opposed to party insiders.

At this point, the parties seem petrified of showing any preference toward any of the candidates; this cycle, the Democrats have opted for polling and donor thresholds to determine who gets to appear in debates.

That has led to some candidate inclusions, and exclusions, that never would’ve happened in a political era where party elites held and exercised more sway over such decisions. For instance, self-help guru Marianne Williamson, who had to retreat from peddling anti-vaccination twaddle just last week, made the first Democratic debate while Gov. Steve Bullock (D-MT), a late primary entrant who nonetheless has a long history of statewide electoral success in a state that votes Republican at the presidential level, couldn’t even get in. Something seems off to us about that. Would it not be reasonable for parties to figure out a way to prioritize candidates with prior service to the party as opposed to total outsiders? The same can be said about Trump and the Republicans, but Trump’s immediate polling success would’ve made excluding him from the debates in 2015 unreasonable (practically speaking, neither Williamson nor Bullock has demonstrated any meaningful support in polls — nor have many of the other candidates who will be on one of the debate stages).

In any event, the prevalence of primary debates is a somewhat new feature of the primary process, at least if one looks at the long history of presidential nominations. And the parties having to hold multiple debates at once to accommodate gigantic fields is even newer, as the Republicans in 2016 were the first party that really had to grapple with that problem. It’s easy to nitpick the process the GOP chose, or the Democrats are using now, but in fairness there is not much of a roadmap for either party to deal with such a problem.

2. Democrats unlikely to set single-stage record

Prior to 2016, the maximum number of candidates that appeared on any primary debate stage was 10, set by Republicans in the 1996 and 2008 cycles and Democrats in the 2004 cycle. However, the Republicans actually had a debate with 11 candidates in September 2015. Of course, Republicans had more than 11 presidential candidates total: The GOP roster included 17 candidates at its numerical peak. It’s just that the GOP forced the worst-polling candidates to compete in the “undercard” debate prior to the main event.

Figure 2: How many candidates participate?

Democrats have even more candidates this time: now 25 with the recent addition of former Rep. Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania. But the DNC is limiting each debate to 10 total participants, with 20 slots over two nights. One wonders if, later in the process, whether the DNC might allow a larger debate stage in order to consolidate two nights of debates into one. But for the time being, the GOP’s debate-stage participant record of 2016 appears safe even as Democrats are breaking records with their total number of presidential aspirants.

3. A single-issue debate would not be unprecedented

Gov. Jay Inslee (D-WA) is emphasizing climate change and has proposed having a debate entirely focused on the subject. A strong majority of the other Democratic candidates agree with him, but Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez has nixed the idea.
Whatever the merits of a single-issue debate, there is historical precedent for it — indeed, the very first presidential primary debate that we counted in our history was a single-issue debate.

Republican presidential candidates Gov. Thomas Dewey (R-NY) and former Gov. Harold Stassen (R-MN) held the first modern debate in 1948. The debate, conducted over radio in advance of the Oregon primary, focused on a single question: whether the Communist Party should be outlawed in the United States (Dewey said no, Stassen said yes). Dewey, previously the 1944 Republican nominee, won the nomination again in 1948, losing in a famous upset to President Harry Truman in November.

4. Incumbents don’t debate

While the Democrats are going to hold, in all likelihood, more than a dozen total debates thanks to the back-to-back events starting tonight, there almost certainly will not be any Republican primary debates. The Republican National Committee disbanded its debate committee last year, an unmistakable sign that the party has no interest in sanctioning a debate featuring President Donald Trump and any potential challengers.

A president not participating in a primary debate would be in keeping with history: No sitting president has appeared in a primary debate, even ones who ended up facing significant primary challenges (Gerald Ford in 1976, Jimmy Carter in 1980, and George H.W. Bush in 1992).

If and when a sitting president has a prominent intraparty challenge, we suspect that incumbent will face intense pressure to participate in a debate, as debates have become so clearly part of the presidential primary fabric. But the last three incumbents who ran for reelection (Bill Clinton in 1996, George W. Bush in 2004, and Barack Obama in 2012) did not face such pressure because they didn’t have any real primary opposition. As of now, Trump’s only opponent is a gadfly candidate, former Gov. William Weld (R-MA), who most recently was Gary Johnson’s running mate on the 2016 Libertarian Party ticket.

5. Eventual Democratic nominee will debate

Since 1972, every non-incumbent major party presidential nominee has appeared in a primary debate, and many of these nominees participated in all or nearly all of the contests included on our list.

However, frontrunners do occasionally skip early debates. Ronald Reagan passed on an Iowa debate in 1980 only to see George H.W. Bush beat him in the caucuses there (Reagan recovered and won). George W. Bush passed on the first few debates in the 2000 cycle but ended up steamrolling to the nomination, despite his landslide loss to Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) in New Hampshire.

In late January 2016, Trump skipped a pre-Iowa debate as part of a feud with then-Fox News host Megyn Kelly, who was part of the moderator team for the debate. Trump would lose Iowa to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). Is it possible that skipping the debate hurt Trump in Iowa? Potentially: He was leading in polls before losing to Cruz, although it’s hard to know what role the debate played in that result, if any. Trump would go on to win the nomination anyway.

It seems certain that the eventual Democratic nominee either will be on the debate stage Wednesday or Thursday night, or will be on a future debate stage. That this point we’re making seems so blindingly obvious is a testament to how ingrained debates have become to the nomination process.

Tables 1 and 2 list all of the presidential primary debates we have found over the years. More information about how we created this list is included in the notes below the tables.

Tables 1 and 2: Primary debates 1948-2016

Notes: For debates from 1948-2000, we used lists from The Primary Decision: A Functional Analysis of Debates in Presidential Primaries and In Pursuit of the White House 2000: How We Choose Our Presidential Nominees. For debates from 2004 through 2016, we used The American Presidency Project at UC Santa Barbara and our own research. Particularly for more recent cycles, we made some judgment calls about which debates to include or exclude; generally, if the debate was televised and included at least some of the leading candidates, we included it on our list. If you believe we are missing a debate or have other comments or questions about how we built this list, please e-mail us at Taylor Hardin, an Alabama state official, stood in for Gov. George Wallace (D-AL) during a 1972 Democratic debate. In the 2016 cycle, Republicans used a two-tiered system in which lower-polling candidates participated in a debate immediately before the debate featuring the better-polling candidates. We included both types of debates in our tally, marked above as “undercard” for the earlier debate and “main” for the later one to differentiate them.

SourcesThe American Presidency Project at UC Santa BarbaraThe Primary Decision: A Functional Analysis of Debates in Presidential PrimariesIn Pursuit of the White House 2000: How We Choose Our Presidential NomineesCrystal Ball research. Our former colleague, Geoffrey Skelley, contributed heavily to this research when we first compiled it back in 2015.