Why Nobody Should Take Up Donald Trump's Election Debate Offer

Former President Donald Trump's offer to debate his claims of election fraud with the "heads of the various papers or even far-left politicians" is one they should reject, according to experts who discussed the proposal with Newsweek.

Trump has continued to insist that he lost the 2020 presidential election due to widespread irregularities. There has not been evidence of such issues on a scale which would have changed the outcome.

Despite recounts and audits reaffirming results and various legal challenges over purported irregularities having failed, Trump remains bullish over the matter.

In a recent statement, Trump said: "I am willing to challenge the heads of the various papers or even far left politicians, who have perpetuated the Real Big Lie, which is voter irregularities and fraud on a massive and determinative scale."

He concluded: "If anyone would like a public debate on the facts, not the fiction, please let me know. It will be a ratings bonanza for television!"

On November 30, he went on to criticize nobody taking him up on the offer, suggesting the reason is "they know they can't win."

While Trump has touted a ratings boost for the host of the clash, the prospect of such an event would likely only have benefits for one side—Trump's.

Julie Norman, deputy director of University College London's Centre on U.S. Politics, told Newsweek: "It is highly unlikely that any individual or media organization will take up Trump's offer to seriously debate his election fraud claims. Such an event would only give Trump an additional platform to further his unfounded claims, which recent polls show still resonate with approximately 68 percent of Republican voters."

The 68 percent figure Norman refers to relates to findings from an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll released at the start of November, in which that percentage of Republican voters asked agreed with the statement: "Donald Trump continues to say the 2020 election was rigged mostly because he is right. There were real cases of fraud that changed the result."

Polling has repeatedly indicated Republicans are leaning towards believing Trump's claims, with some even believing he could be reinstated by the end of the year.

"Any opponent or media outlet who is serious about dampening the effect of such claims will want to distance themselves from giving Trump further airtime on this issue in particular," Norman said.

donald trump leaves trump tower october 18
Former President Donald Trump leaves Trump Tower in Manhattan on October 18, 2021 in New York City. He has suggested a debate regarding his election fraud claims would be a "ratings bonanza." James Devaney/GC Images

John Owens, a professor of U.S. government and politics at the University of Westminster, told Newsweek while it is easy to see why Trump might want such a debate, it is unclear if there are any upsides for a prospective opponent.

"It's easy to see why Trump wants to debate anyone over fraud claims. It's a publicity stunt aimed at getting him back on television where he can repeat his false claims to the widest possible audience. And one of the television networks might be tempted," Owens said.

"If such event occurs—and it's a big 'if' since Trump has a history of bailing out of debates—he will see it as a new opportunity to preach to the choir in the form of his party, which has overwhelmingly already bought into his Big Lie about the 2020 presidential election and embraces a culture that seeks to hound honest election officials, like Georgia's Republican Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger, out of office."

Owens also suggested debate with Trump could be used by him to "gain wider legitimacy with the public" for his claims.

"For these reasons, it's difficult to see the upside in any Democrat taking him on. Leaving aside whether Trump ever 'debates' anyone, there are far more salient, more important issues that Democrats will want to focus on and which currently dominate the national agenda: COVID, now the new Omicron strain, inflation, economic growth, and Biden's unpopularity. Why spend political capital on fraud if the evidence shows there's very little of it about?"

Owens suggested down the line, say if Trump runs in 2024, then an opponent may consider taking him on in regard to such points—though he said even then taking such a path could backfire.

"Of course, fast forward to the presidential debates—assuming Trump participates—it's possible the Dem candidate will challenge Trump's claims. But even going down that path will be fraught given Trump's scattergun technique: showering his audience with numerous unsubstantiated claims helping generate fears that maybe something, somewhere went wrong, thereby invoking suspicion on his opponents and adding grist to his mill," Owens said.

"There will be only one winner if such a 'debate' occurred—and that is the guy currently starved of TV time social media exposure who needs to perpetuate the myth of a crisis and widespread electoral fraud."

Andrew Chadwick, a professor of political communication at Loughborough University, suggested three main reasons that someone may not want to take Trump up on the offer—as he also suggested the key reason for the proposal is simply a desire for publicity from the former president.

"As usual with Trump, this is all about publicity—not only for himself but also for the disinformation strategy he used to try to undermine Biden's win last November," Chadwick told Newsweek.

"As I see it, there are three main reasons why it would be unwise for the Democrats, moderate Republicans, or anyone who cares about the quality of U.S. democracy for that matter, to engage in a televised debate with Trump about this."

The first reason, Chadwick said, would be that the debate would offer an occasion for Trump to tout his ongoing political ambitions.

"It would provide fresh oxygen for Trump's plan to run in 2024. Staging a debate provides a new veneer of legitimacy for Trump's ongoing political ambitions. With Trump continuing to find it difficult to manipulate the news cycle in ways that he became used to during the 2016 campaign and his time in office, some form of televised debate provides an opportunity to grab the headlines. Even the fact that we're talking about it today is a 'victory' of sorts for Trump's strategy," Chadwick said.

On a further point, he suggested the debate would give Trump simply another chance to amplify "disinformation."

"Secondly, there is the more fundamental problem that a televised debate would also provide a platform for amplifying Trump's deceptive claim that electoral fraud was somehow responsible for his defeat in the 2020 presidential election. Would such a debate be a healthy development for U.S. democracy? We need to remember that this disinformation played a role in the violent attacks on the Capitol in January," Chadwick said.

"More broadly, communication research on deception and disinformation shows that simply repeating false claims can lead to 'fluency' and 'licensing' effects. Fluency effects occur when people are repeatedly exposed to a false statement. This makes a false claim feel more 'truthy' because, the more we hear the claim, the more comfortable we become with processing it, even though it is false.

"Licensing effects work in a similar way. They occur when we observe other people's belief in a false claim, especially if those other people are elites. This makes it more likely that we will take the false claim seriously because we have been granted 'license' to entertain the idea. Staging a debate would increase the likelihood of fluency and licensing effects around this disinformation."

Lastly, Chadwick said that the legal processes that have rejected such claims should be the forum for such debate—not TV debates.

"Thirdly, and related, we need to remember that, after multiple investigations and legal hearings, there is no evidence of widespread electoral fraud in the 2020 election. Courtrooms and other official venues have been the chosen forums for assessing claims of voter fraud in the U.S. and they have been used extensively to examine the claims. TV debates are no substitute for systematic legal processes."

For Trump, even if nobody takes him up on the offer, by putting the suggestion out there he can continue to boost his narrative—Jon Herbert, senior lecturer in the school of social, political and global studies at Keele University and a co-author of The Ordinary Presidency of Donald J. Trump, told Newsweek.

Herbert also suggested that in reality Trump may be "very fussy" about who he would face, despite his suggestion of being open to anyone taking him on.

"Trump promises to debate any and all with alarming frequency, rather like a bar brawler, but very rarely actually puts himself in a position where he would have to show himself to know what he is talking about," Herbert said. "He'd be very fussy about a potential opponent when a debate threatened; who, Biden apart, would have the status to share a stage with him? He doesn't lose anything by making the pledge and not following through; what he wants is the headline to maintain the momentum of the stolen election narrative."

As for the benefits of someone taking him on, Herbert again said these would likely be limited—though suggested the position of the person looking to take up the offer could alter how inviting such an offer might appear.

"I'm sure there are some low-level hopefuls who would really benefit from the extra attention standing on stage with Trump would garner, but I don't think they pass the profile test above," Herbert said. "I don't think opponents as a whole would decide communally not to give Trump the attention; if the individual incentives for particular candidates were big enough, I think someone would leap into the fray to gain an advantage."

Herbert suggested that perhaps overall, the "individual incentives aren't that great," particularly for anyone who might wish to run for high office.

Herbert said: "I wonder if a debate is a hiding to nothing for anyone running for high office. What would you gain from being shouted over by Trump apart from looking either weak, or looking overly combative by pushing back?"

There is also the issue of minds on the matter at hand being made up—with a debate probably unlikely to change them, thus leaning into the theory of such an event merely being promotional for Trump.

"The die is cast. The 2020 election is now slotted neatly into the two opposing partisan narratives and has its set place in rhetorical combat," Herbert said. "Those who engage with politics have their minds made up; those who don't aren't likely to be won over either way by an out-of-election season TV debate. The latter are more likely to be drawn in by election season discussion when they are likely to engage a little more."

At present, there has not been any such debate agreed upon. However, despite the arguments against doing so, the profile boost it might offer an opponent could perhaps pull someone into the fray. If not, should Trump run in 2024, then further down the line a debate on the matter to some extent may be unavoidable.

Newsweek has contacted the office of the former president for comment.