Even by the absurd and tragicomic standards of Trump-era American politics, the 2024 presidential race is off to an unconventional start. President Biden’s impending re-election campaign has been overshadowed by Democratic angst over his approval ratings, age, and running mate’s political abilities; Trump, the de facto Republican frontrunner, may effectively start his campaign in handcuffs upon indictment by a Manhattan grand jury; Ron DeSantis, still largely unproven nationally, is only just starting to spar with his aforementioned G.O.P. adversary, and may be more of a donor fantasy than real primary threat. Finally, but for Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy, most of the would-be candidates have yet to declare. We are heading toward campaign season, no doubt about it, but we seem to be slouching there, with no clarity about what the next nineteen-and-a-half months will look like. That’s tragic, politically, but it’s media gold.
For the media, after all, the presidential campaign season really coalesces around the debates, which can materially impact the race while delivering NFL-level ratings. In 2015, the first Republican presidential debate, hosted by Fox News, drew a record-high 24 million viewers thanks, in part, to the vicious sparring between Trump and a game Megyn Kelly. The following debate, on CNN, drew 23 million viewers. Needless to say, these ratings were inflated by the novelty of the Trump phenomenon. Nevertheless, the debates, like the campaign generally, are a massive boon to all of the television networks—and especially to cable networks like Fox News and CNN, which so far this year are averaging about 2.2 million and 560,000 total viewers in primetime, respectively.
This time around, the Republican primary debates will kick off in August, in Milwaukee, with a debate on Fox News. Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel and David Bossie, the party’s presidential debates chief, are currently in late-stage negotiations with all the major broadcast and cable networks, minus the avowedly liberal MSNBC, to determine the allocation of the remaining contests. The rough plan, sources familiar with those discussions tell me, is to host about one debate per month, with anywhere from 8 to 11 debates in total, leading up to the Republican National Convention, also in Milwaukee, in August 2024.