President Biden and Donald Trump have agreed to a departure in presidential politics – two general-election debates in late June (a historical first) and early September, with a lone vice presidential debate somewhere in between. Ben Ginsberg, the Hoover Institution’s Volker Family Visiting Fellow and a nationally recognized election-integrity advocate and campaign counsel, discusses the merits of the new debate schedule, what it means for the future of the Commission on Presidential Debates (which both candidates purposely avoided) and national conventions and third-party candidacies, the impact on a changing media landscape, plus the feasibility of a third Biden-Trump debate in October if either the public demands or both campaigns feel compelled to do so.



Bill Whalen: [00:00:00] It's Friday, May 17th, 2024. And welcome back to Matters of Policy and Politics, a Hoover Institution podcast devoted to governance and balance of power here in America and around the world. I'm Bill Whelan. I'm the Hoover Institute. I'm the Hobbes Carpenter Distinguished Policy Fellow in Journalism. I'm not the only fellow who's podcasting these days.

I strongly suggest that you go to the Hoover Institution's website. That's hoover. org. Click on the tab at the top of the homepage. It says Commentary. Head over to where it says Multimedia. And under audio podcast, you'll see the full slate. What Hoover has to offer that includes a rather clever series of podcasts under the title of saints, sinners, and salvageables, a series of podcasts dedicated to election integrity that would making return appearance this election year, the gentleman who was the voice behind those podcasts, Ben Ginsburg joins us today for an update on the 2024 election, specifically president Joe Biden and former president Donald Trump agreeing to not just one, but two debates this summer and fall.

About Ben Ginsberg. He [00:01:00] is the Hoover Institution's Volcker Family Visiting Fellow and a nationally recognized political law advocate. His past clientele reads like a who's who of American elections. Four of the past six Republican presidential nominees have worked with Ben. Here at the Hoover Institution, Ben's involved in several projects involving election integrity.

Ben, does that make you a retired attorney, a recovering attorney, or a guy who just can't quite quit the game? I think a

Benjamin Ginsberg: retiring attorney is probably the best way to describe it.

Bill Whalen: I think it's Michael Corleone Benham. We'll get to more Godfather references later. Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in.

Benjamin Ginsberg: That's true. it's a compelling time in the election law world.

Bill Whalen: It is, and it got a lot more compelling this week, Ben, when suddenly out of the blue, President Biden issued a dare to Donald Trump that he accepted, and that dare, Ben, was not one but two debates, the first being on June the 27th, you heard that right, folks, June the 27th, the second debate, September the 10th, this came, Ben, with plenty of stipulations, debates can only be hosted by a broadcast [00:02:00] organization that ran a Republican primary debate in 2016, in which Trump participated, so And a Democratic primary debate in 2020, in which President Biden participated.

Ben, that limited the choices to ABC, CBS, CNN, or Telemundo. Sure enough, CNN quickly announced it on June 27th at 9 p. m. East Coast time in its Atlanta studios. Jake Tapper and Dana, Bash will be moderating the first debate. The second debate ABC apparently is going to handle. Details to come onto that as who the moderators are.

another condition in this, Ben, debaters microphones will be muted when it's not that candidates turn to talk, so there'll be little in the way of crosstalk as we got in 2020. And yesterday, Ben, there was more news on the debate front. The Biden Harris campaign accepted CBS News offer to host a vice presidential debate either 723 or 813.

That's July 23rd or August 13th. We obviously don't know at this point who would be debating Vice President Harris. Ben, needless to say, this is a huge departure in how America goes about national [00:03:00] elections in this regard. if you go to the wonderful website, which is the, University of, California Santa Barbara's presidency project, you'll find a whole history of when debates were held going back to 1960.

We have never had a debate in June, Ben. We have had September debates, but usually toward the tail end of the month, never close to Labor Day like this one is. So Ben, let me start with a very large question that I've rambled on for quite a period here right now. Do you like what you see here? Do you like the idea of a June 27th and September 10th debates?

Benjamin Ginsberg: I think June may be a little bit early, but boy, it is long overdue to, dispose of the presidential commission.

Bill Whalen: Yeah. And let's hold off on that. Let's hold off on it for a couple of minutes, but just thought of doing this in June or September, or not

Benjamin Ginsberg: June is interesting in that this is an unusual year because you know who both the nominees are going to be.

That's not. Always the case at this stage to be able to plan the debates and to [00:04:00] get them going. it's also a unusual election in the lack of excitement about the two candidates. So this is a way for both candidates to maybe, put a little more juice. Into, into their efforts. so I think June is not it is unusual, but there's nothing wrong with it.

And the September debate, is really necessary because the presidential commission could never update itself enough to have its debates before early voting started. And with more early voting than ever, the commission schedule, made

Bill Whalen: little sense. Okay, let's play the Washington Parlor game for a second.

as recently as the day before the Biden campaign issued the dare, you had, former speaker Nancy Pelosi saying she thought it was a terrible idea for the president to get on the same debate stage as Donald Trump. You've heard [00:05:00] this, in Democratic circles frequently, it was beneath Biden's dignity they said to get on the stage with Trump.

He's deranged. He's a lunatic. We won't do it. And then suddenly out of the blue, voila, he wants to debate him not once but twice. Ben, put yourself inside the Biden campaign. What are they thinking?

Benjamin Ginsberg: first of all, the Biden campaign was thinking about this long before it was announced that to have had this sort of smooth running announcement meant that they were talking about it weeks, if not months ago with the Trump campaign.

but if you're the Biden campaign, the largest doubts about your candidate. Are the fact that he's 81 years old and being assailed on a regular basis for, as Donald Trump says, not being able to string two sentences together. And so there are not too many ways to rebut that. It would be better than standing up on a debate state you

Bill Whalen: go ahead and want to do it Okay, let me ask you a very cynical question if you want to do a debate on june [00:06:00] 27th ben Which are you aiming for more?

Do you think the thought that maybe fewer people will be watching on june 27th compared to an october or september debate? Or if you screw up early on june 27th, that gives you a lot of time to recover

Benjamin Ginsberg: It certainly gives you a lot of time to recover. If you need to do that, the way the debates work is they get huge audiences, but they get even more from replays and from people posting them so that the actual key moments of that debate will be played over and over and over again.

In fact, there is more time to play them over than with late starting debates.

Bill Whalen: Okay. You mentioned Ben the commission. What you're referring to was the commission on presidential debates, which has been organizing general election debates going back to, I think, 1988. I believe. I don't know if you were involved in those comments.

Yep. 84, was, the last of the league of women [00:07:00] voters. So this is 88. This commission has been doing it. in fact, it already had debates in place. It had, scheduled a September 16th debate at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. Bennett had set up an October 1st debate at Virginia State University in Ettrick, Virginia, that's just south of Richmond, and an October 9th debate at the University of Utah, as well as a vice presidential debate on September the 25th at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania.

Now, Ben, if you read the letter that Biden campaign chair, Jen O'Malley sent, to the commission, she took it to task in at least three regards. One, she said that the scheduled debates don't conclude until well after early voting has started, which you referenced. She's got a good point there. Second, she said the debates are quote, in her exact words, they're quote, structured like an entertainment spectacle.

Ouch. And not a quote, not in her words, not a quote, serious exchange of ideas. And then thirdly, Ben, she said the commission is unable to enforce its own rules. So there's [00:08:00] easy to criticize this commission. certainly, there, there have been technological problems. I think Trump had a microphone problem in 2016, I believe, in 2020, the issues of bias came up.

But Chris Wallace, in 2012, certainly Candy Crowley when she decided to live fact check Mitt Romney middle of that debate. How valid is criticism of this commission?

Benjamin Ginsberg: I think it's extremely valid. I had either the fortune or misfortune to be involved in four presidential cycles worth of dealing with the commission and I found the commission, had its priorities pretty mixed up.

in other words, their top priority was not the candidates and the substantive debate. They were much more about creating a spectacle out of the presidential debates that I think took away from the seriousness of it. They were by their very nature, reliant [00:09:00] on an awful lot of fundraising off the debates, which also contributed to the, to the spectacle part of things.

And overall, I think the debates were less than they should have been. Their main constituencies were the media rather than the candidates. And I think that led to, to less than they should have been debates.

Bill Whalen: Yeah, one of the assembling points here, Ben, seems to be the idea of having a live audience for a presidential debate.

Are you pro or con on that?

Benjamin Ginsberg: I am very much in favor of no audience. I think the audience is a distraction for the candidates. in every debate negotiation that I did, There are provisions in the memorandum of understanding between the campaigns that the networks will not have the ability to do, for example, candid shots of audience members, because those sorts of shots can have a great [00:10:00] influence on what people think is being set.

the commission basically told the audience told the broadcasters to ignore that and through their live feeds. The different networks always put on audience reaction shots more and more in our debates. Audiences have become factors with their, with their cheering. and really, the reason for the audience in the commission debates was a fundraising.

initiative. They needed to be able to have their sponsors taken care of by getting seats in the hall. They gave seats to each campaign, which in turn rewarded their donors with it. largely, it became part of the spectacle as opposed to something necessary for a good exchange of ideas between the candidates.

Bill Whalen: So we can agree that the debate commission got [00:11:00] rolled, but did it get killed?

Benjamin Ginsberg: Yeah, it just, by way of historical, note is that in 2015, the Annenberg Center at the University of Pennsylvania, convened a group of both Republicans and Democrats who had negotiated debates in the past, and there was a remarkable degree of bipartisan unanimity that the commission, was outmoded, outdated, and off focus, and, really should, there should be alternatives.

So hats off to the Trump and Biden campaigns for, for, I think, recognizing that and taking matters into their own hands. I think it's going to be a better debates.

Bill Whalen: Now, there is one loser in this, and that would appear to be Robert F. Kennedy Jr. in this regard. If you read the, letter that the Biden camp, put out, Ben, let me read the passage to you.

Quote, The debate should be one on one, allowing voters to compare the [00:12:00] only two candidates with any statistical chance of prevailing in the electoral college and not squandering debate time on candidates with no prospect of becoming president. Now, CNN disagreed with that, and CNN listed instead three criteria for debate time.

Qualifying number one, the candidate has to meet the requirements under article two, section one of the constitution. In other words, natural born citizenship. Secondly, the candidate has to have had to have filed a formal statement of candidacy at the FEC, obviously, duh. But third, and here's the big one, Ben, the, in order to get on the debate stage, a candidate has to have appeared on a sufficient number of state ballots to reach 270 electoral votes and receive at least 15 percent in four separate national polls of registered or likely voters.

That meets CNN's standards. Ben. So that's an abbreviated way of saying no way. Rfk in this regard.

Benjamin Ginsberg: Yeah. I'm not sure. I'm not sure that's necessarily right. I think there is, a way that he can buy himself onto enough ballots. right in states to [00:13:00] actually get over that threshold. So I'm not sure that he is definitely going to be excluded.

He's doing fine in the polls now. but I do think That if he were to qualify, you would see the two candidates probably pull out. And, the, commission is a relic of the time when campaigns were publicly financed. And so they did not have enough money to put on the debates themselves, but there would be nothing to stop the two campaigns from Agreeing among themselves to put on the debates.

They have enough funds now to afford the cost and getting themselves a sound studio or renting the cnn and abc facilities and just paying for it themselves at which point rfk jr. Does not get on the stage,

Bill Whalen: right? So I I did some homework on the status of [00:14:00] his campaign ben right now his campaign says it's either qualified or soon will qualify.

In 14 states and they are quickly rattled them off California, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, and Utah. I think Michigan is probably the one there that made your ears perk up. Ben, that's a total of 187 electoral votes. Let's assume he keeps moving forward.

And I want to talk to you a second about qualifying on the ballot here. Let's assume he gets to 270. It's the polling average. It's problematic. CNN has a 15 percent standard, as I mentioned. if you look at the real clear politics average in seven, battleground states right now, he's at about 12%.

So he's got a juices numbers to get to 15, but do you know how the commission and these networks have settled on 15 as the magic number as opposed to 14, is it, what is special about 15?

Benjamin Ginsberg: I don't think there's anything special about 15 other than it ends in a five. And so [00:15:00] therefore it's a more natural.

And it was. really, a number picked to exclude third party, candidates from getting on the stage, especially after 1992 when Ross Perot got on and sorta, scrambled the egg a bit and not in a good way.

Bill Whalen: I was on that campaign. Thank you for bringing that

Benjamin Ginsberg: up. You

Bill Whalen: were on that campaign.

Benjamin Ginsberg: Yeah, I was at the RNC

Bill Whalen: then and that was special in a lot of regards. You had him on the stage. That also was the year, Ben, when they opted for the town hall style debate, I think for the first time. And there was George, H. W. Bush, who just was not into the modern style of politics the way Bill Clinton was, sitting I think on a tall bar stool or something like that, it was just very different for him.

I remember the one moment when this fellow got up, and you might remember this too, the guy with the long ponytail, and did like a five minute question, and there's just President Bush just, he just knew what the [00:16:00] bubble thought was, what am I doing here? Who am I? Why am I here? Yes. And he had to look at his watch.

But, 50 percent matters in this regard, Ben. If you go back and look at past, third party candidates, Perot ended up at 18. 9 percent in that election. But if there had been a debate in 1968, remember there were no presidential debates in 64, 68, and 72, George Wallace would not have been on a debate stage with, Humphrey and Nixon because he ended up with about 8.

4 percent in that election. He did win five states. Perot didn't win any. But he would not have qualified under the 15 percent standard. here we have an interesting debate. a candidate like Wallace, you can argue maybe a candidate like Kennedy could be a spoiler in terms of shifting states one way or the other.

Maybe he should be on the stage, but if you want to put in this 15 percent standard, no, he doesn't get a platform.

Benjamin Ginsberg: Yeah, I think that's I think that's probably right. He there. Look, it's a feature of American politics that were two party system and the third parties [00:17:00] have an historically difficult time getting on a debate stage.

And what's different about RFK Jr. is it is not clear at this point which candidate he hurts. I think with Perot in 92 it was pretty clear he was a problem for Bush and not Clinton. But R. F. K. Jr. is, somebody who can, potentially threaten each of the candidates in a tight race for, for different reasons.

Bill Whalen: But it would seem the two campaigns agree on one thing, they don't want him on a debate stage.

Benjamin Ginsberg: Yeah, because he's not going to win and they would rather have the one on one Post op with each other,

Bill Whalen: here's the thought Ben you could have a debate between Kennedy and Jill Stein and Cornel West

Benjamin Ginsberg: Yes, I'll, I look forward to you telling me what happened then.

I'd actually watch it. Yeah, I would too. But, [00:18:00] I think.

Bill Whalen: No, I think in this regard, in two regards, I think number one, I think policy wise, it might be more interesting than watching a Trump Biden debate. And then secondly, just in terms of performance and style, just to see how those three would approach it.

I think it might be better viewing because I'm not sure what Trump and Biden could offer us in the way of, One on one debate, which gets to another question about the tactics and approach and how each candidate handles himself on the stage.

Benjamin Ginsberg: it's unlikely that the three of them would actually debate with each other as opposed to each whale and his or her own Way against biden and trump.

Bill Whalen: Okay. So one thing worth noting here ben is civic bindedness can kick in with journalists here and that abc cbs CNN, they get control of this debate. There's nothing stopping them from sharing it with other networks. And I think CNN has actually offered to share it. I'm not sure if ABC has gone with that or not.

So that's one way to proliferate this to get more viewership. Yeah,

Benjamin Ginsberg: I think that's absolutely true. [00:19:00] It would be interesting to see the commercial interests of the two sponsors and whether they decide to share the well, CNN being a cable network means that it's set of competition. Its competitors is a little bit different ABC.

What I suspect will happen is the both of them will take advantage of. Streaming, availability, which is doing, which is growing as opposed to both broadcasting cable, which are shrinking in audiences.

Bill Whalen: Yeah, that's a very good point. So you alluded to Kennedy qualifying for the ballot. I'm surprised, Ben, by the different standards involved in terms of getting on the ballot in terms of signature gathering.

in some states is surprising low. Some states as low as I think 1000. I think you taught might be 1000 signatures to get on the ballot. Should there be a federal standard for this? Or is it okay to let each state decide what to do? A

Benjamin Ginsberg: essential [00:20:00] ingredient in the American fabric is a fierce federalism where each state gets to set its own rules for things like, for things like elections.

I, think that's a matter of, state control always has been, I suspect it, it always will be. What's significant about the signature requirements is that while they may have started off many years ago is the civic virtue of being sure there was popular support for something, it has now become a really commercialized area and any campaign with sufficient funds, I believe, can

buy their way onto a vice president. And all her wealth is significant with that backdrop.

Bill Whalen: Interesting. so let's talk a bit about the legal standing of these three campaigns, not in terms of court trials or anything like that, but in terms of what [00:21:00] campaigns legal shops are up to these days. So Kennedy's campaign is obviously very busy focusing on getting ballot access.

what about the Trump and Biden campaigns though, Ben? Because this ties into what you've been doing on your series on election integrity. They're looking at, voting in November and results and how states are running their elections. If you're lawyers on the Trump and Biden teams, how are you spending your time right now?

You're spending a lot of

Benjamin Ginsberg: time learning the laws of the different states, in with particular notion for what you can do in terms of recruiting poll workers, people who might work for, the election administrators. You poll watchers to be able to work for the campaign and go in and observe what's happening in polling places, really knowing the state laws, spend a lot of time, should spend a lot of time getting to know, the local election administrators in key counties and precincts, you'll be working with your, [00:22:00] political force to, Take a look at how many votes you need from individual areas, and who those people are and how you can best reach them with the different forms of communications available to you.

and your friendly lawyers are really also helming a startup business that's going to raise close to a billion dollars, raise and spend a billion dollars. Over the course of an 18 month period with the sole Goal of a one day sale when they count up the votes So there are daunting legal issues on everything from commercial matters like Where do you get venues and what are the contracts like to what are the broadcast rules?

What are the internet communication rules? What are your fundraisers saying and messages? What are your communicators saying and [00:23:00] messages? what are your policy folks doing? Because lawyers can help play a role in that. and then just dealing with the, with the fire hose of issues that come up when you got a billion dollar startup business.

Bill Whalen: Am I oversimplifying then by saying that the Trump campaign's concern is, voter integrity in terms of, illegal votes being counted, fraudulent votes being counted, votes being wrongly counted, and the Biden campaign's concern is ballot access, ballot suppression.

Benjamin Ginsberg: Yeah, I think that's a fair way to look at it.

part of what is, leading to a lot of the problems we have as a country in terms of polarization is that the fraud and suppression narrative. From the two parties has really seeped in as a major get out the vote message for each. And so to take an honest look at how much fraud is going [00:24:00] on or how much suppression is going on gets in the way of a massive business model.

And political mobilization model. So yes, the different campaigns are looking at the same set of issues from those two really different vantage points.

Bill Whalen: Now, I want to take you, Ben, into what I think may be a very unlikely scenario, but let's play along with it anyway. And this is a very alternate universe, an odd universe, I would say.

It's October, Ben. It's been a month since we've had a presidential debate. And there's a hue and cry to have a third debate. And again, this is an alternate universe because I'm not sure that people want a third debate after two Biden Trump campaigns, but there is a drumbeat out there to do a third debate.

And the two campaigns are running neck and neck in the polls, Ben, so it's not like one candidate has a five point lead on the other and is not going to dare go on the same stage and risk blowing the lead by, by debating. How would the two campaigns, Ben, in, [00:25:00] again, the very remote scenario in which they both decided they want to do a third debate, how would they go about doing it?

And again, I go back to my Mafia movie Godfather references, is it like the five families sitting down for a very large meeting of staff to talk this over, Ben? Is this more like, is this more like Tom Hagen going over to talk to Solazzo about cutting a deal? Dunn Casiglieri to Casiglieri. How do the two campaigns talk to each other?

How do they approach each other?

Benjamin Ginsberg: generally by phone or email. look, I think they've already run this play because the announcement of the June and September debate. came off quickly and pretty flawlessly, which tells me that the two campaigns had been talking directly long before that announcement.

So my guess is that Susie Wiles and Chris LaCivita, from the Trump campaign would talk with General Mally Dixon, who would also talk to people in the White House, undoubtedly, [00:26:00] and they would feel each other out. on whether there was an interest in a, third debate. And the, mechanism for doing it would be much like what they, what they've just done.

Bill Whalen: Kind of amazing they managed to pull this off because your instinct would be if the other side offers this proposal to me, it's a trap.

Benjamin Ginsberg: Yeah, there's always there's always that. But I, despite what you may have been reading in your favorite news publication or seeing on TV, I think the Biden folks always knew that there would have to be at least one debate, and the Trump people saw it as a tactical advantage so that, it's in the interest.

It became in the interest of both campaigns to have some sort of a debate. And I think they both realized it and, found a way to talk to each other about it.

Bill Whalen: this is good news, Ben. This shows that lawyers are still [00:27:00] relevant to presidential campaigns. Very

Benjamin Ginsberg: much I think this is the Wiley political operatives more than the lawyers working this out, probably.

Okay, then they kept the lawyers out of it to mess it up. Yeah, I'm sure the lawyers were consulted.

Bill Whalen: Let's look at 2028 for a second, Ben, and a new presidential cycle. And again, the question of how to go about doing debates. first of all, do you think there'll be a commission on debates? No. Okay. So what's going to take its place or will anything take its place?

Benjamin Ginsberg: it may be that another organization winds up standing up to put on the debates the Commission really is a relic of the time when there was public financing and the simplest mechanism for Putting on a debate would be just to have the campaigns talk to each other You I think that the formats that are going to be used in 2024 are going to look an awful lot like what the presidential [00:28:00] commission did.

I think you can see with two other candidates that, there would be an effort to improve the formats. That in fact, the standing up behind the podiums with one minute or two minute answers become like dueling press conferences as opposed to an interchange of ideas. The town halls, having been a part of a bunch of them, are to me theatrical artifice, even although they're very popular with viewers.

I suspect if you had two candidates With a lot of confidence in their ability to debate, you might go back to a Lincoln Douglas style debate where you didn't really have a moderator would throw out a question and keep time, and the candidates would be responsible for asking each other follow ups.

which would be a much more, [00:29:00] I think indicative of the substantive grasp that the candidates had of topics and issues. I think there are other ideas for improved formats that, I hope will get implemented in 2028.

Bill Whalen: Now, if I'm researching correctly, Ben, in the Lincoln Douglas, debates in the 1850s, this is, Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln in the Senate, Illinois in 1858.

I think the way it worked was they tossed a coin, or whoever went first spoke for an hour and a half. And then the rebuttal was an hour. And then the person who's and then, no, the kickoff was an hour. And then you got an hour. I have to respond. And then the opener got 30 minutes to respond to that.


Benjamin Ginsberg: there was no moderator, though, which was the essential thing. And I think for today's tick tock audiences, you might need to cut down the hour and a half. Routine, but, you could, instead of putting a moderator in the position of asking [00:30:00] follow up questions, which is always, less than smooth, you would actually have the candidates questioning each other some.

Bill Whalen: I also wonder, Ben, given what's going on college campuses these days, why, especially a conservative candidate, would dare want to go to a college campus for a debate?

Benjamin Ginsberg: No need to go to a college campus. No need for the audience. There really is not a need for a big spin room anymore. the Internet kicked the spin room of yesteryear were really mattered for messaging.

just to give you an example of the spectacle that the commission became that really wasn't necessary. There was a Budweiser beer tent. At every debate and god i'd love the budweiser beer tent and the icy cold beer and the great food that they served And goodness knows my grandkids loved the pictures of me with the Clydesdales that I always made sure to take But honestly, you do not need that for a substantive presidential debate So [00:31:00] taking that in a sound studio would be a great idea.

What was budweiser doing there? They were sponsoring the debate. They figured if they could get their product You in front of the cream of the reporting crop who by the way does drink beer

Bill Whalen: Yes,

Benjamin Ginsberg: that would be a real plus for the brand And so they saw it as their public duty to get reporters a little bit sloshed before the debate started And the tent was

Bill Whalen: outside the the debate hall right there.

Yeah right there. That's like a tailgate It

Benjamin Ginsberg: was It would be frivolity in the beer tent and then people would realize oh, this is serious stuff. We better sober up here You

Bill Whalen: Let's talk about the media's role in this moving forward, Ben, because in addition to your, your past, as a, campaign consigliere, you've also spent considerable time on TV offering your thoughts on politics.

the media's role moving forward, can we find a neutral media site, if you will? one thing that struck me, I was thinking about this the other day, there's no Larry King anymore [00:32:00] on television. Those older people listening to this podcast remember Larry King used to rule the airwaves evenings on CNN, doing a talk show, and he would do all kinds of random topics, politics, entertainment, culture, you name it, but he wasn't seen as the guy swinging an axe, carrying an agenda.

but if you were to hold a debate on a cable network at night right now, you're in the land of opinion. There is no neutral site on evening cable anymore. No, there's

Benjamin Ginsberg: not. And arguably, the product during the day has its own particular slants for their own particular audiences. that's one of the reasons that I mentioned before you, they may future debaters may want to minimize the role of the moderator to just throwing out a question and keeping time.

Thank you. And I think the key to engaging the audience is really going to be through streaming or whatever comes after streaming with direct access. Then [00:33:00] people can pick up. But you're absolutely right. It's tough to find true perceived neutrality in the media these days.

Bill Whalen: All right. Now let's talk about calendar for doing this in 2028.

You referenced early voting. It's very funny. After Kennedy's campaign announced recently, Ben, they qualified for the California ballot, and then he put out what he called the spoiler challenge to the Biden campaign saying that, look it, let's do head to head polls in October of me against Trump, Kennedy's campaign, and Biden's campaign against Trump.

And whoever does worse than the head to head, they agree to drop out of the race. interesting idea. Of course, it never happened, but a silly idea in this regard, Ben, you do a poll in mid October and then drop out, how many Americans already have a ballot in their possession by mid October?

Benjamin Ginsberg: It's not a, it's not a real world, real world suggestion at all. the timing of the debates, timing of the debates is, a serious question. [00:34:00] especially with early voting opportunities proliferating. Around the country. we'll see if June is good period of time to level set the debate and to engage.

voters at an earlier basis than they might pre convention. it probably further diminishes the role of a convention where there's no drama over, who the candidates are going to be, because you will have this match up beforehand. and the conventions become even more of a sort of, rolling commercial.

it does make sense to have the debates before early voting starts in many states. and so early September is really a good time for debates. And once you get much past that, their marginal utility for voters at least declines. So it

Bill Whalen: sounds like you're suggesting we [00:35:00] do this in September.

Benjamin Ginsberg: Yeah, I think September is a really good time to do it.

it's interesting to me the way more and more school districts are starting in August. So maybe the last week of August or last two weeks of August are now prime time for these presidential debates. And the people are back in focus from the summer, and it's before most states start early voting.

So there needs to be a reevaluation of the timing of debates. Plus, I think there'll also be a general question of the utility of debates. One of the interesting things to keep in mind as you hear this hue and cry over the presidential commission, being dealt a death knell is looking at the polling that's taken place, the impact of the debates on polling.

And in virtually every election cycle. the number, the polling [00:36:00] numbers before the first debate are the same as the polling numbers about a week to 10 days after the last debate. And while there may be massive swings inside of that period of debates, there's not really any lasting impact for them, which should be a lesson for people to take into the way the new formats are considered

Bill Whalen: for debates.

Are you suggesting then that presidential debates are over, overhyped, overweighted, overvalued? In a word, hell

Benjamin Ginsberg: yeah. Oh yeah. I think they're important to be able to see the two candidates head to head, that may alter some public perceptions and, who people want to support, but honestly, the hard numbers.

of how the polls impact the electorate, is really minimal. So that's got to be thought through.

Bill Whalen: Yeah. it's interesting when you go back and look at recent incumbents, Ben, they oftentimes [00:37:00] struggle in their first debate. Reagan, in 1984 had a bad debate, prompted a conversation about let Reagan be Reagan.

Obama had a very bad debate in 2012, just, he just didn't, I don't know if he took Romney seriously or didn't come prepared or just underestimated Romney or Romney overperformed that night, but he had a bad debate as well. But the point is, neither of those bad performances cost the election.

Benjamin Ginsberg: because as I said it did there may be fluctuations within the debate period but not afterwards And I think george w bush had an off debate in the first one in 2004 as well And I think there's a great temptation For incumbents generally to say number one.

I know all this stuff. It's what I do on a daily basis so I don't really need to practice And number two a great You Feeling of what am I doing here? Why do I have to prove myself? So there is a little hubris that seems to come with the office whether you're [00:38:00] A republican or a democrat that has led to bad first debate performances by incumbents But again by the time all the debates wash through that effect seems to have been negated

Bill Whalen: That's why, Ben, I thought the, June 27th debate was a clever move by the Biden campaign in two regards.

Number one, if he has a bad night, he has the better part of two months until his convention acceptance speech to get back on track and, find his stride. And then secondly, as these things go, president has a bad night in debate. Someone's gonna, someone's head's gonna roll for it. Some, invariably someone's gonna leak to the press.

He was over prepared. He was over staffed. They didn't let Ginsburg be Ginsburg. And so what that would do is that would allow the Biden campaign to do a shake up that's probably gonna do anyway at some point. again, I think that late June debate was smart.

Benjamin Ginsberg: Yeah, I'm not sure it's a staff shake up or that people will be pointing fingers in either camp.

At the debate preparers because they will the staff will do the work to prepare the candidate. There is [00:39:00] a There is a responsibility by the candidate himself to like actually learn this stuff and study it So I think that because both of these candidates do have experience with presidential debates The way that they will be treated by their staff will be born of experience Thanks So if one candidate has a better performance than the other, I don't think that's going to be a staff failure.

Bill Whalen: Yeah, I do think the June debate serves another function. That's for Trump. It's a question of did you learn anything from 2020? In other words, we can agree. He was just way too hot in the 2020 debates, came in too strong, talked over Biden, just, Did not look presidential, did not look calm and assuring. Did he learn anything from that debate performance?

Or will he be the same Donald Trump in 2024?

Benjamin Ginsberg: Yeah. And Joe Biden has a test on him on whether he can convince people that although he's 81, he's up for the job. And it's interesting that both are before the [00:40:00] convention. there's been some speculation, even in some semi respectable places in the past couple days that if either one of the candidates just has a terrible, performance that could be fixed by the party elders at the respective conventions.

Now, I find that impossible to believe, but the people were even saying it is, another noteworthy feature of the June debate.

Bill Whalen: We run another scenario by you, Ben. This was floated the other day by Dean Phillips, the Democratic congressman who ran against Biden in this cycle. He thinks the Democrats should scrap their convention altogether.

Benjamin Ginsberg: Oh, I disagree with that. I think the four day format of them, is really designed to be an info commercial and the networks and other broadcasts and even streamers are not taking the debate. So I think that there is a good reason to try and [00:41:00] reimagine the debate itself. I will say the conventions themselves.

I will say that the conventions. serve a valuable purpose in getting the real activist base of a party together in one place, and you should not minimize the political organizational advantages of that. And to the extent you have America's attention for at least one night. And maybe a night and a half if people like the roll call in the vice presidential selection that's also worth doing from a candidate party perspective

Bill Whalen: Yeah, I think the parties have to understand it's a different role people are not going to watch for four days in a row my first experience with American politics, Ben, when I was a very young boy coming home from playing baseball and going into my living room in my house, and there was a Chicago convention on the TV.

My parents just ran the convention along the clock. It ran all day on TV [00:42:00] back then. So there were

Benjamin Ginsberg: actually daytime sessions that, that people watched.

Bill Whalen: Yeah, I remember looking at the screen and just the very, vivid images was going on in Chicago, but you're right though, it's become shrunk, it's become, it used to be, it used to be four nights have been where you would have, a former president Reagan or Clinton would come on the first night and give a big speech, second night, a few notaries would come up, the third night, vice president, and then the fourth night, the president.

you're right though, it's really come down to, unless you really want to watch the vice president give his or her speech, eh. It's really a one night show to watch that

Benjamin Ginsberg: well, you might with you might want to watch with whoever Trump picks because that will be the person's the vice presidential boy.

Yeah, the vice presidential choice. So

Bill Whalen: you might watch that speech. Okay, would you choose to keynote benefit of the trump campaign? Who would you put forward as your keynote speaker at the convention? You know what?

Benjamin Ginsberg: I'd

probably do a series of keynoters. I would try and spread the wealth as much as [00:43:00] possible to have representatives of the voter groups that they feel they need the most.

So I'm not sure that I would do one keynote because the appetite for long winded speeches by much of anybody is dissipated among the American voting public. So I actually think I'd do a series of short bursts with Representatives of the groups you needed to reach the most

Bill Whalen: and say for both parties, which would you do it for the Democrats as well?

Benjamin Ginsberg: No, definitely for both. I'm not sure who the individual is in either party that you just say Oh, wow, that's the person who's got a given speech. And so I think a representative number of people is, probably, an innovation that, that could come to pass.

Bill Whalen: Want to go on the line and, and name a name for who the keynotes will be?

I'll play if you will. So if I

Benjamin Ginsberg: [00:44:00] was Donald Trump, I would, yeah, you play first. I'm going to think about this when you do it. I don't know. It's like football. I don't know for, I don't know for either of them. again, to pick a galvanizing person who people really want to listen to. Yeah. Who's your

Bill Whalen: choices?

On the democratic side, I'd probably go in one or two directions. I'd either go with Gretchen Whitmer, The governor of Michigan, or I'd go with Gavin Newsom, the governor of California. And before heads explode, say, Newsom's a very good speaker, and he will fire up the crowd, and he'll speak the gospel.

He'll tell them what they want to hear. I know you can say, wait a second, that puts California in the spotlight, but I think he'd give a pretty effective speech. So those are my two choices. I'm struggling on the Republican side. I would say maybe Tim Scott, if he is not the vice presidential pick, might be the guy I'd go with.

Benjamin Ginsberg: Yeah, I was thinking Tim Scott might be the guy if he's not the vice presidential, person, I think that, they may [00:45:00] have a tendency to look at the target states and the ones that really matter. So if I was Biden, I think I would go with Gretchen Whitmer. Maybe Josh Shapiro in Pennsylvania, Tony Evers is not a dynamic speaker is governor of Wisconsin, but he would hit the right demographic.

I think Trump's gonna. more likely than not go with, a Southerner. And, Tim Scott's a good choice to, to be doing that. I'm not quite sure

Bill Whalen: where else he turns. Yeah, we'll just have to find out what we, final question for you, Ben. You and I have had several, off microphone conversations about this election.

you've been very concerned about, shall we say, the election going to overtime legally. Yes, and remain

Benjamin Ginsberg: so. so I'm traveling around the country a good deal to the most contentious [00:46:00] election jurisdictions To, to try and get community leaders to learn about the election system, to kick the tires. Uhhuh,

what worries me amo the most, and especially in an overtime situation, is seeing just how divided we are as a country, number one and number two within that, the number of people, on each side of the aisle who have doubts about the reliability of the results. So no matter who wins the election, if there is a significant segment of the population who doesn't believe the election was legitimate, then that's going to be a real handicap for it, for whoever tries to govern the country.

So if that is the case and it does go to overtime, that's going to be even, more contentious.

Bill Whalen: But what are the legal concerns, Ben? Is it lawsuits [00:47:00] blocking vote counts? Is it refusing to seat electors? What has you concerned? I think it is,

Benjamin Ginsberg: allegations of fraud that are not well proven, that are used as an excuse not to certify elections on time.

So that when it comes to January 6th, you do remember that date in your mind now, don't you, that there's not a winter produced by the electoral college and our, our systems that have not really been tested in. 150 years get tested in this dynamic media environment. How would that play out if there is no solution by January 6th?

there are a series of things that, that can, there are a series of things that can happen depending on the scenario. if no candidate reaches 270 electoral votes, [00:48:00] then who chooses the president gets thrown to the house where they vote by delegation, not by state. not by members. The vice president gets chosen by the Senate.

If the House can't choose a president by that point, then theoretically, a vice president chosen by the Senate could be the interim president. As it were, there's no president or vice president. Then the line of succession kicks in, and the new speaker of the House whoever that might be Becomes the acting president until the electoral college produces a majority.

Oh my have fun

Bill Whalen: That doesn't sound like fun. finally ben, tell us a bit about you're resuming your podcast What do you want to talk about this year?

Benjamin Ginsberg: as I mentioned, the election administrations and faith in the elections and whether the system works or [00:49:00] not is to me the most salient question.

So I want to examine the safeguards in the election system from the perspective of both the election officials and those who have doubts about the correctness or the accuracy of the election system so we can have some resolution as a country, not who wins the election, but that the system used to produce those results is accurate.

Because, again, if there's not public confidence that the winner was correctly chosen, that corrodes the peaceful transfer of power. And that's just a core foundational element of our country and how we pick our leaders and how those leaders can lead.

Bill Whalen: I want you to promise me, Ben, that the final installment will be you and I doing a little roadmap for the [00:50:00] election.

I want the Ben Ginsberg viewing guide to watch on election night. That is a promise I'm happy to keep. Okay, Ben, thanks for the conversation. I hope you're enjoying the summer. Come out to the farm soon, okay? Excellent. Thanks, Bill. Be there soon. You've been listening to Matters of Policy and Politics, a Hoover Institution podcast devoted to governance and balance of power here in America and around the globe.

If you've been enjoying this podcast, please don't forget to rate, review, and subscribe to our show. And if you wouldn't mind, please spread the word and tell your friends about us. The Hoover Institution has Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter feeds. Our Twitter handle is at hooverinst, I N S T, and I said Twitter, I meant.

X marks the spot. I mentioned our website at the beginning of the show. That's hoover. org. While you're there, sign up for the Hoover Daily Report, which keeps you updated on what Ben Ginsburg and his Hoover colleagues are up to. Also, you should sign up for Hoover's Podblast, which delivers the best of our podcasts each month to your inbox.

For the Hoover Institution, this is Bill Whelan. We'll be back soon with a new installment of Matter of Policy and Politics. Until then, take care.

Bill Whalen: Thanks for listening.

VO: This podcast is a production of the Hoover Institution, where we generate [00:51:00] and promote ideas advancing freedom. For more information about our work, to hear more of our podcasts, or view our video content, please visit


overlay image