Donald Trump says he’d “love to debate Bernie.” Bernie Sanders says they should do it “in the biggest stadium possible.”
A Trump-Sanders match up would be an unprecedented meeting between two presidential candidates of opposite parties before their respective conventions, and while it may not even happen, the very idea of it speaks to the disruption of tradition that has come to be expected this election cycle.
As candidates descend on California for the June 7 primary, the battle is not just to get out the vote but for airtime — and once again Trump seems to be winning.
He doesn’t even need to when it comes to the California primary — on Thursday the Associated Press said that he passed the number of delegates he needs to clinch the nomination. He’s now likely to win California by a lopsided margin over his vanquished opponents.
The day before, he led local Los Angeles news coverage, first for a rally in Anaheim and surrounding protests, then for an appearance on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and then for a trek to Santa Monica to attend a fundraiser. Sanders, meanwhile, drew headlines for bashing The Walt Disney Co.
Hillary Clinton? She announced a massive infrastructure plan for her first 100 days, but the focus of her coverage was a State Department inspector general’s report on her emails.
That continued into Thursday, as Trump again dominated hour after hour, first with news of clinching the nomination, then with a press conference from North Dakota, where he expounded on everything from his penchant for calling Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) “Pocahontas,” to what it would take for him to do the debate with Sanders. (His answer: at least $10 million, to go to a women’s health charity).
“I understand the television business very well. I think it would get high ratings,” Trump said.
By the afternoon, it was the focus of Hillary Clinton’s interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, and she dismissed the idea out of hand. “I don’t think it’s serious,” she said.
Alan Schroeder, a Northeastern U. professor and author of “Presidential Debates: 50 years of High-Risk TV,” agreed. “The fact that Trump is now attaching conditions ($10 million for charity) indicates that he’s already back-pedaling. For various reasons, the whole thing seems unlikely to happen.”
Not that it matters. It may prove to be yet another example of Trump’s ability to make “news” in this media environment.
“It probably has less to do with his experience on reality television, and more with his background in navigating the hyper-competitive New York City media landscape,” said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. “He has an extra ability to dominate news coverage. He did it in Iowa. He did it in New Hampshire. And now he’s doing it in California.”
The question is how that media dominance translates into a head-to-head match up in the general election.
“By the fall it is still going to be one of his greatest strengths,” Schnur said. “But it won’t be as much of an advantage because general election candidates tend to get media coverage no matter what.”
The Clinton has been hammering Trump for his temperament — trying to turn his ability to capture coverage on its head. After Trump’s ventures into Bill Clinton’s past, Vince Foster, and Benghazi, the Clinton campaign responded by saying that he’s been “fueling conspiracy theories on the campaign trail. Can you imagine that in the Situation Room?” It’s expected that by the fall, Clinton also will have an army of surrogates to push back, including President Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden.
As November approaches, won’t voters will look less to persona and more to policy? “If you asked that question 11 and a half months ago I would have said, ‘Yes.’ Now I am not as convinced,” Schnur said, noting that Clinton and her campaign “are playing by traditional rules in a year in which traditional rules don’t apply.”
A Sanders-Trump debate would upend tradition, so much so that on Thursday there was all sorts of conflicting opinion on who it would benefit most. It could be a event in which Hillary Clinton is the frequent Sanders-Trump target, some have said, or expose “Trump in a way that diminished him,” in Schroeder’s words.
“Even a stellar debate could not clinch the nomination for Sanders, so Clinton would end up as the de facto winner,” he said.
It’d be great TV.
“I could foresee the networks fiercely competing for the opportunity, and then promoting the hell out of it,” Schroeder said. “If the debate actually came to pass, it would be the ratings blockbuster of the summer.”