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Trump has ‘little to gain, a lot to lose’ from debate with Sanders

AFP | Republican Donald Trump (left) has agreed to a television debate with Democratic primary candidate Bernie Sanders (right)

Republican Donald Trump has agreed to what could be a ratings-busting television debate against Democratic primary candidate Bernie Sanders, but it may turn out to be a bad move for the media-savvy billionaire.


A debate between Trump, a presumptive nominee for the Republican Party, and Sanders, who remains a long-shot Democratic candidate, would be unprecedented in the history of US presidential campaigns.

Trump has secured enough delegates to represent his camp in the general election, according to some counts, but the Republican National Convention where he is expected to accept his camp’s official nomination is still more than seven weeks away.

Sanders continues to trail Democratic primary frontrunner Hillary Clinton by hundreds of delegates, and could see his campaign hit a final wall in California’s June 7 primary. Although he has eroded his rival’s lead in the key state, she remains the overall favourite.

This very untraditional presidential primary season saw another twist on Wednesday when Trump agreed to debate Sanders during an appearance on the popular television show "Jimmy Kimmel Live!"

"Game on. I look forward to debating Donald Trump in California before the June 7 primary," Sanders tweeted shortly after the show aired. On Thursday Sanders agreed with Trump that they would have to find the biggest stadium possible for the event.

The prospect of a drama-filled verbal joust in front of thousands of spectators, and potentially millions of television viewers, would appear to play along with Trump’s portentous campaign style, but it may not be the smartest move for the Republican candidate.

‘Little to gain’

According to Darrell West, the director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution thinktank, the idea was floated by Sanders only because Clinton has been unwilling to debate with him.

Sanders has surprised the political establishment by racking up primary victories and dragging out the Democratic contest longer than anyone expected. But he still struggles to make his voice heard.

That has not been a problem for Trump.

“Trump is already dominating media through the statements, often controversial, he makes almost daily. He does not need Sanders to get attention,” said West, who thinks Trump was “caught off guard” by entertainer Jimmy Kimmel’s debate invitation.

Indeed, studies show Trump has on average enjoyed as much as three times more coverage on news shows than Clinton or Sanders. According to the Tyndall Report, which closely monitors broadcasts on major US networks, Trump tallied 333 minutes of coverage against Clinton’s 89 and Sanders’ 87 from the start of the year to April 22.

“A debate against Sanders would certainly gain a lot of attention [for Trump], but there is a key difference,” West said. “So far media coverage is on Trump’s terms. He is giving speeches in which he controls the message, and interviews where he can set the tone.”

“Sanders is a very articulate speaker in debates, and he would point out fallacies in Trump’s statements. Sanders would also try to pin him down on policy specifics, which Trump has been careful to avoid. I think Trump has little to gain, and possibly a lot to lose,” he argued.

The politics expert said Trump appeared to be backing away from the debate since Wednesday night by imposing requirements, like rising up to $15 million for charity before it ever happens. “I would be surprised if it takes place,” West said of the Trump-Sanders matchup.

A problem for Clinton

Forced to comment on the unusual debate proposal, Clinton expressed doubt it would see the light of day.

“This doesn’t sound like a serious discussion,” she told CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer on Thursday. “I’m looking forward to debating Donald Trump in the general election. I can’t wait to get on the stage with him.”

While speaking as if her nomination was a foregone conclusion, Clinton has in fact struggled to outdo Sanders. West said a debate between her in-party rival and Trump would spell more bad news for her campaign for the White House.

“If it took place it would dominate news coverage for days. It would also highlight the fact she is not willing to debate Sanders,” he said.

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