The year 2023 has been full of surprises and uncertainties in the political landscape — but nothing compared to what awaits us in 2024. The presidential race is shaping up to be a chaotic and unpredictable affair, with candidates from both parties facing challenges and controversies. There could be multiple third-party contenders, or even a scenario where one of the nominees is behind bars on Election Day.

That’s why the fourth and final GOP presidential debate, airing tonight on NewsNation, is a crucial event for the candidates and the voters. It’s the last chance for the contenders to make their case to the nation before the year ends — and possibly the last debate of the entire cycle, depending on how things unfold next year.

The debate will be moderated by three seasoned journalists: Megyn Kelly, Elizabeth Vargas and Eliana Johnson. Kelly, in particular, is well-equipped to handle this role, given her past experience in moderating debates and her current show that reflects the mood of the moment. (Full disclosure — I work as Megyn’s executive producer for “The Megyn Kelly Show”.)

Former President Donald Trump, who is leading the polls by a wide margin, has once again decided to skip the debate — like a gambler who is afraid to risk his winnings. But I can argue that this debate still matters a lot. Here are five reasons:

  1. The back-up plan for a chaos-filled 2024: This year, being the second-place finisher in the GOP primary could be more valuable than ever. Trump is facing four criminal trials that could result in serious prison time before the end of the year. Will the party stick with him in this dire situation? We’ll have a better idea by the time the GOP convention starts on July 15 in Milwaukee — and collecting delegates before that date will matter, even if Trump is far ahead. For candidates like former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and Gov. Ron DeSantis, being the first alternative is important. And even for Vivek Ramaswamy, if the party decides to go for the most Trump-like non-Trump candidate, he could benefit too.

We also have to consider another possibility, which, while unlikely, is not impossible. I wrote last month about how Trump’s 1987 bestselling book “The Art of the Deal” could be a guide for 2024. If Trump is facing significant prison time and is offered a deal that the establishment would love to give him — a pardon in exchange for him dropping out and endorsing his successor — could he take it?

  1. So you’re telling me there’s a chance: It’s also possible that the polls showing a huge Trump lead not only nationally but in the key early states are not as solid as they seem. CNN’s poll expert Harry Enten recently outlined a scenario where Haley performs better than expected in Iowa, and that momentum propels her to a surprise victory in New Hampshire, where anything can happen.

Is it likely? Of course not. But anything is possible.

Remember in 2020, when it looked like Bernie Sanders was on his way to the nomination after winning the most votes in the first three states — Iowa, New Hampshire and, surprisingly, Nevada? Soon after, non-Bernie candidates like Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar dropped out and endorsed Joe Biden, boosting him to the nomination. Those kinds of events are less likely to happen on the GOP side, but it shows that a frontrunner’s lead can vanish quickly.

  1. Trump’s big decision looms: But Trump is still the probable GOP nominee. However, he won’t have Mike Pence as his running mate this time — that much we know for sure. So who will it be? The three top candidates (sorry Chris Christie) have an opportunity to impress Trump and secure the vice presidential spot, and their performance in these debates could be decisive.
  2. Debates really do matter: Every data point going back multiple presidential cycles shows us that debates really do matter when it comes to the nomination. Yes, 2024 will be weird — we know that going in. But there’s no reason to think it will be any different.

When we put aside spike debate performances that sparkled and faded, like Herman Cain or Elizabeth Warren, you have Mitt Romney in 2012, Donald Trump in 2016 and Joe Biden in 2020 as the most consistently solid debate performers over the entirety of their campaigns. We get only four GOP primary debates this cycle, but ending strong creates a final impression on early-state voters as we enter the new year.

  1. It’s just fun: Look, there’s just not a lot of compelling television anymore. And whether you’re a political junkie or media obsessive like me, or more of a casual consumer just looking for something entertaining, smart people arguing with each other certainly can fit the bill.

So settle in with a bowl of popcorn and your cocktail of choice. Whatever happens, you’ll likely remember this moment for how it influenced the crazy year to come — however that may be.