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Will Trump participate in Fox’s first GOP primary debate?

Jul 10, 2023

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There may be one candidate missing from the first GOP primary debate this August in Milwaukee. Republican front-runner Donald Trump has hinted he may skip the televised event, hosted by Fox News, because he thinks the network has been highlighting Ron DeSantis’ campaign events while ignoring his own. And since he is so far ahead of the rest of the pack, Trump argues, why should he bother participating?

Straight Arrow News contributor David Pakman believes there are three scenarios for how this could all shake out.

Imagine that Trump does debate and it goes really well. Well, then maybe he extends his lead a little bit in the Republican primary, but he really doesn’t need to. In most polls, if you look at an average of recent Trump polling, he’s somewhere between 54 and 58%. All of the other candidates, all 10 of them, however many there are, are sharing the other 42 or so percent of support.

So Trump doesn’t need a single additional vote that he doesn’t have today to win the Republican primary. The path for the other candidates is to increase voter turnout, because it’s going to be very difficult for Ron DeSantis to convince current Trump supporters, “Hey, abandon Trump and vote for me instead.”

Those who are currently supporting Trump, which is about 55%, call it, of the Republican primary electorate, are supporting Trump relatively strongly. Some of them do say in polling they would consider a different candidate. But in practice, when you say, “Well, what would it take for you to actually switch?” It’s really not super clear. So the other candidates need to increase the size of the electorate; they need to bring in new Republican primary voters.

Donald Trump is now sending every possible signal that he is not going to participate in Republican primary debates. Much of his discussion about this has been focused on the facts, the fact, that the first Republican primary debate is going to be held by Fox News, and he now claims that Fox News is hostile to him — that they aren’t fair to him, that they support Ron DeSantis, or for whatever other reason. But bigger picture, Trump is saying, why would I debate? There’s no real race here. I’m polling more than 50%, more than 60% probably even in some of the less trustworthy polls.”

 

I have to tell you, I completely disagree with Trump doing this because I want to hear the conversations. I want to see Trump engage with the other candidates. I want to see all of that. At the same time, to some degree, I think Trump’s calculation that there’s more downside than there is upside to debating these Republican contenders is accurate. And we’re going to talk about the different scenarios. 

 

Imagine that Trump does debate and it goes really well. Well, then maybe he extends his lead a little bit in the Republican primary, but he really doesn’t need to. In most polls, if you look at an average of recent Trump polling, he’s somewhere between 54 and 57, 54 and 58%. All of the other candidates, all 10 of them, however many there are, are sharing the other 42 or so percent of support. So Trump doesn’t need a single additional vote that he doesn’t have today to win the Republican primary. The path for the other candidates is to increase voter turnout, because it’s going to be very difficult for Ron DeSantis to convince current Trump supporters “Hey, abandon Trump and vote for me instead.” Those who are currently supporting Trump, which is about 55%, call it, of the Republican primary electorate are supporting Trump relatively strongly. Some of them do say in polling they would consider a different candidate. But in practice, when you say, well, what would it take for you to actually switch?, it’s really not super clear. So the other candidates need to increase the size of the electorate; they need to bring in new Republican primary voters. 

 

That gets us to the next scenario. Trump debates his fellow Republican contenders and he bombs. They gang up on him effectively, and he can’t make himself look like the victim. Or he fumbles or he looks weak, or whatever the case may be, he debates and it goes poorly. That is the best possible scenario for the other Republican challengers. Look, Trump was here. He was obviously not with it, not ready for primetime, no longer ready for primetime, whatever. It damages Trump, hurts his polling, allows the other candidates to point to themselves and say, See, you should be going with us not with Trump. That’s another scenario. That’s the danger of debating. 

 

Now, you might then say okay, fine, but you’ve got to look at scenario number three, David, which is Trump bails, and it really hurts him. And that is, of course, a serious possibility, at least in theory. The scenario would be the debate stage is there. They have 10 lecterns and nine candidates and there’s an empty lectern and they say that’s where Trump was going to be. It is true that this could hurt Trump. I don’t actually believe that it would. I believe that at this point enough of Trump’s current supporters believe everything he says, believe he’s being treated, treated unfairly, and support him strongly enough that even if he doesn’t debate, even if they would love to see him debate, but he doesn’t, they aren’t going to abandon him. Because if you are a hardcore “MAGAT” or “Macedomian” or “Magapotamian” — and I don’t know what they go by these days — if you’re a hardcore Trumpist, and Trump doesn’t debate, you’re not going to go, “Oh, I guess I’ll vote for Tim Scott. I guess I’ll support Chris Christie because Trump didn’t debate.” It doesn’t actually seem plausible. So even though I think it’s a cowardly move, and I want to see debate, because I prefer, I mean, listen, the debate will be a mess in the sense that it’ll be super short answers, no real opportunities to engage deeply in policy, but, it’ll be a mess, but in some general principle sort of sense, I want debate. I want conversation. I want to see it. I actually do understand that Trump’s perspective that he may not need to debate is correct, based on the data that I’m seeing. If you disagree, if you think that not debating has a shot at hurting Trump that is greater than what I’m laying out — I don’t think that’s a likely scenario —  then please let me know. And of course, focusing on Fox News as the reason why

why Trump won’t debate, it might fly for the first debate which is on Fox News. After that they won’t be on Fox News and so Trump is going to have to come up with some better reasons for why he’s not going to be there if indeed he’s not going to be there.

 

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