Donald Trump was a well-known reality TV star before he was president of the United States. Anyone hoping to take on a man with perhaps the highest name identification on the planet would need to do well in a nationally televised debate. The Iowa state fair isn’t going to help a candidate like Miami mayor Francis Suarez or North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum break out. With Trump’s dominant lead in polls and a growing sense of inevitability, it seems the Aug. 23 debate in Wisconsin could be the last chance to stop him.
But that won’t happen. Trump is threatening to skip the forum and hold his own event because – of course. No matter who ends up on stage, and who performs well, the net effect will likely just serve to cement Trump’s standing in the race.
The rules that the Republican National Committee have set to limit participation are making it difficult for candidates to make the cut. They are being asked to sign a pledge to support the nominee – one Trump would never honor if he even signed – and must not only reach certain threshold in polling but also have contributions from 40,000 donors. The night isn’t likely to include the full roster of candidates, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is getting cold feet about showing up as well.
The fewer the A-list participants and the lower the television ratings, the slimmer the possibility that the first primary debate, let alone the second one, can shuffle the race. In the words of Chris Christie, the debate next month is likely to end a lot of campaigns, not jump-start them. “I think for those people who don’t make the debate stage, it’s very hard for them to make the case for why they should stay in the race, and I’m sure they will have trouble raising money after that,” the former New Jersey governor told Politico.
To make the stage at the debate hosted by Fox News Channel, partnering with the conservative platform Rumble and the Young America’s Foundation, the RNC is requiring candidates not only to have collected 40,000 individual donations but that 200 of them come from 20 different states. This has put the former vice president, who has collected large sums from fewer donors, in a scramble to reach the requisite number since he entered the race relatively late on June 7.
The rules for polling qualification are more difficult. Candidates must have reached 1% in three polls of at least 800 “likely” primary voters or caucus participants. The 1% threshold will not be the problem for these lower tier candidates, it will be the polling sample size. Most recent polling had smaller samples so candidates have to hope by the Aug. 21 deadline there will be new, larger ones in which they reach 1%.
Trump told Fox News last month that with his commanding lead in the polls he doesn’t have to debate. “Why should I let these people take shots at me?” he asked. When he boycotted the first Fox News primary debate in 2016 Trump held a competing event in Des Moines where he boasted he was raising money for veterans.
There could be a scenario in which Trump, perhaps fresh off his third indictment – this time in the state of Georgia – suddenly wants to burst on to the debate stage in late August at the last minute. Just like his trashing of E. Jean Carroll in the town hall he did with CNN the day a jury found him guilty of sexual abuse and defamation, Trump might attack Fani Willis, the district attorney likely to bring charges against him. It would likely turbocharge his post-indictment fundraising if he bellowed from a debate stage instead of just sending ominous and angry emails and posts on Truth Social.
But in all likelihood Trump doesn’t want to take any incoming on stage from anyone, particularly DeSantis or Christie. Nor does he want to answer hard questions from a moderator. This will not cost him votes. When Trump whines and complains, his supporters purr.
And if Trump boycotts, DeSantis is likely to as well.
As RCP’s Phil Wegmann reported here, “The pro-DeSantis super PAC, which does not (and cannot legally) coordinate with the candidate, expects that if Trump skips that contest, the governor won’t participate either.”
Should he refuse to debate, the Florida governor will forgo the opportunity to separate himself from the frontrunner and do what he has yet to – take Trump on. The former president’s absence from the debate will not remove him from the discussion. Participating candidates will still be asked why they are running against him and why they believe the party should not nominate him. If DeSantis wants to gain a foothold against Trump, he needs to show up and answer those questions. Should he wimp out, Christie and others will likely mock him for it. Again, advantage Trump.
A health event, or something in another indictment, could blunt Trump’s path to the nomination, but no candidate forum will do the job. On Aug. 23 a Republican not named Trump can “win” the debate, or even the following one, but neither night can make this a different race.