Time sure does fly, doesn’t it? After all, it was eight years ago now to the month when Donald Trump first walked onto a debate stage.
24 million viewers, still a record for a Presidential primary debate, tuned into Fox News to watch Trump get into ugly sparring matches with the likes of Jeb Bush and Megyn Kelly. Although the memory of those multi-candidate skirmishes still lingers, Trump hasn’t actually participated in one of these rowdy, crowded primary forums since the winter of 2016.
Nor does he seem likely to break that drought on August 23rd, when Fox again hosts the first debate of the cycle, as he’s repeatedly stated he sees no upside to participating in this or any other primary debate. Without Trump, of course, the debate is bound to attract less eyeballs. On the other hand, each of the candidates who bother to show up will get more time to showcase themselves in front of a national audience of prospective voters.
At this moment, eight candidates have met the RNC’s qualifications for this debate: 40,000 individual donors (with at least 200 donors from 20 separate states), hit 1% in three national polls (or two national polls and one early primary state), and sign the party’s pledge to support the eventual nominee (and not participate in any non-RNC debates).
In preparation for the main event, let’s take a look at where each candidate stands heading into this debate – including their percentage in the FiveThirtyEight and RealClearPolitics national polling averages – and what their strategies for the debate are likely to be.
Will Trump really pass up the opportunity for a national TV audience? I would imagine he will, given that this would be the third time that the former President has boycotted a debate. His first no-show was back in January 2016, when he refused to attend the final debate before the Iowa Caucus. Then again in October 2020, he withdrew from the second general election debate with Joe Biden.
On both occasions, Trump took a hit in the polls afterward that caused him to jump back into the fray for the next showdown. Therefore, I’d guess that he’ll be closely watching his numbers to see if voters punish him for skipping out yet again. Whether or not they do will have a far greater impact on Trump than whatever his opponents might say about him during the actual debate.
With Trump skipping the debate, all eyes will surely be on DeSantis, as this event will provide millions of viewers their first serious look at the Florida Governor. Of course, Trump’s absence also ensures that DeSantis will now be the central target for the rest of the candidates on stage. Such a dynamic is dangerous for DeSantis, who’s managed to struggle in debates even when he was facing far more favorable circumstances.
Nikki Haley, Tim Scott and Vivek Ramaswamy are the likeliest to take DeSantis head-on in this forum; as Haley and Scott both want to take his spot as the top Trump alternative, while the more Trump-friendly Ramaswamy will likely seek to score points with the front-runner by dinging DeSantis. The Governor could very easily find himself overwhelmed by rapid-fire attacks, especially if the pugilistic Chris Christie decides to join in.
Yet this isn’t the only debate currently on DeSantis’ mind. Just a few weeks ago, he accepted a challenge from California Governor Gavin Newsom for a 1-on-1 debate on Fox with Sean Hannity as moderator. It’s a puzzling decision for DeSantis, because by debating a Democrat who’s not a Presidential candidate, he makes himself look considerably smaller than Trump (and Biden too, for that matter). Furthermore, that aforementioned RNC pledge should prevent DeSantis from participating, yet his campaign is claiming that it won’t be a violation.
If you’ve only paid passing attention to the 2024 primary so far, you’d be forgiven for doing a double-take over that last name. The 38 year-old businessman making his first ever run for political office will definitely be the least known contender on the debate stage.
Yet being the fresh face has its advantages, as Ramaswamy’s willingness to take his anti-woke message to any TV show, podcast or publication around has propelled him to third place in the polling averages. Such a style should also make him perfect for the unique spectacle of a primary Presidential debate, where everyone is looking for a viral moment that will dominate the discourse over the next few days. So if Vivek doesn’t at least make the cable news highlights rotation then this debate will be a huge missed opportunity for him.
It may very well be the biggest question coming into this debate: How will the Milwaukee crowd treat Mike Pence? Ever since January 6th, the former Vice President’s been booed and heckled repeatedly by Republican audiences as he continues on his increasingly quixotic-feeling Presidential campaign. Therefore, we should prepare for his reception on August 23rd to be particularly brutal.
Then there’s the possibility that Trump has a last-minute change of mind and actually participates in the debate. Suddenly everyone’s attention would shift to the first public interaction between the former running mates since the attempted insurrection at the Capitol, a showdown that would certainly overshadow the rest of the event.
Regardless, Pence is bound to have a harrowing time pivoting to his social conservative message amidst all this drama. Indeed, how Pence handles these challenges may well determine if he can even qualify for any further debates.
As for the former South Carolina Governor and UN Ambassador, the question for Nikki Haley is just who she’ll set her sights on. Now it’s unlikely she’ll touch on her tumultuous relationship with Donald Trump, but she’s a prime candidate to take on Ron DeSantis’ status as the #2 contender in this primary.
Haley’s already hit DeSantis on Ukraine, although such attacks could backfire as Zelensky and the Ukrainian cause are both becoming steadily less popular among the conservatives likely to be in the audience.
She could also choose to sidestep the intraparty fights altogether and focus on the Biden Administration. Haley’s taken particular glee in pretending that she’s really running against Vice President Kamala Harris, under the presumption that President Joe Biden wouldn’t be able to serve out a second term. So expect plenty of zingers from Haley centered on this theme.
The other South Carolinian in the race, Senator Tim Scott, is considered by some to be DeSantis’ top challenger in the contest to be the top Trump alternative. Therefore, one of the major subplots of this debate is who will win the 1-on-1 match-up between these two.
A few weeks ago, Sen. Scott hit DeSantis on Florida’s new history standards, which contain some controversial comments on slavery. That episode will give moderators an opening to get Scott and DeSantis into a fight early on, so make sure to be on the lookout for that. If Scott can eventually get the better of DeSantis on this night, he may be able to win over some of the Floridian’s college-educated voters and big-dollar donors. With enough of them, Scott could soon threaten DeSantis’ standing in the polls.
The former New Jersey Governor has nothing to lose, which makes him arguably the most dangerous candidate on the debate stage. Therefore, the other six contenders are all surely having nightmares of becoming the next Marco Rubio. The Florida Senator, as you may recall, was brutalized by Christie in a debate ahead of the 2016 New Hampshire Primary.
Coming into that event, Rubio had taken third place in Iowa and was sitting in second in the New Hampshire polls. Yet after being exposed as a robotic, talking-point politician by Christie, Rubio ultimately finished fifth in that primary. Rubio never recovered, and Trump’s New Hampshire victory propelled him to the White House instead.
Christie is now pledging to train that same fire on Trump, and while the former President is unlikely to be there, it will be worth seeing how the crowd reacts to any shots Christie takes at Trump. On top of that, Ron DeSantis is also liable to be an object of Christie’s ire too, which could produce some particularly volatile fireworks. Finally, watch for Christie to get asked about not signing the RNC pledge to support the eventual nominee.
Despite his low standing in these averages, the North Dakota Governor did manage to qualify for this debate, although he’ll need a standout moment to gain some momentum. Too often the lowest-polling candidates on the stage find themselves spending their precious time complaining that they’re not getting enough of said time. Instead, Burgum should try to take on fellow Governor Ron DeSantis in the hopes of landing the most effective blow and stealing away some of the spotlight.
Whatever happens, make sure to check Decision Desk HQ for my reaction to the first debate of the 2024 Presidential campaign!