It’s that time again, as the second Republican primary debate of the 2024 election cycle nears.
Set for September 27th at the Reagan Presidential Library, this event will feature just six candidates as Governor Doug Burgum and ex-Governor Asa Hutchinson both failed to qualify. Obviously, though, they aren’t the only candidate who won’t be on that stage, as front-runner Donald Trump is poised to once again boycott the occasion.
Did Trump face any electoral consequences for his decision to skip the first debate? Initially Trump’s support did take a slight dip in both the RealClearPolitics and FiveThirtyEight averages, falling from 55.4% to 52.7% and 52.1% to 49.2% respectively. By mid-September, however, his support not only recovered and exceeded pre-debate levels, it actually reached record highs in both averages (56.6% and 55.5%).
Trump is reportedly skipping this second contest due to his feud with Reagan Foundation Chair Fred Ryan, who until recently was also CEO of the Washington Post. On top of that, the historical rivalry between Reagan and Trump over the title of ‘Republicans’ favorite recent President’ is likely also a factor here.
Nevertheless, Trump is hinting to the RNC that he’ll attend the third debate in November if they change the venue from Alabama to Miami, a switch the committee did indeed recently make. Therefore, this might be the last opportunity for the other candidates to appeal to voters before Trump takes center stage.
So let’s take a look at where each of these six contenders stands in the aftermath of the first debate and in the run-up to their second such confrontation.
In politics, the only thing worse than being attacked is being ignored. Ron DeSantis found this out during the first debate, when none of his fellow candidates even bothered to throw a barb his way. As a result, the Florida Governor’s slide in the polls continued, dropping 1.3% in the RealClearPolitics average (14.3% to 12.7%) and 1.0% in the FiveThirtyEight average (15.2% to 14.2%).
Such struggles are causing speculation in the press that DeSantis may soon toss top aide Jeff Roe overboard, since he views Roe as responsible for last month’s debate memo debacle. In the meantime, the Governor’s trying to shift the conversation by backing the conservative hardliners in the House pushing for a government shutdown.
I’d imagine his goal for the debate will be to stir up the audience by making a case for the House GOP to be tougher on the Biden Administration and Democrats in Congress. While that will surely earn him applause in the arena, it’s less clear whether such a move can reduce the massive polling gap that’s grown between himself and Trump.
Meanwhile, the political newcomer Vivek Ramaswamy should easily be the biggest beneficiary of the first debate. After all, two separate surveys from CNN and the Wall Street Journal both found a plurality of respondents picked Vivek as the winner of the debate. These results stand in stark contrast to the actual debate crowd, which turned against Vivek midway through, and the cable pundits who were put off by his provocative performance.
Yet even while Republicans felt Vivek won the debate, his poll numbers inexplicably failed to take off. In fact, his FiveThirtyEight average dropped 2.1% while his RealClearPolitics support stayed completely flat. All of which begs the question: if winning the first debate didn’t boost Ramaswamy’s status, then what will? Vivek will somehow have to find an answer in time for his sophomore effort.
So did anyone leave that Milwaukee debate stage in better shape than when they first walked on? That’s where Nikki Haley comes in. The former South Carolina Governor was almost unanimously the favorite of pundits, and finished third and second respectively in those aforementioned CNN and Wall Street Journal surveys. She also rose significantly in both the RealClearPolitics (3.2% to 5.7%) and FiveThirtyEight (3.4% to 6.1%) averages.
Perhaps most importantly, a new Monmouth University/Washington Post poll of South Carolina found her in a solid second place there. Therefore, we can begin to see a strategy gain shape for Haley that involves slowly building up establishment, college-educated voters in preparation for an eventual 1-on-1 contest with Trump in South Carolina. Of course, she’ll first have to survive until then, all while facing the burden of maintaining momentum in spite of growing expectations. In that sense, another strong performance is thus critically necessary for her.
I’d make the case that Pence’s performance in the first debate was the most surprising of the night, as the former Veep eagerly picked several fights with Vivek Ramaswamy. Furthermore, the enmity between the two men felt authentically real, with Pence viewing Vivek as a pretender and dangerously naive while Vivek sees Pence as emblematic of the failed establishment.
That feistiness apparently paid off for Pence, as he reversed his plunge in the polls, gaining 0.4% in the FiveThirtyEight average and 0.5% from RealClearPolitics. Now the issue becomes whether Pence can capitalize on this movement. Earlier this month, he sought to double down on his attempt to separate himself from Trump, yet as long as Trump refuses to share a debate stage with him, Pence will struggle to truly draw the contrast he’s aiming for.
Speaking of getting into fights during the first debate, the New Jersey Governor eagerly jumped into confrontations with Vivek, Trump, and the audience. He even jokingly poked fun at the moderators for giving him “the UFO question”. Despite all those highlight-worthy moments, however, Christie wasn’t really a part of the post-debate conversation.
Perhaps as a result, Christie fell 0.2% in both the FiveThirtyEight and RealClearPolitics averages. At this point, Christie is basically running a one-state campaign focused on New Hampshire, where he’s polling strongest despite a disappointing sixth place finish there in 2016. Therefore, it’s imperative for him to find a way to break through to that audience of moderate Republicans in this second debate.
Arguably no contender had a more discouraging debate performance on August 23rd than Senator Tim Scott. In fact, the reserved South Carolinian faded into the background to such a degree that he spoke for less time than even Doug Burgum did. Moreover, the ensuing bumps in support for Nikki Haley and Mike Pence seem to have come at Scott’s expense. Since the debate, he’s lost 1.0% in the FiveThirtyEight average (3.6% to 2.6%) and 0.6% in the RealClearPolitics average (3.1% to 2.5%), falling behind Christie in both.
Scott’s struggles have only further motivated his opponents to step up their attacks. For example, rival campaigns are feeding reporters tidbits about the Senator’s personal life, including their belief that Scott is lying about having a girlfriend. This inspired the Washington Post to take a deep dive on the subject, and while Scott eventually agreed to talk with them, his girlfriend never did. Simply put, he’ll have to find some way to pull his candidacy out of this spiral.
The September 27th debate will be moderated by Stuart Varney, Dana Perino and Ilia Calderón, and will be televised by the Fox Business Channel and Univision. Finally, make sure to check out my day-after recap here at Decision Desk HQ.