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Will Trump skip the Republican primary debates?

Donald Trump debates Joe Biden on October 22, 2020, in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

As the 2024 presidential campaign begins, the likely nominees of both parties are as popular as shingles.

A poll released this week by NBC found 60 percent of Americans believe Donald Trump shouldn’t run for president again while 70 percent, including a majority of Democrats, believe Joe Biden shouldn’t either.

Numbers like that portend competitive primaries but Biden and Trump look increasingly like prohibitive favorites. Biden owes his advantage to incumbency and to history, as Democrats remember how Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush fared after facing serious primary challenges. Trump owes his advantage to the mule-headed cultishness of the Republican base and the cowardice of right-wing influencers who fear the consequences of crossing it.

What’s truly amazing, though, is that at a moment when most of the public is yearning for alternatives, the 2024 primaries might be not just uncompetitive but lacking a single meaningful debate between the candidates. 

Last week the Washington Post reported that “the national Democratic Party … has no plans to sponsor primary debates,” outraging progressives as well as right-wing trolls who forgot that the Republican Party behaved the same way in 2020. When incumbent presidents face token opposition in a primary, the national party has no reason to give the upstarts a media showcase by hosting a debate. Even so, MAGA types relished the chance to mock Old Man Biden for being too cowardly to face his opponents—until Tuesday morning, when this post appeared on Truth Social.

Nothing would capture the pitiful torpor of modern American politics like two unpopular geriatric retreads being crowned by their parties without having a rhetorical shot fired at them in person. In an era when competition between policy ideas has given way to pure negative hyperpartisanship, debate-less coronations on both sides would seem grimly fitting.

How seriously should we take Trump’s threat to skip the debates, though?

Yesterday my colleague Sarah Isgur considered the question and concluded that refusing to debate would be an unusually rational move from a man not prone to rational behavior. 

I take her point. There are sound reasons for Trump to boycott.

The obvious one is to deprive Ron DeSantis and the also-rans of media oxygen. When you’re doubling up your nearest opponent in the polls, as Trump is, agreeing to share a stage with him is doing him a favor. It would be an opportunity for DeSantis and the rest to introduce themselves to voters who might not have heard of them and potentially to strike a game-changing blow at the king.

Trump’s participation would goose ratings bigly, as the man himself might say. Without him onstage, otherwise persuadable Republican voters might not care enough to tune in and get a look at the governor of Florida.

Boycotting the debates would also spare Trump from the risk of a self-inflicted humiliation. He has a reputation as a “good” debater because of his knack for ridicule and the base’s appetite for displays of dominance by its leaders, but he did himself more harm than good at the infamous first debate with Biden in 2020. It’s not hard to imagine DeSantis or Mike Pence going on offense on abortion, say, and cornering Trump on whether he’d be willing to sign federal restrictions into law. A man who barely speaks conservatism as a second language and is already feeling heat from pro-life activists might plausibly say the wrong thing in that situation, with consequences for his candidacy.

The best reason for him to skip the debates, though, is that doing so might recreate the 2016 dynamic in which the rest of the field tore each other apart in hopes of emerging as the One True Alternative standing in Trump’s way instead of attacking Trump himself. If he participates in the debates, it’s possible—not likely, but possible—that some of his rivals will have learned a lesson from that and will focus their fire on him this time. (Chris Christie certainly will, assuming he runs.) But what happens if he isn’t onstage?

Conceivably his absence would embolden his timid competitors to criticize his record since they wouldn’t need to fear him replying with some withering putdown. My guess, though, is that whiny MAGA snowflakes would deem it dirty pool to attack the great man when he isn’t present to defend himself and that the candidates will be sensitive to that. So instead they’ll pile on the target in their midst, Ron DeSantis, convinced that tearing him down will cause him to implode in the polls and leave the votes of his supporters up for grabs.

It’ll be 2016 all over again, with the crabs at the bottom of the bucket pulling down the one who’s almost out. A Trump-less debate would descend quickly into a battle royal to become the One True Alternative to Trump’s delight: Splintering the non-Trump vote before DeSantis can consolidate it is essential to his strategy.

Trump’s absence might also feed a perception among Republican voters that the campaign should be a coronation rather than a competition. Declining to participate is a form of dominance in its own right, a message that the outcome of the primaries isn’t in doubt and that it’s bad form for the party to drag things out instead of rallying behind the frontrunner. That’s how Democrats are treating their renomination of the incumbent president. Why wouldn’t Republicans do the same for a man who purports to be the rightful incumbent?

Even if Trump isn’t serious about skipping the debates, there’s value to him in pretending that he might. He could be serious: He skipped a primary debate in 2016 and a general election debate in 2020, as the chairman of the RNC was rudely reminded this morning on Fox News. But crying preemptively about “unfairness” at debates is par for the course for him whether or not he intends to show up, a way to “work the refs” ahead of time and lay the rhetorical groundwork for claiming, as usual, that he was cheated somehow if he performs badly. Fox News, which is hosting the first primary debate this year, has been quite encouraging of DeSantis’ candidacy, a fact that hasn’t escaped Trump’s attention. Threatening to boycott will pressure Fox to make sure that it’s extra “fair” to him, either in its choice of moderator (Ivanka?) or in the amount of glowing coverage it’s willing to offer him before the event.

All in all, that’s a lot of reasons for Trump not to participate.

I think he’ll participate anyway.

For starters, never forget that Trump isn’t an attention whore, he’s the attention whore. The thought of a televised Republican presidential beauty contest taking place without him will gnaw at him, whatever the strategic arguments to skip it.

Especially once the ratings come in. A Trump-less debate won’t attract an audience as large as one that included him would, but I expect it’ll do quite well. Despite his recent woes, DeSantis managed to pull a solid 31 percent in the NBC poll mentioned above, just 15 points behind Trump. The governor has a real following on the right and many Republicans who don’t have a strong opinion of him yet will tune in out of curiosity. Even Trump diehards will watch in hopes of seeing DeSantis embarrass himself.

The more certain it becomes that the first debate will draw a huge crowd, the more reluctant Trump will be to skip it.

Boycotting the process would also fly in the face of his strategy so far, which has been shrewd and expanded his lead in the polls. In short: Define DeSantis before he can define himself.

Trump began attacking the governor early in order to sour Republican voters on him before he could introduce himself on his own terms. The first debate will be a second opportunity for DeSantis to do that. If Trump isn’t there to advance his innovative “my home state is atrocious” message at the governor’s expense, DeSantis will potentially be free and clear to tout his policy achievements without meaningful opposition.

Nikki Haley or Mike Pence might challenge him, sure. But I said “meaningful” opposition.

Simply put, Trump’s approach to the campaign has been to put his foot on DeSantis’ neck and press as hard as he can, which is very much in character. It would be bizarre if he chose to relent for high-stakes televised events that are destined to be watched by millions of persuadable conservatives.

Worst of all, though, skipping the debates would invite critics to accuse him of cowardice.

It’s already started. Various pro-DeSantis social-media “influencers” piled on Trump this week after he suggested that he might not attend. “Is Trump implying he’s going to pull a Biden and avoid debates? Is he seriously that afraid of DeSantis?” wondered John Cardillo. “If Trump is so upset with the current debate schedule, he should just propose a series of 1 on 1 unmoderated debates with DeSantis once RDS announces. Because he’s not afraid of debating, right?” added Will Chamberlain.

Whether DeSantis himself will have the brass to level this charge at the first debate remains to be seen, but he should. The worst thing one can be in Republican politics, after all, is unwilling to “fight.” The governor could even fold his attack of Trump’s manhood into a critique of Trump’s commitment to populism: “He didn’t have the guts to stand up to Fauci, he doesn’t have the guts to stand up to me. He thinks he’s a king and that this is a coronation. Americans have no use for kings. Republicans don’t seek to be ruled.”

That’s grossly untrue in light of the past eight years, of course, but impugning Trump’s courage would threaten his sense of dominance. I think he’d find it intolerable and would end up being goaded into participating after enough DeSantis fans called him “chicken.”

Besides, the risk to him in showing up is probably smaller than Sarah or I imagine. Apart from Christie, it may be that no one will have the nerve to hit Trump hard and risk alienating the populist base by doing so. And the tactics that damaged him in the first debate with Biden in 2020 before an audience of swing voters wouldn’t cause the same harm before an audience of right-wingers conditioned to worship him. Interrupting DeSantis every time he begins a sentence won’t be deemed insecure and obnoxious by Republican voters, it’ll be seen as evidence of “strength” or “strategy.” The sort of thing a “fighter” does.

There’s even a chance that, contra DeSantis landing some sort of knockout blow on Trump, Trump might land a knockout blow on him. His new ad targeting the governor is brutally effective. If he can make the case before a huge television audience that DeSantis is a second-rate version of himself who owes his prominence to Trump’s gubernatorial endorsement in 2018, DeSantis might be sufficiently diminished by it to render him an also-ran.

I think the press is primed to see it happen, too. Not because they’re rooting for Trump but because perceptions that the governor isn’t quite ready for primetime are hardening day by day into a narrative that will be hard for him to crack and hard for them to relinquish.

And if I’m wrong, if the worst occurs and Trump stumbles into some titanic debate gaffe at the hands of DeSantis, it probably won’t matter anyway. National Review might hold his feet to the fire on it but the sort of populist media outlets eagerly consumed by energized Republican primary voters will clean it up for him and assure their audiences that it was no big deal. It was good, in fact!

I think he’ll participate in at least one debate. Unless DeSantis craters and Trump ends up leading the second-place candidate by 50 points, he’ll need to make the case against the governor directly at some point. His fans will be disappointed if he doesn’t. Trump has turned Republican politics into something akin to pro wrestling; at some point there needs to be a match.

An interesting question Sarah raises, though, is whether DeSantis might also skip the debates if Trump chooses to boycott. It will depend, she thinks, on “whether the DeSantis team thinks 1) he can catch Trump at that point, 2) whether they’re willing to put his political future all in on 2024, and 3) whether they think they have any alternative to the debates to get the job done.” To my surprise, she concludes that “assuming Trump doesn’t show up, [the governor] probably doesn’t either.”

I think DeSantis is stuck having to debate no matter what.

His 25 percent of the Republican vote isn’t as solid as Trump’s 45 percent. If he skips a debate among the also-rans and, say, Tim Scott has an impressive night, he could wake up the next morning to find himself closer to Scott in the polling than to Trump.

He also needs the public exposure, frankly. He’d be the undisputed star of a Trump-less debate, which carries risk but also gives him a chance to shine before an unusually large audience of right-wing voters. Even if he’s doomed to finish second in the primaries, making a good impression on Republicans this cycle will help keep him viable in 2028. Especially once he inevitably bends the knee to Trump and ends up back in his good graces à la Marco Rubio.

DeSantis also needs to consider how emulating Trump’s debate tactics might feed perceptions that he’s a two-bit knockoff of the man he’s trying to replace as nominee. Trump reportedly has mocked DeSantis privately for mimicking his hand gestures; more recently, after DeSantis took a dovish line on Russia and Ukraine that was incongruous with his hawkish history in Congress, Trump sneered that the governor is “following what I am saying. It is a flip-flop. He was totally different. Whatever I want, he wants.”

If Trump announces he’s skipping the debates and DeSantis immediately follows suit, it’ll be another example of the governor sounding like a pale imitation of the frontrunner rather than an alternative. That risks making him look pathetic and “weak,” an unforgivable sin in a Republican primary.

In fact, it risks making him look weak twice over. Mimicking Trump (again) would be bad enough, but if DeSantis passes on the debates, rivals like Haley and Scott will doubtless accuse him of the same personal cowardice that DeSantis fans are accusing Trump of this week. And that’s more dangerous to the governor than it is to the former president: For millions of Republicans drunk on MAGA propaganda, Trump is the consummate “fighter” and therefore incapable of acting out of fear, but DeSantis doesn’t get the same benefit of the doubt. If both of them skip the debates, populists will conclude that Trump is acting strategically while the governor is a wimp.

He’ll show up. He has no choice. Whether it’ll do him more harm than good remains to be seen, but I know which way I’m betting.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.