Can Trump Afford a Debate No-Show?

Former President Donald Trump plays golf at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster in Bedminster, New Jersey, on August 10, 2023. (Photo by Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)

The focus on the first Republican presidential debate, set for Wednesday in Milwaukee, has substantially been on the will-he-or-won’t-he drama around whether former President Donald Trump will appear.

That is, of course, exactly as Trump wanted it to be. Debates are all about beating expectations, and by playing hard to get, Trump could start out with a substantial advantage just by showing up. If he doesn’t participate, though, it shifts the burden to whatever he would do instead. 

Even if it were within his character to shun the spotlight (it isn’t), Trump is a lead news story every day already because of the ongoing prosecutions he is facing in four jurisdictions. He’s due to surrender himself to authorities by Friday in Georgia for trying to strongarm his way into the state’s 2020 electoral votes, two days after the debate. It’s not like Trump could say he was going on a fishing trip with his grandkids away from the public eye, even if he wanted to.

The reported plan for an alternate event looks like a potential debacle. When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis tried a similar gambit to launch his campaign, it exploded on the launchpad. Trump would certainly draw a huge online audience, but it won’t match the production values and spectacle of real political gladiatorial combat. And the voters Trump needs to persuade or reassure in Iowa and New Hampshire are likely to skew toward TV, not streaming on their phones. 

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