Skip to content
Can Trump Afford a Debate No-Show?
Go to my account

Can Trump Afford a Debate No-Show?

There are downsides to skipping, and downsides to showing up.

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. 

The best-case scenario Trump could hope for is that many viewers of the actual debate would open up a second screen and flit their attention back and forth. 

Trump’s return to Twitter after the rescinding of his lifetime ban would certainly be a big news story, but the downsides are significant. First, Trump would be back on Twitter. Second, it would be boring. Short of an outbreak of decency and self-restraint, there’s not much he can do in an interview to shock and surprise anymore. As Trump learned the last time he skipped a Republican debate as the frontrunner, his very public negotiations over participating increased interest in the contest, but his absence ceded those benefits to his competitors. Third, and potentially most dangerously for him, it would allow Republicans to see their party, literally, without him.    

What about the downsides of showing up? Imagine he goes for maximum shock and awe: He gets booked in Atlanta in the morning and then rides Trump Force One to Milwaukee to stand center-stage and face his rivals. He might get 20 million people watching at home and a media circus the likes of which he hasn’t generated since he left the White House. But what if he can’t meet the yuge expectations? What if he is, as Trump often has been in high-pressure situations, limp

Having to fight with the other candidates on stage while simultaneously avoiding legal peril in the cases against him would be a tough job for the the most energetic and disciplined campaigner. For Trump, it might be impossible.

If he looks harried, Trump could well see the cloak of inevitability he is wearing start to slip. And if that happens at the same time as a standout performance by an alterna-Trump, particularly Vivek Ramaswamy, it might start a migration by some of the less fanatical MAGA faithful.

Trump wouldn’t need a commanding performance, though. If the former president were only able to mostly lay back while the also-rans sucked up screen time, it might be enough for him to just lob in a few verbal hand grenades. A boring-ish debate would be a win for Trump. When you’re the frontrunner, all you need is the status quo.

There’s no obvious answer for Trump here. But, given his criminal troubles and the dangers of allowing any of his rivals to gain momentum at precisely the moment that the race intensifies, the downsides of skipping look more dangerous than the risks of a bad debate.


Holy croakano! We welcome your feedback, so please email us with your tips, corrections, reactions, amplifications, etc. at STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM. If you’d like to be considered for publication, please include your real name and hometown. If you don’t want your comments to be made public, please specify.


STATSHOT

Biden Job Performance
Average approval: 40.2%
Average disapproval: 53.4%
Net score: -13.2 points 

Change from one week ago: ↓ 1.0 points                        
Change from one month ago: ↓ 3.6 points

[Average includes: Marist: 42% approve-52% disapprove; Quinnipiac: 39% approve-55% disapprove; Reuters/Ipsos: 40% approve-54% disapprove; NPR/PBS/Marist: 41% approve-52% disapprove; New York Times/Siena; 39% approve-54% disapprove]

Republican Nomination, Average National Support

Donald Trump: 53.6% (↑ 3.6 points since June)
Ron DeSantis: 15.2% (↓ 7.8 points)
Vivek Ramaswamy: 6.6% (↑  4.6 points)
Mike Pence: 5.0%  (↓ 1.0 points)
Nikki Haley: 2.8% (↓ 1.1 points)
Tim Scott: 2.6% (↓ 1.0 points)

Chris Christie: 2.0% (no change)

[Average includes:: Fox News, Quinnipiac, Reuters/Ipsos, New York Times/Siena, I&I/TIPP


TIME OUT: HOT TUB TIME MACHINE

New York Times: “Candido Jacuzzi didn’t set out to turn his last name into a global brand. Nor did he intend to power a business which, though it created the family fortune, nearly tore them apart. He just wanted to ease the physical pain suffered by his son, any way he could. The Jacuzzi … may now be geared for backyard socializing, but its technology was conceived with just one person in mind: Kenneth Jacuzzi, a boy under 2 years old, stricken with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis after a severe case of strep throat. The Jacuzzis were, at the turn of the 20th century, a large clan in Casarsa, a farming commune in Northern Italy. … As change swept through Europe, and war threatened, Giovanni hatched a plan to get his sons to the United States. … The brothers, speaking only basic English, worked first in the California orange groves before banding together … to establish a machine shop in Berkeley in 1915. … The move to water made them well placed to venture into hydrotherapy when, in 1943, Candido’s 15-month-old son fell ill.”


LEAKED DESANTIS MEMOS DIVULGE DEBATE STRATEGY

New York Times: “Ron DeSantis needs ‘to take a sledgehammer’ to Vivek Ramaswamy, the political newcomer who is rising in the polls. He should ‘defend Donald Trump’ when Chris Christie inevitably attacks the former president. And he needs to ‘attack Joe Biden and the media’ no less than three to five times. A firm associated with the super PAC that has effectively taken over Mr. DeSantis’s presidential campaign posted online hundreds of pages of blunt advice, research memos and internal polling. … The trove of documents provides an extraordinary glimpse into the thinking of the DeSantis operation. … Key among the documents is one entitled ‘Debate Memo,’ dated Aug. 15, which cynically describes how Mr. DeSantis … could wring the most favorable media attention from the debate. … The strategy memo also highlights one of Mr. DeSantis’s long-running political vulnerabilities, his reputation for awkwardness or aloofness on the campaign trail.” 

Heritage Foundation helped DeSantis into policy problems: Reuters: “In mid-March, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis described the Ukraine war as a ‘territorial dispute’ that was not of vital strategic interest to the United States. … His comment dismayed allies and drew fierce rebukes. … Playing a quiet but important role in shaping the governor’s remarks was the Washington-based Heritage Foundation. … Heritage personnel have held near-daily conversations with DeSantis officials in recent months about key issues.”

As DeSantis bogs down, Scott sees an Iowa opening: Wall Street Journal: “Sen. Tim Scott has a window of opportunity in the Republican presidential primary race as the top two polling candidates face their own unique challenges. The question is whether he can open it. The expanding legal entanglements confronting former President Donald Trump and the stalled campaign of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis could prompt some Republicans to look harder at alternatives before the Jan. 15 Iowa caucuses kick off the nomination process. Unlike some of the more combative candidates in the race, Scott offers an optimistic message, generally refrains from attacking rivals, and is almost universally liked among GOP primary voters… Scott’s campaign has booked a $6 million ad buy in Iowa and New Hampshire and an $8 million booking is expected. The super PAC supporting his candidacy has reservations in place for roughly $47 million in advertising for states that are early on the nomination calendar.” 

Behind the Ramaswamy polling surge: Politico: “Ramaswamy’s early rise represents the most significant movement in the still-nascent race for the GOP presidential nomination. Or does it? [T]here are some methodological curiosities that raise questions about just where Ramaswamy fits within the tiers of Republican hopefuls. … Ramaswamy’s strength comes almost entirely from polls conducted over the internet, according to a POLITICO analysis. … In polls conducted mostly or partially over the telephone, in which people are contacted randomly, not only does Ramaswamy lag his average score—he’s way back in seventh place… There’s no singular, obvious explanation for the disparity, but there are some leading theories for it, namely the demographic characteristics and internet literacy of Ramaswamy’s supporters.”

Haley walks identity politics tightrope: Politico: “When Nikki Haley launched her bid for president, the former South Carolina governor and U.N. ambassador proclaimed it was time to ‘put a badass woman in the White House’ and that kicking back at bullies hurts more ‘if you are wearing heels.’ … And with the first presidential debate looming … Haley is trying to carve out a lane for herself as a no-nonsense, results-oriented underdog who, yes, happens to be the only woman in the race. … It’s also been a race consumed with attacks on ‘woke’ ideology, which has made Haley’s attempts to elevate her status as a woman and an Indian American tricky with voters who can be suspicious of such assertions of identity.”

GOP STRUGGLES WITH THE TRUMP/SENATE CONUNDRUM 

The Hill: “GOP strategists say there’s growing concern that if Trump is not the nominee, many of his core supporters, who are estimated to make up 25 percent to 35 percent of the party base, ‘will take their ball and go home.’ … ‘If somehow he’s not the nominee, it will hurt turnout,’ [strategist Brian Darling] said. ‘He’s got a unique coalition. He brings a lot of nontraditional voters to the Republican Party, and it will be difficult to win a state like Ohio’ and other Midwestern states ‘if you lose all those Trump voters or make them disaffected voters, and they don’t show up.’ … At the same time, the strategist acknowledged that Trump’s overwhelming popularity with blue-collar and rural voters is offset by his unpopularity with college-educated women and suburban voters.”

Trump menaces Ohio Senate primary: NBC News: “Former President Donald Trump tuned back into Ohio’s Senate primary at a pivotal moment this week—as Secretary of State Frank LaRose, one of the Republican contenders for the seat, answered for the failure of a ballot measure that he had championed. … Host Chuck Todd asked if then-Vice President Mike Pence was right to ignore Trump’s pressure to block certification of the 2020 election results. LaRose said he believed that Pence ‘made the best decision he could with the information in front of him.’ … Siding against Trump can be costly in GOP primaries, especially in states like Ohio… It’s unclear if LaRose’s comments on Pence will result in Trump punishing him in the Senate race. The two are not particularly close, and LaRose has in the past been critical of Trump. … But Trump endorsed LaRose’s successful re-election bid for secretary of state last year.”

MAGA candidate brings baggage from abroad to Nevada Senate race: Politico: “Republican Senate hopeful Jeffrey Gunter is learning a painful lesson: What happens in Reykjavik doesn’t always stay in Reykjavik. … His stint abroad earned him plenty of enemies who don’t want to see a Senator Gunter. That points to a tough road ahead as he seeks the GOP nomination to take on Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.). … National Republicans were wary of Gunter’s candidacy to begin with and warned him not to enter the Senate primary. … Republican leaders are pulling for Army veteran Sam Brown to win the nomination in Nevada amid a crowded field of upstarts. … Though Nevada is challenging ground for Republicans, Nevada GOP Gov. Joe Lombardo did oust a Democratic incumbent last year—a sign that with the right candidate and circumstances, Republicans can win in the fast-growing and diverse state.” 

McCormick faces residency questions as he preps repeat Senate bid:  AP: “As Republicans aim to gain the one seat they need to retake the Senate in next year’s elections, Dave McCormick is a top recruit. And before his anticipated campaign, he’s working to avoid Oz’s fate, frequently noting his upbringing in Pennsylvania, his ownership of a home in Pittsburgh and a family farm near Bloomsburg. … But the reality is more complex. While McCormick does own a home in Pittsburgh, a review of public records, real estate listings and footage from recent interviews indicates he still lives on Connecticut’s ‘Gold Coast,’ … Recent Senate history suggests that even favorite sons can be stung when loose ties to home become a campaign issue. … It also presents an opportunity for Democrats, who are likely to seize on his ties to Wall Street in what is expected to again be one of the most competitive Senate matchups in the country. ”

BRIEFLY

Dems back bid to take redistricting power from Ohio GOP—Ohio Capital Journal

Virginia drops out of multi-state election compact, claiming overreach—NBC News

MAGA takeover prompts chaos for Michigan GOP—Wall Street Journal

WITHIN EARSHOT: DOUBLE DOWN, ADVANCED EDITION 

“I have a lot of things to think about. Am I going to be a part of President Trump’s cabinet? Is it possible that I’ll be VP?”—Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene dreams of the vice presidency during an interview with the Atlanta Journal Constitution about her future political plans. 


MAILBAG

“I spent most of today driving through the beautiful woods of northern Wisconsin and Minnesota, which brought back a vague recollection of hearing someone (probably Chris) discuss the idiosyncratic leftward lean of rural Scandinavian voters. Hoping to refresh my memory, I spent some time googling various permutations of ‘why do Scandinavian Americans vote for Democrats,’ to no avail. Imagine my delight when I opened my inbox tonight and found this wonderfully well-researched article on exactly that topic! Thank you, Nate and Chris, for giving me yet another reason to be grateful for my Dispatch membership.”—Luke Henkel, Indianapolis, Indiana

Brother Nate is the one who deserves your thanks there, Mr. Henkel. He’s a marvel at data and research, so for the humble aims of this note, it’s kind of like having a Porsche 911 pulling a plow. It’s nice to let him get out on the track and blow the carbon off his pistons. I promise more engine revving in the months to come as we find opportunities to look more closely on the deeper demography and voter trends that will shape the election.


You should email us! Write to STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM with your tips, kudos, criticisms, insights, rediscovered words, wonderful names, recipes and, always, good jokes. Please include your real name—at least first and last—and hometown. Make sure to let me know in the email if you want to keep your submission private. My colleague, the talented Nate Moore, and I will look for your emails and then share the most interesting ones and my responses here. Clickety clack!


CUTLINE CONTEST: WOOF 

Chair of Wisconsin Democratic Party Ben Wikler and his dog Pumpkin greet attendees during Wisconsin Democrats Pet Out the Vote Event in Madison, Wisconsin. (Photo by Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images)
Chair of Wisconsin Democratic Party Ben Wikler and his dog Pumpkin greet attendees during Wisconsin Democrats Pet Out the Vote Event in Madison, Wisconsin. (Photo by Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images)

Dogs, as you may have heard, are the best. So it is no surprise that this week’s photo of Pumpkin with her owner, Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Ben Wikler, would elicit great responses. Our winner followed the best path to victory: Simplicity and fidelity to character voice, in this case, the character being the voting public itself.

“… wait, can we vote for a dog?”—Dave Carter, Palmer, Alaska 

Winner, Furry Frontrunner Division:

“Pumpkin, backed by her adoring family, announces candidacy.”—Linda McKee, DuBois, Pennsylvania

Winner, Gives You Paws Division:

“Any Functioning Adult Mammal 2024”—Max Marshall, Charleston, South Carolina

Winner, Stand up to the Poodles Division:

“Here we are, ready for the Bernese Bros. rally. Wait, what?”—Nathan Wurtzel, South Riding, Virginia

Winner, Negative Reinforcement Division:

“My name is Pumpkin. Are you tired of the behavior of others in my line of work? Are you weary of Major and Commander indulging their taste for Secret Service Shank? You deserve a better First Dog. Seriously. Would I bite you? I approved of this message.”—Richard Kennedy, Ferndale, Michigan

Winner, Socks Could Not Be Reached for Comment Division:

“Finally, a way to reuse this old Clinton ’96 campaign sign.”—Joel Stewart, Guthrie, Oklahoma

Winner, Goodest Girl Division:

“Sign of the times: Therapy dogs being trained to accompany distressed voters into the voting booths.”—Rick Fellenbaum, New Holland, Pennsylvania

Send your proposed cutline for the picture that appears at the top of this newsletter to STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM. We will pick the best entrants for each week and an appropriate reward for the best of this month—even beyond the glory and adulation that will surely follow. Be hilarious, don’t be too dirty, and never be cruel. Include your full name and hometown. Have fun!


TO SERVE MAN 

Guardian: “A New Zealand supermarket experimenting with using AI to generate meal plans has seen its app produce some unusual dishes—recommending customers recipes for deadly chlorine gas, ‘poison bread sandwiches’ and mosquito-repellent roast potatoes. The app, created by supermarket chain Pak ‘n’ Save, was advertised as a way for customers to creatively use up leftovers during the cost of living crisis. … When customers began experimenting with entering a wider range of household shopping list items into the app, however, it began to make even less appealing recommendations. One recipe it dubbed ‘aromatic water mix’ would create chlorine gas. The bot recommends the recipe as ‘the perfect nonalcoholic beverage to quench your thirst and refresh your senses’. … Recommendations included a bleach ‘fresh breath’ mocktail, ant-poison and glue sandwiches, ‘bleach-infused rice surprise’ and ‘methanol bliss’—a kind of turpentine-flavored french toast. … ‘You must use your own judgment before relying on or making any recipe produced by Savey Meal-bot,’ [the store] said.”

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the politics editor for NewsNation, and author of Broken News, a book on media and politics. Nate Moore contributed to this report.

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the politics editor for NewsNation, co-host of the Ink Stained Wretches podcast, and author of Broken News, a book on media and politics.