But as Trump maintains his position as the front-runner for the Republican nomination, the question remains whether he will debate this election cycle at all.
Trump is an “unorthodox national political candidate,” and “it is wildly effective,” according to Ed Lee, director of Emory University’s Alben W. Barkley Forum for Debate, Deliberation, and Dialogue.
“I, initially, thought skipping the first debate was a poor strategy and would cost him some support,” Lee told the Washington Examiner. “I thought it would be much easier for his opponents to paint it as a sign of weakness, a fear of a challenge, and a political strategy akin to hiding in the bunker with [President Joe] Biden. I was so wrong.”
Instead, all of Trump’s primary opponents, except for former Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, told the moderators of last month’s first debate in Milwaukee that they would support the former president, even if he is convicted in one of his four criminal trials. Christie was then booed by the audience for contending Trump’s conduct was “beneath” the office of president of the United States.”
For University of Michigan debate director Aaron Kall, one possible approach to pressure Trump to take part in the third debate on Nov. 8 in Miami is for his primary opponents to criticize him “relentlessly” during the second debate this Wednesday at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, California.
“The more the candidates focus on him, the better chances of him feeling the need to come back, set the record straight, and defend himself,” Kall said. “That’s No. 1. No. 2 is that somebody does so well, not just in the debate but also on the campaign trail and the regular kind of retail politicking that they narrow the gap substantially.”
Trump’s primary opponents could potentially attack the former president for his comment that six-week abortion bans are “a terrible mistake,” his role in stoking the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, and not debating itself, per Kall.
“Is it because he’s worried about being able to perform onstage and having the stamina to do it?” the co-author of Debating The Donald asked. “He did very poorly in Cleveland in 2020, and he didn’t debate in the second debate. Back when he dominated the Republican field in 2015-16 was a long time ago.”
“Candidates have been punished for not debating,” he said. “Trump in Iowa in 2016, [George W.] Bush in New Hampshire in 2000, Reagan going back to Iowa in 1980, so talking about that penalty and having to earn the vote, show the respect, and show up. That’s something that they’ve done on the campaign trail but we didn’t see in the Milwaukee debate.”
Regardless, Trump is “a masterful communicator” who understands the “desires” of “Republican Party loyalists,” Lee added. Rather than debate, the former president is traveling to Detroit on Wednesday to pitch himself to striking United Auto Workers, who have not endorsed Biden before next year’s election, after sitting down for an interview with Tucker Carlson during the first debate.
“Republican voters seem to want an anti-institution outsider, and he is willing to play the role,” Lee said. “Remarkably, his absence from the debate stage allows him to simultaneously run as the only Republican candidate with presidential experience and as a political outsider. Why would he change tactics? Shunning the debates seems to be working. At a minimum, it is not hurting him.”
Trump’s support last week did average 58.8%, his largest share of the Republican primary vote so far, according to RealClearPolitics. His most competitive opponent was Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), with 12.5.%, providing Trump with a 46 percentage point advantage.
“As he heads into debate night on Wednesday, DeSanctus will be up onstage right where he belongs, with other single-digit candidates who are barely registering any kind of enthusiasm,” Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung told reporters this week.
“Ron DeSantis isn’t afraid to show up, debate the issues, and prove that he has what it takes to be the leader of the greatest nation on earth,” DeSantis campaign manager James Uthmeier told donors in another email.
Trump has additionally been outperforming Biden in hypothetical head-to-head polling. The former president has an average 1.5-point edge over the incumbent, 45.7% to 44.2%. Biden has a 2.5-point lead over DeSantis, though onetime U.N. Ambassador and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has a 4.3-point lead.
“While I think it would be better for the nation if he was more fully engaged in the process, I don’t think we will see Donald Trump on a debate stage until he squares off against President Biden,” Lee said. “I guess I should not speak too quickly. Would he dare double down on his ‘shun the debates’ strategy during the general election campaign? Of course he would.”