Former President Donald Trump announced he would not be participating in the highly anticipated GOP debate this week, raising questions about whether the event will garner enough attention among undecided voters to boost other candidates in the polls — or if it will be worth watching altogether.
Eight candidates qualified for the first debate on Wednesday evening, setting the stage for the presidential hopefuls to distinguish themselves from the rest of the crowded field just five months before the primary election cycle begins. With Trump’s absence, the candidates are expected to turn their focus away from the former president and instead attempt to establish themselves as the strongest candidate to defeat him for the nomination.
“At this point [and] this early in the process, it’s really more about trying to get themselves up in the polls,” Todd Belt, a professor and director of the political management master’s program at George Washington University, told the Washington Examiner. “A lot of the people who will be watching are non-Trump voters, which is exactly the type of segment that these candidates are trying to appeal to because they know that their ability to shift votes away from Trump is very, very limited.”
Trump confirmed on Sunday he would not participate in the debates, citing his dominance in the polls as evidence his presence would be unnecessary.
The decision came just hours after CBS News released a new poll showing Trump leading the field by nearly 50 points, with roughly 62% of voters saying they’d back the former president. Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) came in at a distant second with 16%, and no other candidate managed to garner double-digit support.
“New CBS POLL, just out, has me leading the field by ‘legendary’ numbers,” Trump said in a Truth Social post. “The public knows who I am & what a successful Presidency I had, with Energy Independence, Strong Borders & Military, Biggest EVER Tax & Regulation Cuts, No Inflation, Strongest Economy in History, & much more. I WILL THEREFORE NOT BE DOING THE DEBATES!”
Instead, Trump is planning to promote counterprogramming scheduled at the same time as the debates in an effort to siphon away attention.
That decision has prompted some pushback from members of the Republican Party who argue the debates are a good opportunity for candidates to differentiate themselves among a crowded field — and give those who are lagging in the polls a chance to catch up with Trump.
“The Republican nomination is not a foregone conclusion, despite what the liberal media says,” Rep. Ralph Norman (R-SC) told the Washington Examiner. “It’s important for Republican voters to see which candidates are capable of winning in the general election and who is not. These debates will provide the perfect opportunity for that, and I think you’ll see Nikki Haley rise to the top.”
(Norman endorsed former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley for the GOP nomination in February.)
Some presidential candidates have also pushed back against Trump’s decision, emphasizing the importance for voters to see each platform before deciding who to support. Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) told Fox News over the weekend he hoped Trump would participate, noting it’s crucial for voters to see candidates’ “vision for America and how our presidency would change the tide.”
“The American people deserve to see each candidate’s vision for our country,” a Scott campaign spokesperson later told the Washington Examiner. “Tim Scott will share his optimistic and positive message rooted in conservative values and show how his leadership will end the Biden administration’s retreat.”
Trump’s absence on the stage, combined with his plans to air a prerecorded interview with ex-Fox News host Tucker Carlson at the same time as the debate, has also raised questions about who will actually tune into the event. Without Trump participating, many of his supporters may not even be inclined to watch, disrupting candidates’ efforts to chisel away at his base.
“I’m not buying that,” Robert Doar, president of the American Enterprise Institute, told the Washington Examiner. “I just don’t think that the only people that vote in primaries are going to be people that are infatuated with Donald Trump. It’s a good chance that because of the importance of this election, because of the controversy surrounding him, the primary voters in those states are going to be different than previous primary voters in previous years.”
“If you just look at the numbers, there are a lot more Republicans who could vote in those primaries that have voted in the past,” he added. “If those Republicans turn out, they are much more open to voting for one of the other candidates than for Trump.”
The debate is scheduled to begin at 9 p.m. on Wednesday in Milwaukee and will be broadcast by Fox News, which is hosting the event. The debate will be moderated by Fox News hosts Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum.
Eight candidates will participate, including DeSantis, Haley, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former Vice President Mike Pence, Scott, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
Julia Johnson contributed to this report.