A week in which eight presidential candidates gathered onstage in Milwaukee for the first Republican primary debate of the 2024 cycle, while former President Donald Trump released an interview with Tucker Carlson and then later surrendered to a Fulton County, Georgia jail would have perhaps been the beginning of the end of any other presidential candidate.
But Trump is unique. He has often defied the odds of any political conventions. This week was no different.
The former president has led all other GOP rivals in the primary race. Yet neither the unprecedented mugshot of Trump nor his decision to skip the debate will blunt his lead, Republican strategists and political experts told the Washington Examiner.
“I don’t think it’s changed anything as much as it’s kind of just reinforced kind of the inevitable, that Trump is the nominee in this race,” said Woodrow Johnston, senior vice president of McShane LLC, who is not affiliated with any campaign, about Wednesday night’s debate. “The Tucker interview showing a lot more views than the debate is almost just as further evidence of that.”
The interview, which aired at the same time as the Republican National Committee-sponsored debate, was posted on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, and has more than 255 million views as of Friday afternoon. However, Twitter views are not held to the same standards as the primary debate on Fox News and Fox Business Network, which had 12.8 million viewers tune in.
Heading into debate night, the Trump campaign claimed victory despite the former president not appearing onstage. “We did a poll last week that shows that Donald Trump is still up double digits,” said Sarah Chamberlain, president and CEO of Republican Main Street Partnership.
The poll conducted by RMSP and Echelon Insights before the debate showed Trump receiving 34% of Republican primary voter support in New Hampshire and 33% support in Iowa, the two crucial early nominating states in the GOP primary schedule. “Vivek (Ramaswamy) is closing in, but Vivek is not even at 20 and Trump’s in the 30s,” Chamberlain continued. “So nothing has changed after the debate. I think Nikki Haley showed that she had a little bit of oompf in her, and I think (Gov. Ron) DeSantis showed that he is not the best debater in the world.”
Johnston argued that the candidates at the debate were likely auditioning for a spot in Trump’s potential administration. “It doesn’t take a genius to tell you that was pretty much a trial for either a cabinet position or potentially VP. And I would say the person who broke out the most was probably Vivek in that context, but I don’t see Vivek being the nominee,” he said.
The consensus emerging from the primary race is that every candidate who isn’t Trump is battling to become the prominent Trump-alternative candidate and consolidate support from Republicans who are ready to move beyond the former president’s reign. “I do think there’s plenty of time still here for someone to emerge as the alternative to him. And it doesn’t look like it’s going to be Ron DeSantis,” said Grant Reeher, professor of political science at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University. “But, there’s a big but here, and that is that the field will have to winnow itself pretty quickly earlier on in the process than it normally would need to.”
“Because if it doesn’t, it sets him up for what he did in 2016, which is because his support is so deep, he can come in first in a lot of places with a minority of votes and start gathering a lot of delegates and (become) the presumptive nominee,” Reeher continued about a potential Trump path to victory.
A Morning Consult survey released after the debate showed that Trump’s support is virtually unchanged among Republican voters. More than half of the party’s potential electorate, 58%, backs Trump, and only 14% support DeSantis, a 44 percentage point lead. Trump’s surrender to a Fulton County jail Thursday night will likely help his poll numbers increase and help him to fundraise, which he started by redirecting his supporters to his donation page when he posted his mugshot on X.
“I think the weaponization of the federal government, specifically FBI and DOJ, against Trump is only increasing support for him,” said Mehek Cooke, a Republican strategist based in Ohio. “I think it’s just going to increase people’s push to ensure that he’s our nominee. I think we’re tired of being a victim to a two-tier justice system that continues to prosecute Republicans and parents that stand up for parental rights. So I truly believe that Trump is getting a huge lead regardless of whether he was at the debate or not.”
The former president faces five indictments over four criminal cases related to a 2016 hush money payments to porn actress Stormy Daniels, allegedly mishandling sensitive national security documents after leaving the White House, and his alleged efforts to overturn the 2020 election. Trump’s poll numbers have steadily risen throughout the increasing legal problems, a sign of the GOP’s firm commitment to stand with Trump.
“What I am finding in our polling, if you’re with Trump, you’re with Trump. And if you’re not with Trump, you are definitely not with Trump. He’s very polarizing,” said Chamberlain, of the RMSP.
Similarly, Reeher, of Syracuse University, said voter fatigue with Trump’s legal problems may not hurt him in the long run. “Most folks don’t have the political bandwidth to be keeping detailed track of it,” he said about the multiple indictments. “This is the kind of thing that you get with him. We’ve known this since the first year of his presidency, that there’s these kinds of controversies and these kinds of scandals.”
But just because Trump’s hold over the GOP hasn’t weakened doesn’t mean he’s in the clear just yet. “I think the judicial system will decide what happens with Trump’s fate, more so than the voters,” Chamberlain also said. “So I think Donald Trump’s bigger problem is not the men and women that were on that stage. His bigger problem is his four indictments and 91 counts against him. He’s got a lot going on, and that will all be going on while he’s trying to run for president.”
Although Trump skipped the first primary debate, it’s unclear whether he will participate in next month’s second debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute in Simi Valley, California. “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!” Trump posted on Sunday.
Nevertheless, Republicans still hope he may change his mind. “I think regardless of whether he comes or not, he still has very strong support,” said Cooke.