Seeking Debate Magic

[ Posted Monday, July 24th, 2023 – 16:46 UTC ]

One month from now, the first Republican presidential debate will take place. What will happen there is anyone's guess at the moment, but what is already assuredly true is that every candidate not named "Donald Trump" has to see the first debate (and the ones that will follow) as absolutely critical for their chances of success. Bottling lighting at a debate is likely going to be the only way any of them can stand out in any way, and the only chance any of them (excepting perhaps Ron DeSantis) will have of creating a surge of support in the polls.

It is still early, in terms of public polling, since many people are just not paying that much attention to presidential politics at all and likely won't at least until the debate cycle begins. But what's notable in the polling conducted so far is how static the race has been, up to this point. There are four clear groups within the Republican field. The first one is named "Donald Trump," and the second one is named "Ron DeSantis." Trump has consistently been out front by a country mile since polling began. He has hovered between roughly 45 percent and 55 percent for the entire time. Meanwhile, DeSantis has formed his own tier with a solid grip on second place, with his polling fluctuating between roughly 20 percent and 30 percent.

Currently, DeSantis is on an extended downswing, as his candidacy struggles with both his own lack of charisma and the fact that he is the only candidate Trump is even bothering to attack. The vitriol Trump has been pouring on DeSantis seems to be taking its toll, to put this another way. Either that, or Trump's multiple indictments have caused GOP voters to rally around his candidacy. But for whatever the reason, DeSantis now could possibly be on the brink of collapsing. His donors may be having second thoughts about funding his candidacy, and the last two polls posted had pretty grim numbers for him (12 and 13 percent). So he could be on the brink of having his second-place standing challenged -- but only if one of the other candidates catches fire somehow.

Which brings us to the third tier in the Republican field. This tier is made up of candidates who could have a plausible shot at winning, if DeSantis does fall further and the "not Trump" Republican voters start looking around for a different horse to back. There are five candidates I would put in this third tier: Chris Christie, Nikki Haley, Mike Pence, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Tim Scott. All currently have polling averages between 2.5 and 5.6 percent. All have also consistently remained below even hitting double digits. Only Pence, Haley, and Ramaswamy have ever even made it above five percent. All will desperately be seeking some debate magic to propel their numbers upward.

There is a fourth tier, but the less said about it the better. This is the realm of wannabes and vanity candidates who have absolutely zero chance of becoming the Republican nominee. In fact, I would be surprised if many of them even make it onto any of the debate stages (due to the qualification hurdles set in place by the GOP). This tier consists of: Doug Burgum, Larry Elder, Will Hurd, Asa Hutchinson, Perry Johnson, and Francis Suarez (and probably a few others I overlooked, as well). Out of that whole group, only Hutchinson seems to have any chance of breaking into even the third tier of candidates.

Whether one or two of the gadflies somehow makes it onto the debate stage or not, it will likely still be a race between seven plausible candidates. But only six of them may show up. Trump is already teasing that he likely won't appear at the first Republican debate. This is both a calculated political move (Trump is so dominant in the polling that he can easily afford to skip a nationwide television appearance without losing much, if any, support) and a petty personal move (Trump has soured on Fox News, who will be hosting the first debate). Trump may well opt to do a live interview with Tucker Carlson on the same night the debate is held, because this would allow him to stick not just one but two thumbs in the eyes of Fox: snubbing the network for not being sufficiently loyal to him, while granting an interview to a man Fox recently fired. But whatever his real motivation, I would put the odds on Trump not showing up pretty high, at least at this point. Why should he elevate all these minor candidates by giving them an opportunity to take him on, when he is so clearly beating all of them like a drum? Sooner or later Trump's planet-sized ego will force him to start showing up for the debates, but I could easily see him skipping the first one or two.

Whether Trump shows up or not, he will still be the central feature of the first GOP debate. How could he not be, when any path to victory for any of the other candidates will obviously require taking Trump down a few pegs? What is bizarre in all of this, however, is the fact that several (if not most) of the other GOP candidates may actually wind up making Trump's case for him rather than attacking him -- even if he isn't actually there. Of the six viable candidates running against Trump, only one (Christie) has so far been willing to take direct shots at Trump. The others may, in an understated fashion, disagree with Trump over one issue or another (such as Mike Pence, who has said that Trump's actions after the 2020 election were somewhat disappointing), but they usually wind up either singing Trump's praises outright or parroting his own spin on things. This is all a rather misguided attempt at being the candidate who swoops in when Trump collapses of his own weight (somehow) to gather up all his GOP voter support. They figure if they don't say anything too bad about Trump before that point, MAGA voters could shift their support to them, instead. This, as should be painfully obvious, is some world-class wishful thinking. But what it means is that while Christie will definitely throw some barbs Trump's way (whether Trump is there or not), Christie may wind up in an argument with the other candidates -- who may all be defending Trump.

The bizarre dynamics of the debate aside, the chance for a breakout debate performance is going to be motivating every person on that stage. It's really the best way to shake up the race and create polling surges, after all. If you look at the polling for the 2016 GOP nomination race, there are indeed a few such spikes (even Carly Fiorina managed a small one). But none of them wound up truly challenging Trump except for Ben Carson, who for one single day actually beat Trump in the aggregate polling. This was Carson's high point, however, and he sank into the background just afterwards.

The truly interesting thing about that 2016 chart is that three candidates had a viable shot at dethroning Trump at the very end of the race. Marco Rubio, John Kasich, and Ted Cruz all mounted last-minute surges, but none of them made it in the end. This history may repeat itself in one way or another, but it may well serve to hand the nomination to Trump (as indeed it did back in 2016). If the anti-Trump vote remains splintered -- even between two or three candidates -- then the MAGA pro-Trump vote may prevail, whereas if only one candidate is left fighting Trump, he or she could actually have a shot at winning.

It is easy to say things like this, of course, since I am not a candidate for president myself. For instance, if you added up all the non-DeSantis challengers and then add all their support to DeSantis's, the result would be competitive with Trump's numbers (DeSantis, in this fantasy, would have around 40 percent support). But politics doesn't really work that way. Every single candidate in the race (the ones actually running for president and not merely auditioning to be Trump's veep, at any rate) all firmly believe that they should be the one left standing towards the end to directly take on Trump. They believe that if all the others would just gracefully step aside and endorse them, that they'd then have a clear shot. But none of them are going to wake up in the morning and think: "I should bow out to give that other guy a clear shot at Trump." It takes a lot of ego to run for president, to put this another way.

The debates are the place where the egos clash, where each one of them tries to convince America that all the others should indeed drop out. DeSantis could turn things around with a stellar debate moment. Or he could continue to slide and some other candidate could surge to take his place, after getting into it with DeSantis. If Trump doesn't show up for the debate, then DeSantis will be the guy with the biggest target on his back, so he should expect plenty of incoming attacks.

Looking further than the first debate, the Republicans are trying to facilitate a weeding of the field to some extent. The standards for entry into the first debate are high enough that some candidates won't make it to the stage. But these standards are supposed to ratchet upwards for each debate afterwards as well -- meaning as time goes on, fewer and fewer candidates will be left on the stage. This could wind up being the best argument for the others to drop out: "You can't even make the debates -- you are never going to win!"

Sooner or later these arguments are going to be expressly made by whichever candidate is surging at the moment. So far, Ron DeSantis hasn't bothered to make the "everyone else should just clear the field for me" argument, but this is likely due to the fact that he's been sinking in the polls ever since Trump got indicted (and started viciously attacking DeSantis). It's hard to make the argument that you're the strongest not-Trump candidate when your numbers are cratering. It's a much more viable argument to make right after your poll numbers spike, obviously.

Which is precisely what all the candidates who make the debate stage will be looking for. Bottling some lighting. Somehow capturing some debate magic. Because if none of them do, then the GOP might as well call off all their primaries and just anoint Trump with the nomination.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


8 Comments on “Seeking Debate Magic”

  1. [1] 
    andygaus wrote:

    This is leaving out all the possible consequences of any convictions. If the former guy is convicted of conspiracy to foment an insurrection, even without being jailed, he could be disqualified.

  2. [2] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    That would really set him off. :)

  3. [3] 
    nypoet22 wrote:


    there's nothing in any lawbook to prevent a criminal from serving as president of the united states. donald could well transition straight from the jail cell to the white house.

  4. [4] 
    John M from Ct. wrote:

    nyp on [3],

    Yes, there's no law that prevents a criminal, in the general sense, from winning election and taking office as president. But andy in [1] suggested Trump may be convicted of insurrection; if so, the 14th Amendment's prohibition against insurrectionists taking federal office would seem to apply.

    Sure, many of the folks in charge of the country's elections may hesitate to use the amendment to bar a convicted Trump from the presidency. But they also might just do so.

    It's hard to guess what this Supreme Court might rule about trying to get around a constitutional amendment so specifically aimed at exactly what Trump did and, per andy, what he may well have been convicted in court for doing.

    As for the majority of Chris's piece above, about the challengers' dynamics in the GOP debates this fall, I admit to having been bored by the angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin level of analysis.

    Trump has 45-55% of his party's support, if not more. For eight years now people have been speculating that that number could somehow fall so that a challenger could replace him as the party's nominee and favorite. It's never happened, despite everything that conventional political analysis says should happen when a candidate or office-holder does even one of the many, many awful things that Trump has done over these eight years. Why would this dynamic change this fall?

    The 14th amendment aside, there's no chance that I can see that Trump won't get the nomination in 2024. I admit I don't think he'll win against Biden - but then he wasn't expected to win against Clinton, either.

  5. [5] 
    nypoet22 wrote:


    the provisions against insurrection in the 14th Amendment were meant for Confederates who had literally made war on the republic. even in the event of a conviction for whatever he did or didn't do on the 6th of january, i sincerely doubt that any court in the land would prevent him from running, or from taking office if he won.

  6. [6] 
    nypoet22 wrote:
  7. [7] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Has Biden received a MDDOTW yet for his record on climate change?

    He has reneged on some critical promises made with reports that the Ukraine war has been a "godsend" for fossil fuel production in the US. In some cases - like new drilling projects, for instance - Biden is better, worse than Trump!

    One more reason why Biden's approval numbers are so low?

    Biden Reneges on Climate Promises

    US Gains As Russia Loses Energy Battle

    Team Biden thought they could win the Ukraine war by bringing Russia to its knees with crushing economic sanctions. But, that idea has backfired spectacularly as Russia is selling its fossil fuels to much of the world, including China and India. Meanwhile, the US is raking it in, too, as Europe has won the privilege of importing far more expensive American LNG, a type of fossil fuel that has the added benefit of causing far more deleterious impact on climate.


  8. [8] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Sorry ... meant to post that under the last FTP column ...

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