Will Trump Regret Skipping The GOP Debates?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

maya (Maya Sweedler, senior editor): The first Republican debate last Wednesday featured eight candidates — none of whom was the front-runner. Former President Donald Trump elected to skip the debate, writing on his social media website that “The public knows who I am & what a successful Presidency I had.”

In his absence, the other candidates … well, what did the other candidates do, and was it effective? Some of FiveThirtyEight’s crack team is here to discuss Trump’s decision, whether it was the right call for him and if he would be served well by making a similar one for the September debate.

Let’s start with what happened last week. How did Trump’s absence manifest in the debate?

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, senior elections analyst): It didn’t!

The candidates generally refrained from mentioning or attacking Trump at all, with a couple of notable exceptions from anti-Trump candidates like former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. But they attacked him for his indictments and disrespect for the Constitution, not for skipping the debate. 

Monica Potts (Monica Potts, senior politics reporter): I was honestly surprised at how little he came up. The main question was whether all the candidates on stage would support the eventual nominee, with the baked-in assumption that it might be Trump despite his indictments, and Hutchinson and Christie did not say they would. They’ve been critical of the former president throughout their campaigns, so this wasn’t surprising. It also elicited boos from the audience.

So in many ways Trump was there without being there.

meredithconroy (Meredith Conroy, political science professor at California State University, San Bernardino, and FiveThirtyEight contributor): Well, if the question is how did the other candidates talk about his absence, you are both right. They didn’t. But his absence was still felt and noticeable. And we know it forced the other candidates to rethink their strategies. From some of the reporting (and their campaigning thus far, too), it looked like the non-Trump candidates were going to attack each other or President Biden, but not Trump. I think that we saw more direct criticism of Trump without him on stage from former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, former Vice President Mike Pence and Christie. Also, I think the “vibe” was different. I can’t go back in time, put him on stage, and see what the vibes would be like with him there, but there was more air for Republicans to discuss their issues, and I think they did so cogently — with some exceptions, of course.

maya: If you were Trump watching Fox on Aug. 23, how would you feel about your odds? Better or worse, having watched your challengers on the stage?

meredithconroy: If I’m Trump (or his campaign), I do think I would’ve advised against going to the first debate. Trump had nothing to directly gain from participating. But by sitting out, it opened the door for the other candidates to take up more space and attack him without rebuttal (although entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy seemed eager to play the role of Trump defender). But I’d be looking at it and think I am a little worse off after the debate. Not only because polls like the one FiveThirtyEight did with Ipsos, conducted using Ipsos’s KnowledgePanel, shows this (the share of debate watchers considering him declined by about 5 percentage points), but also because other candidates are in the news cycle and gaining name recognition and credibility.

nrakich: Right. According to our FiveThirtyEight/Washington Post/Ipsos poll, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Haley and Ramaswamy all turned in strong performances in the eyes of Republican primary voters who tuned in. 

That said, if I were Trump, I would already be extremely confident in my chances. He’s leading by 35 percentage points in our national polling average, for crying out loud. One debate isn’t going to change that, no matter how well Haley or DeSantis did. 

Monica Potts: Right, Nathaniel. Also, Trump has always followed a different playbook than most candidates. We can’t forget his counter-programming with the Tucker Carlson interview. Additionally, a Morning Consult poll released Tuesday showed that potential Republican primary voters found him more electable after the debate. Sixty-two percent said he had the best chance of beating Biden, up 9 points from the week before.

nrakich: That said, our poll with The Washington Post and Ipsos found that only 7 percent of primary voters who skipped the debate watched that Carlson interview. 

meredithconroy: And the ones who skipped the debate for the Trump interview were his most fervent supporters. But I’m glad you brought up his interview with Carlson, Monica. Because you’re right, it’s not as if he is just sitting around watching this race happen. He does have his own playbook, and his supporters are still getting their fill. 

nrakich: Trump isn’t sitting around watching the race happen; he is the race.

meredithconroy: Yes! I don’t disagree with that. I just do think he could trip and fall (or is he the arena in this metaphor?), given how polarizing he is, even within his own party. That he has viable challengers at all is important!

… One thousand political scientists now hang their heads in shame at my assessment. 😂

maya: Why, Meredith?

meredithconroy: Just based on the state of things that political scientists study, and say matter — his enormous lead in the polls, the shift of the GOP base to the party of Trump (even without Trump), the endorsements he’s received, his campaign cash … it all points to a Trump nomination.

Oh, and the fact that political science scholarship finds debates to hardly matter. 😅

nrakich: Just ask Rick Perry what he thinks of that. 😛

meredithconroy: Oops

maya: Given that, is there any downside to blowing off the September debate as well?

And what’s the utility of a national platform like a debate stage in this instance? The Fox debate did get nearly 13 million viewers, according to the network. 

Monica Potts: I don’t think there’s any downside to him skipping. It will let his opponents grab some headlines, potentially. But with his indictments and responses to them, he stays in the news and in the spotlight. His surrender to Georgia authorities was treated almost like a campaign stop. Those things will only strengthen his support among the die-hard Trump fans. The unknown is what more persuadable voters will think, but that seems like more of a question for the general than for the primary. 

nrakich: If I were advising Trump, I would be really unsure about what to recommend for future debates. According to the FiveThirtyEight/Washington Post/Ipsos poll, Trump did lose potential support among Republican debate watchers — before the debate, 66 percent said they were considering voting for him, but after it, that number was down to 61 percent. That’s not a big deal after just one debate, but if he skips all of the debates, it starts to add up, right? (Of course, there’s no guarantee that he would lose the same amount of support after each debate. And we’re only talking about debate watchers here.)

That said, the risk of showing up and having a bad debate that is even worse for your numbers is real.

meredithconroy: There are downsides — his closest rivals keep gaining steam and viability, etc. But I agree that the risk of showing up and having a bad debate is the greater threat, so I’d probably advise sitting out. And he can keep doing his own events, like the Carlson interview, in their place.

nrakich: I think the wild card is just, do the other candidates attack him more or less if he does show up?

Going into the debate, I would have agreed with what you said earlier, Meredith, that sitting out made it easier for the others to attack him. But they didn’t. So now I’m wondering if having him on stage would actually make them attack him more. In which case, yeah, he should sit out.

Monica Potts: Although nothing that seems “bad” ever seems to have a bad effect on Trump, so I don’t know what a bad debate performance would do, either. Since he began his first presidential race, any number of events, like the Access Hollywood tape, have been predicted to end his campaign/career, and they haven’t. He’s been criminally indicted four times and he’s still leading in the polls.

meredithconroy: Fully agree with that, Monica. I’d be more interested in how his presence shapes the tone of the debate, and if that shift in tone carries over into the race, and if it would be in his favor.

nrakich: Except I don’t think that’s true, Monica! Just because Trump hasn’t lost his front-runner status doesn’t mean that he’s immune to swings in the polls. There’s actually early evidence that skipping the debate did materially hurt him. Three pollsters — Emerson College, Morning Consult and InsiderAdvantage — conducted national primary polls both the week before the debate and the week after, and Trump’s support declined by an average of 4 percentage points.

maya: So even if candidates do attack him, do we have reason to think that will have a material effect on how Republicans view him?

meredithconroy: So, I think perceptions of Trump are pretty set at this point, and even if he does botch the debate, the imagined view of his persona will still prevail. But I do wonder if there is a chunk of primary voters who see him as inevitable but peel off from him if they see a viable alternative. Probably not enough, though. And probably too many options for that to be coordinated (like 2016).

Monica Potts: Right, Meredith, I think that’s what it would take. In theory the debates could help someone become the candidate all the Trump-doubters coalesce around, but they still have a huge gap to make up, even if Trump does lose some ground from skipping debates.

nrakich: According to a New York Times analysis of its poll with Siena College, 37 percent of Republican primary voters are rock-solid Trump supporters while another 37 percent are persuadable. (The remaining 25 percent aren’t open to Trump.) That suggests that, while he does have a floor of support, he also has a lot to lose. I don’t think Trump would want to end up in a primary where he has 37 percent support nationally and someone like DeSantis or Ramaswamy has, say, 30 percent. That’s dangerous territory for him. And it’s not crazy to think that could happen if Trump keeps skipping debates and DeSantis or Ramaswamy keep winning them.

I don’t know. I guess he can keep skipping debates until he falls below a certain threshold of support. But it’s risky either way.

maya: Because this is a Slack chat and we are not bound by the normal rules, I’m going to ask everyone to take a stab at that number! At what point should Trump start showing up for debates? 

nrakich: Under 40 percent nationally, maybe?

Given that he was at 54 percent in our average just a few days before the August debate (and is now down to 50 percent), that would represent a significant and sustained slide. 

meredithconroy: Yes, I think Nathaniel is right with 40 percent.

nrakich: Where the other candidates are matters too. It’s very different if he’s at 39 percent and DeSantis is at 30 percent than if he’s at 39 percent and everyone else is in single digits.

Monica Potts: If I were a Republican primary voter, I would say he should have shown up for the first debate to answer questions and participate in the democratic process! But if the perspective is from his campaign, to keep from losing ground, then Nathaniel and Meredith seem right.

nrakich: Oh, yes, to be crystal clear: From the perspective of having a robust debate and keeping voters as informed as possible, Trump should absolutely be attending all of the debates.

maya: But if we’re talking in terms of winning … well, the calculus is a bit different.

We’ll keep an eye on the September debate stage, and on Trump’s national average, though!