Will skipping the first debate be an advantage or disadvantage for Trump?

We’re five days out from the first debate of the 2024 Republican primary cycle, and it looks like the biggest attraction won’t be on the stage.

Conventional wisdom holds that Donald Trump shouldn’t join the debate. He’s up nearly 40 points over second-place Ron DeSantis in the RealClearPolitics polling average and could lose more than he stands to gain by showing up at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee on Wednesday night, especially when DeSantis seems likely to draw Chris Christie’s fire in Trump’s stead. Christie may not be a particularly viable primary candidate, but he’s a soundbite machine and has a history of embarrassing opponents on live television. Coming armed with the memos DeSantis-aligned PAC Never Back Down’s chief strategist posted online this week, Christie might attempt to shut him down. It’s possible the debate goes so poorly for DeSantis that Trump appears effectively unchallenged in its aftermath.

It’s funny that Trump mentions Ronald Reagan in his Truth Social post, because that’s what the back-and-forth over whether he’ll participate has brought to mind the whole time. In 1980, Reagan was the clear Republican frontrunner after having finished second in a floor vote at the 1976 convention. Like Trump said, Reagan did skip a debate. Then he lost Iowa. It’s true that debate was the last one before that year’s caucus, so it probably had a larger effect on the contest’s outcome than next week’s will. But, as has been the case this year with Trump, Reagan didn’t campaign much in the Hawkeye State in 1980. And much like that contest’s caucus winner, George H. W. Bush, most of Trump’s rivals have spent time on the kind of retail politics that have proven successful in Iowa in the past. 

It’s not like losing Iowa would be a death knell for the Trump campaign. Far from it. He’s the most likely nominee right now by a mile, and he’d still be the most likely nominee if he lost the caucus. In fact, he lost it in 2016 after skipping the last debate before the state voted in that year’s primaries. But losing Iowa this time around would dampen the narrative of his inevitability.   

There’s a risk for Trump in passing on the debate that another narrative of his might be shaken. Political candidates are generally hurt by events that cut against their public personas. To much of the GOP’s primary base, Trump’s image is that of a fighter. Skipping out on the debate might look like running from a fight, which contradicts the way Trump wants his voters to see him, though maybe not reality given his history. (The flip side of this, by the way, is that events that confirm the public’s perception of a candidate, even ones that should damage that candidate’s standing, may not have much of an effect. That might be why the Access Hollywood tape didn’t end up doing Trump in.)

Of course, it’s also quite possible for Trump to spin a no-show as a fight against host network Fox News, which he took his first crack at in a truly weird complaint about the photos of him it uses on its broadcasts. Even though his absence might draw some attacks, it’s not like most of the other candidates will take the opportunity to go after him. Noah Rothman wrote yesterday that “if no one but Chris Christie and his one-state campaign are going to take the fight to the front-runner, there is no point to this primary,” and that’s probably the case.

But we’ll see what happens after Wednesday night. If by some miracle, Trump’s opponents actually decide to criticize him on that stage and DeSantis resists the urge to defend him in absentia, this primary may not be such an exercise in futility after all. I wouldn’t get my hopes up, but if anything can shake up the contours of this race, it’s a Trump loss in Iowa. We’ll see if the first debate can set that in motion.

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