republican presidential debates

3 Things at Stake in the First GOP Primary Debate

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty

If eight Republican candidates have an argument in Milwaukee and Donald Trump isn’t around to hear them, do they make a sound?

This is the question hanging over the first GOP primary debate Wednesday night. Trump’s polling advantage over his closest competitor, Florida governor Ron DeSantis, currently sits at nearly 40 points. The GOP front-runner has reasonably concluded that he has no interest in participating in any event that could theoretically change the race’s dynamics. Thus, instead of debating his rivals in Wisconsin, Trump has opted to give an interview with Tucker Carlson that will air at the same time. And the ex-president has also chosen to turn himself in for arrest in Atlanta on Thursday morning, thereby exploiting his own legal troubles to deny any of his rivals a day of earned media coverage following Wednesday night’s oratorical fracas.

Nevertheless, it is conceivable that the Milwaukee debate will have a significant impact on the trajectory of the 2024 campaign. Here are three things at stake in Wednesday night’s proceedings:


Can Ron DeSantis retain his title as Trump’s stiffest competition?

At the start of this year, the Florida governor boasted nearly 40 percent support in polls of the GOP primary. Today, that figure is down to 14.5 percent. This collapse is partly attributable to Trump’s official campaign launch in March. But it is not wholly explained by the ex-president’s entrance into the race. DeSantis has lost ten points of support since early June. His campaign has made no small number of unforced errors, including the release of a video that associated the candidate with Nazi iconography.

Recently, the former co-chair of the Ready for Ron PAC, Ed Rollins, expressed regret at encouraging his candidacy, telling Rolling Stone, “I don’t think it’s the campaign’s fault at all … I think he’s been a very flawed candidate,” adding, “every time he opens his mouth, he has a tendency to — shall we say — think out loud, and he clearly doesn’t understand the game.”

Now, entrepreneur and political neophyte Vivek Ramaswamy is breathing down DeSantis’s neck in national polls.

All this means that DeSantis is liable to be a punching bag on Wednesday night. Typically, a primary campaign’s front-runner bears the brunt of debate attacks, as every other candidate onstage has an incentive to damage them. With the actual Republican front-runner absent and DeSantis looking vulnerable, all guns will be trained on the Florida governor. Further, whereas the GOP electorate’s deep affection for Trump limits his rivals’ appetite for ripping the ex-president, the typical Republican voter has no strong emotional attachment to DeSantis.

If he manages to parry these attacks and get himself declared the night’s “winner” by the national press, he could fortify his donor support and Iowa operation. By contrast, if his response to the onslaught reinforces the narrative that he lacks charisma and communication skills, then Trump-skeptical donors and activists could ditch DeSantis for another contender.


Will Trump’s rivals make him regret his absence?

At this point, Trump’s aim is to ensure that the race’s fundamental dynamics do not change. The fact that multiple state and federal indictments have failed to dent his lead makes this look like a fairly easy task. Nevertheless, the nature of the primary system — in which a tiny group of voters in Iowa and New Hampshire have the power to reset national media narratives and fundraising flows — renders a dramatic change in the race’s shape possible. And Trump’s lead in Iowa is a bit smaller than his national one. In the Des Moines Register’s most recent poll, both DeSantis and South Carolina senator Tim Scott have higher net-favorability ratings than Trump. What’s more, Trump’s various trials could force him off the campaign trail for weeks at a time.

The ex-president is probably wise to skip the debates since they are among the few forces that could theoretically shake up the race. But if Trump’s rivals decide to take aim at him, then a combination of political calculation and narcissistic injury could compel the mogul to enter the fray.

It’s not clear whether anyone outside of Chris Christie will want to gun for the front-runner. After all, given the extraordinary size of Trump’s lead, one of the more plausible routes to the GOP nomination for a non-Trump candidate would be to inherit the ex-president’s faithful after some unforeseen event incapacitates his campaign. The 77-year-old is not the healthiest-looking man on the planet, and his legal woes are considerable. If your goal is to become the second choice of loyal Trump voters, avoiding the mogul’s ire is imperative.

At the same time, Trump is much more likely to remain in contention for the duration of the 2024 race than he is to drop out of it. And the durability of his lead to this point suggests he isn’t going to defeat himself. For DeSantis in particular, there is less point in attacking the candidates he’s beating than the one he isn’t. So, it’s an open question precisely how much heat Trump will take Wednesday night.


Will the debate trigger a race to the right that undermines the GOP in 2024?

One of the benefits of being the incumbent party is that your presidential standard-bearer can align their platform with general-election imperatives, without needing to guard their right (or left) flank. By contrast, in hotly contested presidential primaries, the need to compete for the backing of ideologically committed activists and donors can lead candidates to embrace stances unpopular with the broader electorate.

In 2020 Democratic primary debates, some candidates found themselves extemporaneously embracing progressive policies with little popular support, such as decriminalizing border crossing, under pressure from their rivals. This can be a beneficent dynamic from the standpoint of advancing social justice. But it is not conducive to maximizing a party’s odds of general-election success.

In 2024, the GOP’s activist base has plenty of toxically unpopular policy demands. Most salient among these is its desire to force pregnant people to give birth, irrespective of the states they live in. The Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America organization has called on Republican candidates to ban abortion federally. Former vice-president Mike Pence has answered this call most enthusiastically. Pence has promised to ban abortion nationwide after six weeks of pregnancy, before many women even realize that they’re carrying a fetus. He has further called for prohibiting abortion-inducing pills, which are the most commonly used method for terminating a pregnancy in the U.S., and enable many women in red states to secure abortions in defiance of legal restrictions. Most radically, Pence has called for outlawing abortion even in cases where a pregnancy is deemed nonviable, thereby denying women the opportunity to end a pregnancy that will not yield a human life.

South Carolina senator Tim Scott has been similarly emphatic in his anti-abortion stance. Scott has pledged to “sign the most conservative pro-life legislation you can bring to my desk” and co-sponsored legislation affording a fetus the rights of a legal person from the moment of conception. Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley has vowed to sign a federal abortion ban, though she has not specified the number of weeks past which she would choose to make pregnancy termination illegal.

The race’s front-runners, by contrast, have thus far resisted the anti-abortion movement’s calls for federal action. DeSantis recently signed a six-week abortion ban into law. But he has suggested that the issue should nevertheless be left to the states. Ramaswamy has similarly voiced support for strict abortion bans at the state level, while opposing federal involvement in the issue.

Trump, meanwhile, has decried DeSantis’s six-week ban as “too harsh” and suggested that the issue should be left up to the states.

Disavowing plans to ban abortion nationally is politically wise. Roughly two-thirds of Americans believe that abortion should be legal in most circumstances, and only 10 percent believe it should always be illegal to terminate a pregnancy.

Intellectually, however, it is not the easiest stance for an ostensibly pro-life candidate to justify. DeSantis, Trump, and Ramaswamy have committed themselves to the position that (1) fetuses have a moral status similar to people yet (2) states should have the right to legalize their “murder.”

These candidates’ opponents have every incentive to press this point, in the hopes of winning over one of the GOP’s best-organized voting blocs. Should Trump or DeSantis ultimately feel compelled to placate their anti-abortion critics, the Republican Party’s odds of victory in 2024 will marginally diminish.

3 Things at Stake in the First GOP Primary Debate