Former President Trump has said he does not regret skipping the first Republican presidential primary debate, but there are signs he may not be able to dodge the stage indefinitely.
Trump has indicated he does not plan to participate in the debates, pointing to his comfortable lead in the polls. Advisers said they would be surprised to see him take part in next month’s primary debate in California, which is set to air on Fox Business Network.
But some polling around his decision to skip the first debate and the bump that a few of his rivals were able to generate in his absence have at least opened the possibility that Trump will return to the debate stage sooner rather than later.
“I think skipping the debates is risky,” said Alex Conant, who worked on Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) 2016 presidential campaign.
Trump’s decision to skip the first debate “worked out because nobody tried to lay a glove on him,” Conant said. “They spent the whole debate sniping at each other, and since there wasn’t a clear winner, Trump won by default. That might not be true at the next debate.”
An Emerson College poll conducted Aug. 25-26 found 50 percent of GOP primary voters surveyed said they plan to vote for Trump, down from 56 percent in a pre-debate poll and the lowest support to date in an Emerson poll.
Multiple candidates in the field saw a slight uptick in support in the aftermath of the Aug. 23 debate in Milwaukee, including former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former Vice President Mike Pence.
The Emerson poll found that 27 percent of voters felt entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy won the debate last week, though his support dropped from 10 percent to 9 percent.
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Haley and Ramaswamy have seen spikes in their fundraising on the heels of their debate performances, and candidates like Pence were able to get significant airtime on stage thanks in part to Trump’s absence.
A Firehouse Strategies poll conducted the week before the debate found that 66 percent of Republican voters said Trump should debate, including 77 percent of those who identified as Trump supporters.
Instead of attending the debate, Trump prerecorded an interview with ex-Fox News host Tucker Carlson that ran just before the debate kicked off. Carlson asked Trump about a range of topics that included how Jeffrey Epstein died, whether Trump’s critics might try to kill him and whether the country was headed for open conflict.
Trump and his team have pointed to the millions of views of the video recorded on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, to chalk up the interview as a clear success.
“My Poll numbers are UP since the very boring, record setting low (ratings!), Debate. Leading by BIG numbers. I made the right decision, and broke all records with the Tucker Carlson Interview!” Trump wrote Tuesday on Truth Social.
Former President Trump prerecorded an interview on X with Tucker Carlson instead of participating in the first GOP primary debate. (Getty Images)
A Morning Consult poll released Tuesday showed 62 percent of GOP primary voters surveyed think Trump has the best chance of beating Biden, up from 53 percent days before the debate.
Trump has for months publicly argued that the debates are beneath him, questioning why he should subject himself to attacks from his rivals when he is leading them comfortably in national and state-level polls.
The former president announced earlier this month that he “would not be doing the debates,” and senior adviser Jason Miller said he would take Trump’s comments “at face value” as an indication that he would not attend any debates until he says otherwise.
Trump has already signaled he will not attend the second GOP primary debate, scheduled for Sept. 27 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California. The debate will be broadcast by Fox Business Network, and Trump has frequently complained about Fox’s treatment of him.
He has also taken issue with Fred Ryan, the former publisher of The Washington Post, being the chairman of the Board of Trustees at the Reagan library.
There is also Trump’s refusal to sign off on a Republican National Committee pledge to support the party’s eventual nominee potentially standing in the way of his debate attendance. Trump has said he doesn’t want to sign the pledge because he wouldn’t back certain rivals, but the party has said candidates must sign the pledge to participate in the debates.
There are some Trump allies who believe the former president remains unlikely to appear on a debate stage with other GOP rivals.
“I don’t think Donald wants to do the debates,” said Sam Nunberg, an adviser on Trump’s 2016 campaign. “I don’t think he wants to be on the stage with DeSantis or [Chris] Christie or stand there for two hours while other people talk. His view is that he still thinks he’s president. He feels there should be no primary.”
Still, there remain skeptics that Trump can go the entirety of the Republican primary calendar without debating.
Some strategists and commentators have already floated the idea that Trump is giving President Biden a potential excuse to avoid general election debates, while others believe a more consolidated field of rivals will only add pressure on the former president to participate and defend himself in person.
“I don’t think Trump can go all the way to the Republican convention without stepping foot on a debate stage,” Conant said. “As we get closer to the caucuses, the candidates, the field will consolidate. You’ll see somebody start making moves in Iowa, which will generate media interest and have a snowball effect. He’s going to need to reinsert himself directly into the race to maintain his lead. He’s going to debate at some point, whether it’s in September or not.”