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When the Republican National Committee announced their first presidential debate of the 2024 cycle would be in August in Milwaukee, officials dangled the prospect of making it a two-night affair if enough presidential contenders qualified. Now, just over a month later, the prospect of an overly crowded stage is no longer a serious concern. The central party committee is more likely staring down a dud: the frontrunner is threatening to counter-program it, and perhaps a majority of the rest of the field, even some with gold-caliber resumes, may not qualify for a spot on stage under the RNC’s rules.
It is, to be clear, a potential disaster of the party’s own making, one that could further seal its fate as only the nominal enforcers of the Republican brand. Former President Donald Trump’s hostile takeover will be studied for years to come, and the consequences of his talent to vanquish decades of GOP identity is yet to be fully understood.
To be fair, Republicans have tried for years to get a handle on the marathon of debates that exposed fissures in the party, sometimes to an absurd degree, with candidates in 2012 debating Saturday night and right back again on a Sunday morning. A few too many pointed questions prompted the RNC to demand conservative media partners for 2016. Despite that, the events routinely turned the stages into free-for-alls, even in the so-called “undercard” debate with also-rans. More than one insider has darkly joked the debate stage would look like Hollywood Squares by the time the producers were done storyboarding the evenings.
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But the GOP efforts have seldom resulted in the desired discipline or party cohesion. Instead, the party negotiations only served to give more and more power to the Trumpian Id of a party that once accepted if not lionized the likes of the Bush dynasty, former union boss Ronald Reagan, and one-time Planned Parenthood-World Population chairman Ike Eisenhower. Owning the Libs now trumps serious discussion, which makes the upcoming debates all the more ripe for the loudest and least nuanced character. The problem wasn’t the questions; the answers were.
Let’s take a look at what’s leading to so much uncertainty around the Aug. 23 run-of-show one at a time.
The qualifications, on their surface, aren’t unreasonable to expect from credible candidates. For instance, contenders have to have some level of support in polls. To make it easier, candidates can post 1% support in three national polls, or they can combine two national polls with another survey that shows the hopeful at that threshold in two of the four early-nominating states. (On the surface, seven candidates appear to have already cleared this hurdle, although digging into the methodological prescriptions from the RNC reveal that even marquee polls from major news organizations don’t count because their sample sizes of specific slices of the electorate are too small. Unless news orgs roughly double their sample—and cost—the GOP could end up with a shortage of usable polls, as Politico first spotted.)
In addition, candidates need to collect 40,000 separate donors, with clusters of at least 200 in 20 or more states. (So far, five candidates say they have gotten to that donor benchmark.)
And the candidates have to pledge not to join any wildcat debates that aren’t sanctioned by the RNC, to turn over their campaign data to the RNC, and to support the eventual nominee. (It’s not entirely clear how many have seriously committed to this demand just yet, but at least three have, and others have been vaguely amenable, though some have suggested they could only do so because they are sure Trump won’t be the nominee.) In other words, candidates have to be acting like good and viable team players, and not just selling books or building social media footprints.
Yet, in a crowded field that is jockeying to become the leading alternative to Trump’s candidacy, many of the contenders are stuck in a lull, a LOL, or even a tailspin. Trump is undeniably the candidate to beat; that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. But with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis watching his polling fall a full 10 points from his peak in March, and none of the others able to climb into double digits, no one is close to catching up to Trump.
That, of course, leads to skepticism among pragmatic donors who are just looking for the strongest contender to challenge the expected Democratic nominee, President Joe Biden. With the prospect of an unwelcome 2020 rematch, Republicans are open to exploring alternatives to the twice-impeached, twice-indicted Trump. But first they need proof of life. Good money after bad isn’t the style of the deep-pocketed elites in either party. Just look at how quickly Jeb Bush’s money dried up in 2016.
All of this, of course, has sent the GOP into a cyclical pattern heading into the fall. You can’t get on the debate stage without a national network of donors. And it’s tough to get donors if you’re not on that stage. So instead of spending every waking moment getting smarter with policy wonks and hustling between county fairs and town hall meetings in Iowa and New Hampshire, they are working the Rolodex.
Similarly, polling is sometimes just a function of name recognition. And there’s no better way to get headlines—and the bookings on conservative media platforms—than to be ready to say outrageous things. It’s entirely a perverse incentive that may tickle the far-right members of the party but ultimately drags the Republican field further from the middle where most swing voters hang out. This dynamic helped tank Mitt Romney in 2012, made Trump the nominee in 2016, and transformed the RNC into an arm of his MAGA army. Down-ballot, the bad incentives have cost Republicans repeatedly at the ballot box over the seven years since that mythical escalator ride. The loss tally: Trump was the first President to lose majorities in the House and Senate, plus the White House, since 1932.
There’s no place where these dynamics will play out better than the debate stage, especially if the ex-President is on it. For candidates like former Vice President Mike Pence, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, or former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, this may be where the group piles-on Trump and provokes him. After all, Trump has never proven a terribly disciplined person when he feels disrespected, let alone challenged. Remember him bragging about the size of his… ummm… let’s say hands on stage at a debate in Detroit?
This, in part, is also why several of Trump’s advisers are stress-testing assumptions about the utility of even showing up for these made-for-TV events. What does Trump gain by taking incoming barbs from rivals he sees as losers, or at least not true threats?
Trump has already said he would refuse to debate the Democratic nominee next year if the long-standing bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates that has organized such summits since the 1980s. The Republican National Committee soon said its nominee would also do the same.
Trump has also hinted he may skip the primary debates, too. “Why would I let these people take shots at me?” Trump told Fox News, the host network for the first debate now deemed “hostile” by the ex-President.
(Fox personalities, who parroted Trump’s false claims of 2020 election fraud, seemed to have soured on him after a stunning libel suit forced the network into a $787.5 settlement. A well-prepared Fox News interview with the President showed the network won’t take the same stance as in 2016 or 2020. Even so, the network wants Trump, and has dispatched Trump Whisperer Sean Hannity to lobby the ex-President to show up to the debate stage.)
Instead of debating runt rivals, Trump is suggesting he may stage counter-programming of sorts. It’s a threat not to be taken as bluster necessarily. He’s done it before. In early 2016, just before the Iowa caucuses, Trump escalated his feud with Fox and instead put together an event that he claimed was a charity event. He claimed to have raised $6 million, including $1 million out of his pocket; four months later, the cash was not accounted for, he claimed to have never used the figure, and the charity came through only after The Washington Post doggedly followed the money and the candidate faced tough questions. Three years later, that fundraiser was at the heart of a government lawsuit in New York over alleged sketchy uses of money given to charities; Trump shuttered the foundation.
Which brings us to this reality. To put it plainly: the GOP still hasn’t learned that its dancing partner is wearing boots cleated with arsenic. And now they may find themselves hosting the saddest, unintentionally comical presidential debate in decades.
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Write to Philip Elliott at firstname.lastname@example.org