Trump Skipped All Of The GOP Primary Debates This Year. Has It Mattered?

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Mary Lou Masters Contributor
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Despite former President Donald Trump skipping all of the Republican primary debates this year, he still remains the dominant frontrunner for the party’s nomination just a month ahead of the first ballots being cast.

Trump held counter-programming events during the first three debates in August, September and November, while attending a fundraiser on Wednesday instead of taking the stage in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, for what is the last scheduled debate the Republican National Committee (RNC) has in 2023. With his support growing after each debate, the former president’s absence from the stage posed no real threat to his election efforts, as he now enjoys a near 50-point lead in the primary.

“When you do analysis on this, I think you have to do it through the lens of, you have to sort of suspend the main statistic, which is Trump is leading this primary by 45 points nationally, and so it’s like, you want to describe them all as having a chance, but you have to acknowledge that he is, at the outset, very, very, very far ahead,” Scott Jennings, a GOP strategist and veteran of numerous campaigns, told the Daily Caller News Foundation. “And anybody sitting at 60% right now at this point in the process, it would be unprecedented for them to not win the nomination.”

Several national and key early nominating state GOP strategists stressed to the DCNF that Trump’s decision to skip the debates was a good move.

“Looking at these four debates, the person who’s been helped the most, of course, is Donald Trump,” Mark Weaver, a veteran Republican strategist, told the DCNF. “He won every debate, because his numbers only improved, as that’s the ultimate quantitative measure of how a candidate does in a debate, is whether his or her numbers go up or down. So Trump’s numbers have either stayed steady or gone up. So that makes him the winner of all the debates.”

The RealClearPolitics (RCP) average for a 2024 national Republican primary, based on polls conducted between Nov. 9 and Dec. 4, indicates Trump has a 48-point lead over the field. Trump is also ahead by double digits in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, according to the RCP average.

Prior to the first debate in late August, Trump was averaging in the low-to-mid 50 points nationally, according to the RCP. The former president has since grown his support to 61%, with the gap between him and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis the largest that it has been all cycle.

Additionally, Trump has been leading President Joe Biden in the RCP average since mid-September, and is currently up by 2.1 points. (RELATED: Just How Good Are The Polls For Donald Trump?)

“The president made the right decision not to attend. He would’ve been a punching bag for everybody,” Dave Carney, a veteran Republican strategist based out of New Hampshire, told the DCNF. “There weren’t more votes for him to get out of the debate, but certainly he could’ve lost some votes. So, he made the right strategic decision for the campaign.”

Mike McKenna, a Republican strategist who worked under the Trump administration, echoed Carney’s sentiment, and argued it was a “smart move in retrospect” that the former president decided to opt out of the debates.

“When stuff becomes a food fight, when it’s reduced to mud wrestling, the right answer is the only way to stay clean is to not participate. And I think that’s why Trump has expanded his lead over the course of these four debates,” said McKenna. “In my mind, that’s the biggest message of this thing, is that because they’ve devolved into food fights, they are now not only pointless to candidates, they’re dangerous for candidates. And I think a descent campaign manager probably got to figure that out inside of 10 seconds now.”(RELATED:’I Don’t Think He Makes It’: Trump Predicts Biden Will Not Be Dems’ Nominee In 2025)

(From L) Former Governor of New Jersey Chris Christie, former Governor from South Carolina and UN ambassador Nikki Haley, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy participate in the fourth Republican presidential primary debate at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on December 6, 2023. (JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

Conversely, David Kochel, a Republican consultant based in Iowa, doesn’t believe Trump’s absence from the debate necessarily helped his campaign, but argued other factors have simultaneously contributed to his increased lead in the race.

“Trump has gotten stronger because the base perceives him as being under attack by the Biden Justice Department and his political opponents,” said Kochel.

Some strategists argued that the debates merely served the purpose of narrowing the field rather than helping individual candidates gain traction in the polls, aside from former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who has gained momentum since the debates began.

The Republican primary field stood at 13 candidates prior to the first debate in August. Since then, former Vice President Mike Pence, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, former Texas Rep. Will Hurd, conservative radio personality Larry Elder, Michigan Businessman Perry Johnson and Miami Mayor Francis Suarez have dropped out of the race.

“[Trump’s] lack of attendance gave them all sort of the feel of being more of a JV exercise,” Jennings said of the debate participants. “When you take the main front runner out of the mix, it’s like, what are we doing here? And trying to evaluate whether somebody is capable of taking on Trump without him there? … It made [the debates] smaller, you know, it made them feel less useful or vital.”

Several of Trump’s Republican challengers have called on the former president to join them on stage, with DeSantis and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie frequently calling him out for it during the debates.

“Donald Trump is missing in action. He should be on this stage tonight. He owes it to you to defend his record where they added $7.8 trillion to the debt,” DeSantis said during the second GOP debate in late September.

Before the debates began in August, Haley was averaging around 3% support nationally, and was in fourth place behind Trump, DeSantis and conservative businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, according to the RCP. The former ambassador now sits in third with 10.3%, roughly 3 points behind DeSantis, and has also seen a boost in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina surveys corresponding with her strong debate performances.

The RNC is reportedly considering withdrawing one of its candidate pledges this week that bars the 2024 hopefuls from participating in other, non-sanctioned debates. CNN announced on Thursday that it would be holding two Republican primary debates before both the Iowa caucus on Jan. 15 and the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 23.

Trump’s campaign did not immediately respond to the Daily Caller News Foundation’s request for comment.

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