Five Questions Leading Up to the First GOP Primary Debate of the 2024 Election Cycle

A former supporter of President Donald Trump observes preparations near the Fiserv Forum on Tuesday, as the stage is set for Wednesday's Republican presidential debate in Milwaukee

Let’s address the obvious right away: Former President Donald Trump, the clear frontrunner for the GOP nomination, won’t be present at the Republican Party’s inaugural presidential primary debate in Milwaukee on Wednesday night.

Why, you ask? He’s chosen not to commit to endorsing the eventual nominee, underscoring his view that today’s Republican Party primarily revolves around him. It’s a paradoxical decision on Trump’s part, as the pledge was originally designed to secure support for his potential candidacy, ensuring that other contenders would unify behind another Trump campaign and avoid any internal party divisions.

The sponsorship of this debate by the Republican National Committee (RNC), a group that Trump has surrounded with ardent supporters, only heightens the irony. However, Trump is choosing counterprogramming by planning an interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson to air concurrently with the debate, a move reminiscent of his past behaviour.

Drama abounds in this situation, raising several important questions. Five of the most urgent ones are listed below:

1.Which garners greater focus: the debate itself or Trump’s alternative programming?

Trump’s decision to sit down for an interview with Carlson serves a dual purpose – it’s a swipe at both the RNC and Fox News, the primary media host for the debate.

Despite being a former president, Trump has positioned himself as a perpetual outsider. Fox News, once a staunch supporter during his presidency, has had a fluctuating stance towards him. Following the events of January 6th, Fox shifted its attention to boost Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, but DeSantis’ campaign lost momentum, leaving Fox in a predicament. The conservative audience still holds a strong affinity for Trump, creating a dilemma for the conservative media outlet.

Recognizing his leverage, Trump doesn’t shy away from rattling the establishment. It aligns with his “outsider” image, and he thrives on generating chaos to draw attention to himself. This tactic harkens back to 2016 when he skipped a Fox debate because of then-host Megyn Kelly’s prior line of questioning. Instead, Trump organized a questionable televised veterans’ “fundraiser,” resulting in a later $2 million penalty for the now-defunct Trump Foundation for fund misuse. That move successfully stole the spotlight back then. Will history repeat itself now?

2.To what extent do the candidates on the debate stage direct their attention toward Trump?

Tim Scott, Ron DeSantis, Asa Hutchinson, Nikki Haley, Vivek Ramaswamy, Doug Burgum, Chris Christie, Mike Pence (Images: Jacquelyn Martin/AP; Octavio Jones/Getty Images; Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg; Mark Makela/Getty Images; Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images; Dan Keock/Reuters; Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images; Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

One significant aspect to observe is how the candidates choose to prioritize their focus in the absence of Trump. Will they opt to converge and target him, akin to what trailing candidates traditionally do to a frontrunner in a debate? Or will they exercise restraint?

The likely scenario is that most candidates will attempt to steer clear of Trump as a central topic, with the exception of vocal critics such as former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson. Trump’s name will probably surface, but the manner in which it does so is of interest. Will it be instigated by the Fox News moderators or initiated by the candidates themselves, and how will the audience respond?

It’s essential to remember that, for many of the candidates, this debate serves as their initial opportunity to introduce themselves to a broader GOP audience comprising millions of people. They are keen on avoiding ceding the spotlight to Trump, especially when he’s not present. Moreover, the GOP base generally prefers that the former president not be the central focus. A recent CBS poll revealed that 91% of likely GOP primary voters expressed a desire for the candidates to concentrate on presenting their own cases rather than targeting Trump.

Furthermore, three-quarters of them cited the need to demonstrate support for the former president during his legal challenges as a motivation to vote for him, believing that the indictments are politically motivated. In another poll by the Des Moines Register/NBC News/Mediacom, two-thirds of likely Iowa GOP primary voters expressed a favorable opinion of Trump.

The depth of loyalty to Trump within the Republican base is quite remarkable. In fact, Republicans in the CBS poll indicated that they trust him to tell them the truth more than they trust their own friends and family.

3.What Will Be the Candidates’ Primary Focus?

Possibly, this sentiment among GOP voters is why a leaked memo from a super PAC supporting DeSantis advised him to both champion the former president and target an unexpected figure—former tech CEO Vivek Ramaswamy.

Ramaswamy, at 37, has been gaining ground in recent polls. However, for DeSantis and the other candidates, the path to securing the nomination typically goes through Trump, not a candidate who’s unlikely to become the nominee. Consequently, the focus in this debate could be somewhat muddled.

On the subject of issues, the economy and inflation continue to rank as the top concerns for potential GOP voters. The question remains: Will these candidates present substantive proposals, rather than solely criticizing President Biden, proposing additional tax cuts, or expressing a desire to replace the current Federal Reserve Chairman, Jerome Powell—a name unfamiliar to most Americans? This scenario evokes memories of debates in 2012 and 2016 when candidates opposed the Affordable Care Act (commonly known as Obamacare) but failed to provide feasible alternatives.

Likewise, expect potential divisions on certain issues that could split the stage, such as Ukraine. On one side, figures like former Vice President Mike Pence, former Trump U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, and South Carolina Senator Tim Scott align with the traditional GOP stance, favoring Ukraine and opposing Russia. In contrast, DeSantis and Ramaswamy echo Trump’s position, straddling a line and asserting that it’s not a war that represents a vital U.S. interest.

Anticipate a substantial focus on culture-war issues, as they tend to energize and unify the GOP base. Themes like crime, immigration, and gender identity are likely to feature prominently, as they currently serve as the adhesive holding the party base together. However, one social issue that the candidates haven’t yet forged a cohesive message on is abortion, unlike Democrats, who have largely maintained a united stance since Roe v. Wade was overturned.

4.Why Does the Debate Venue Matter?

This debate is happening in Wisconsin, which isn’t an early nominating state but has been closely contested in recent presidential elections. It has leaned towards Democrats, yet it’s precisely the kind of place Republicans must win if they aim to reverse their trend of losing seven out of the last eight popular votes in presidential elections—and more crucially, winning the Electoral College.

So, what will the candidates’ key messages be in a state like this? Focusing solely on extreme, far-right social issues won’t prove advantageous in a general election. This debate serves as their first opportunity to address a national audience and demonstrate not only their individual seriousness but also the party’s overall commitment. Nevertheless, it’s essential to remember that a candidate must secure a primary victory before advancing to the general election, so the primary audience for these candidates remains GOP primary voters.

5.Is It Possible for Any Candidate to Shine Beyond Trump’s Influence?

Former President Donald Trump Takes the Stage at Turning Point Action Conference on July 15th in West Palm Beach, Florida

In essence, the GOP primary has revolved around Trump—his actions, legal troubles, and the issues he chooses to spotlight.

The questions remain: Can Scott, who’s investing millions in Iowa ads, use his personal story to connect with the audience and present a positive contrast with Trump without dwelling on him?

Can Haley, the sole woman on stage, emphasize her claim, echoed in the lead-up to the debate, that she’s the Democrat’s most formidable adversary—and can she make the audience believe it?

Can Ramaswamy maintain his upward trajectory and convince Republicans that he’s not merely a disruptor but a credible presidential contender?

Can DeSantis regain the spotlight and project the image that Republican voters initially envisioned before he officially entered the race? Trump’s pervasive influence has cast a shadow over the party ever since he burst onto the political scene eight years ago. He has wielded a nearly hypnotic grip over the party during this time, including throughout this GOP primary. In theory, this debate presents an opportunity for one of these candidates to emerge without Trump completely dominating the narrative.

However, that’s contingent on their ability to capitalize, and thus far, no one has managed to do so. Furthermore, whatever momentum the “winner” of the debate may gain is likely to be overshadowed yet again, as Trump is expected to make headlines once more when he appears in Georgia on Thursday to address the legal case against him regarding the 2020 election results.

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