Seemingly inconspicuous moments during a presidential debate have the potential to escalate and become pivotal factors in determining victory or defeat. President George H.W.
Bush’s decision to glance at his wristwatch on camera during a 1992 debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot did him no favors. Similarly, President Gerald R. Ford’s infamous misstatement about the Soviet Union’s control over Eastern Europe in 1976 might not have swayed voters towards Jimmy Carter, but it certainly didn’t aid Ford’s cause.
Former President Donald Trump’s recent choice to skip the presidential debate in Milwaukee could mark one of those critical moments that shape his prospects in the primaries and beyond.
On Friday, Trump revealed his intention to forgo the debates and instead engage in a one-on-one interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who will broadcast it through the X platform.
Since Carlson’s transition to the social media platform that was formerly known as Twitter in early June, he has consistently outperformed cable news in terms of viewership.
This suggests a shrewd move by Trump, as he can express his views in a congenial environment, although there are reports suggesting that Carlson has a strong aversion to the former president.
Furthermore, Trump avoids direct confrontations with his GOP rivals through this decision. However, this strategic move could also backfire dramatically for the former president. While Trump aims to divert attention away from the debate, the risk remains that this tactic might not yield the desired outcome.
As pointed out by Steven Shepard of Politico.com, Trump’s intent is to deprive his competitors of visibility, but this plan may not succeed as anticipated. In the modern landscape of nationalized presidential primaries, debates hold significant sway in the lead-up to the early states.
Candidates like Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Ben Carson, and Pete Buttigieg have witnessed surges in their poll numbers following strong debate performances. Conversely, figures like Fred Thompson, Rick Perry, and Beto O’Rourke serve as cautionary tales of candidates who faltered on stage, leading to their campaigns crumbling even before the voting began.
Although Trump might not stumble during the debate, he’ll likely be deprived of the opportunity to land a decisive blow against his rivals. Moreover, without the chance to counter, his fellow GOP contenders can direct criticisms toward him.
“The debates will continue to attract larger audiences than any other candidate activity over the next six months,” Shepard emphasized, underscoring the potential for a candidate to rise from relative obscurity due to strong debate showings.
The blows are already coming at Trump from various angles. Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie labeled Trump a “coward” for abstaining from the debate. While this might not sway Trump’s unwavering base, who remain loyal regardless, such name-calling can stick in the Trump era.
In the current climate, “coward” could carry even more weight than “loser” for Trump. Christie expressed his viewpoint on X, stating, “Surprise, surprise… the guy who is out on bail from four jurisdictions and can’t defend his reprehensible conduct, is running scared and hiding from the debate stage. Trump—certified loser, verified coward.”
While Trump will undoubtedly offer his perspective on the primary participants and enjoy the support of his base, undecided voters now have a chance to consider alternative options in the initial GOP debate.