January 27, 2016
I had something else set to post this morning, but then Trump happened. What were the odds Rand Paul would make it to the main stage, but Donald Trump wouldn’t? By the time you read this, events may have changed, but as of now, The Donald is ducking out on the Fox News Republican Debate for Thursday night.
If I understand the chain of events correctly, Trump began by complaining about the inclusion of Megyn Kelly as one of the debate moderators. She’s held a top position on his shit list since her question about how he treats women in the first debate.
Though he made noise about getting her removed, that was never going to happen. ABC dropped the New Hampshire Union Leader as a debate partner after Trump got into a fight with the publisher. The RNC dropped the National Review as a debate partner for CNN after their new anti-Trump issue.
Kelly is the most valuable on-air personality at Fox News. Bill O’Reilly is still very popular, Sean Hannity has a strong audience, but Kelly is the person Fox News boss Roger Ailes does not want to lose. He’s known for backing his talent, and backing down wouldn’t look good anyway.
So Kelly wasn’t going anywhere. Apparently, Trump was going to participate anyway, though not before polling his Twitter followers, until Fox released a press item satirizing him:
We learned from a secret back channel that the Ayatollah and Putin both intend to treat Donald Trump unfairly when they meet with him if he becomes president — a nefarious source tells us that Trump has his own secret plan to replace the Cabinet with his Twitter followers to see if he should even go to those meetings.
Well that did it. He’s out. For now, the plan is to do a competing event, with coverage on another network, with proceeds going to veterans and wounded warriors. For the past couple months, Trump has attempted to get debate hosts to make a donation with some of the extra ad revenue he’s pulling in for them through high debate ratings.
He’d previously threatened to boycott a CNN debate if they didn’t make a multi-million dollar donation, but backed down and showed up. This one seems quite a bit more serious. Can the leading candidate get away with ditching a debate in Iowa a couple days ahead of the Iowa caucus?
If it’s Trump, yes. He can get away with this. But why is he doing this? Part of it was not wanting to stand for being tweaked by Ailes. That’s not the only or leading reason though. What seems like an unhinged Trump is usually mostly just strategy. In this case, I think it’s the following:
He doesn’t need more Iowa voters, he needs his voters to caucus
Many commentators have mentioned the danger of Trump opting out with some Iowans still making their final decisions. There are a chunk of voters torn between him and Ted Cruz. But Trump is ahead in the top line poll numbers right now. A higher percentage of Trump voters say they’ve made a firm decision.
The reason many thought the contest was still a toss-up was Ted’s superior ground game and the much higher percentage of his supporters who have caucused before. The last CNN/ORC poll showed Trump with a big lead overall, but only tied among voters who had previously participated.
If you have plenty of supporters, if those supporters are more committed to you than your opponents’ supporters are to them, but yours aren’t used to caucusing, what better way to make sure they turn out than to make sure you’re extra Trumpy.
He’s in the habit of making a weekly scene about one thing or another to control the news cycle and make sure he gets his excess share of media, but as the voting begins, it’s also necessary to keep his troops motivated. Trump has already begun receiving soft support from establishment figures.
If his supporters become proven voters, the trickle will become a flood. Wanting to avoid Cruz, being afraid of missing the train, all sorts of people you’ve heard of will begin saying very nice things.
Trump has another habit that seems to work. He started with a base of no more than 12-15% of the GOP electorate. He alternately builds his base and then locks down the newer arrivals. Builds and consolidates. Over the past couple weeks, he’s taken another step forward in polls. Time to lock them down with a new stunt.
This keeps Cruz guessing and off balance
We still aren’t certain Trump actually won’t show. He says he’s not and really seems like he means it. Fox and Ailes could capitulate. They won’t remove Kelly, but Ailes could apologize for the press release, at which point Trump could say he got what he wanted and show up.
The Donald could declare victory anyway and decide to show up. He could live tweet during the debate instead. Or he could do exactly what he’s saying he will do and hold an alternative event, preferably raising money for veterans and getting coverage from a Fox competitor.
Cruz, who in the absence of Trump would qualify as the leading strategist in the race, needs to prepare for all of the above. He also has to deal with trying to leverage Trump backing out, instead of just concentrating on their contest to win evangelical votes.
Today, Trump got a key evangelical endorsement from Jerry Falwell, Jr., while Cruz benefitted from several Republican women’s pro-life groups giving Trump an anti-endorsement. Now that’s in the background.
Cruz has moved quickly, challenging Trump to a 90 minute debate anywhere in Iowa, anytime before the caucus. The Donald will refuse or just ignore. Cruz will say he’s being chicken. He’s already promoting a new website focusing on him ducking the debate (need to cover all the poultry options).
This is a trap. Trump’s response will be that he will happily debate Cruz as soon as he stops ducking the need to get a court to issue a preliminary ruling on his eligibility to run for president. Clear the Canada thing and I’ll debate you.
Assuming Trump doesn’t show for the main event, it deprives Cruz of the opportunity to keep separation from Marco Rubio and the others by dealing with Trump as an equal and threat to beat him in Iowa. The candidates may well bash him in absentia, but Ted will be just one of many voices. Chris Christie will have a few salvos ready.
It worked for Rand Paul
Few are paying attention to him, but there is very recent precedent. Rand Paul bailed on the last debate when he didn’t qualify for the main event. He signaled ahead of time that he would not participate in the undercard. As it happened, there was a poll taken before the deadline, but not released before the deadline that would have qualified him.
Fox Business followed their posted rules, Paul missed the big stage, Paul bailed on the event. People talked about it for three minutes and life went on. However, Paul’s potential voters apparently approved. This time, he qualified for the main event, his position in Iowa having improved over the past two weeks.
It’s not a huge jump. On average, each poll has him up about 1 point from their last pre-debate poll, but it’s still a step forward. It definitely didn’t seem to hurt. Trump doesn’t need more progress, he just needs to get his supporters to the polls. Small sample size, but so far, this strategy is one for one.
He did well in the last debate and they help him less than anyone else
If Trump was ever going to skip a debate, this is the one. He did well in the last one. Many non-partisans thought he won it. While you’ll hear Trump repeat over and over how he won all the post-debate polls after all of the previous debates, those are participant-driven internet polls.
It does prove he has plenty of motivated supporters, but doesn’t scientifically measure who won. His first few performances were uneven at best for anybody not already in the tank for him. But he’s improved noticeably. You can’t make a case that he’s avoiding a format he struggles with anymore.
This still doesn’t mean debates favor him. For any other candidate, it’s extra exposure and a chance to wind up on relatively even footing with the polling leader. For Trump, it’s a bother. He gets all the media he wants, whenever he wants, however he wants.
We’ll hear more from him over the next few days than any of the debaters. Most of the people who least approve of his decision wouldn’t have voted for him anyway.
Because he can
This might be the best reason. None of the other candidates could have even considered this move. It reminds his supporters that Trump can do things nobody else can do just because he’s Trump.
When you’re arguing that you can make China and Japan do things that normal politicians can’t. When you say Mexico will pay for your wall. When you claim the ability to reverse 40+ years of manufacturing jobs drifting overseas and across the border, once in a while you need to prove you have superhuman powers.
We’ll see how this plays out. If he wins, people may credit this gambit with pushing him over the finish line. If he doesn’t, this will get the blame. It may turn out it didn’t really matter.
The only certainty is more chaos between now and caucus day. Once that’s over, Trump will think of some other unfathomable play in the run up to New Hampshire. If The Donald becomes The President, at least we’ll have had some time to prepare.