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Winning Debates In Absentia

How Donald Trump effortlessly confirmed his front-runner status

Source: Dall-E

Donald Trump, the clear favorite for the Republican nomination in the upcoming presidential election, has taken to campaigning with unconventional strategies. Amongst such, skipping the primary debates has left the Grand Old Party (GOP) scrambling for attention. Regardless, the outcome of the Republican primaries seems already decided.

As the 2024 United States presidential election edges closer, the GOP and the Democratic Party have initiated the nomination process for their candidates. While confirming President Joe Biden’s nomination constitutes the Democratic Party’s main task, the GOP instead must start the selection from the very beginning.

In order to obtain their party’s candidacy, politicians face a long and arduous road, consisting of several steps that test a widespread variety of abilities. Candidates must prove their fitness for the presidency countless times throughout the campaign: reaching donation quotas, holding captivating rallies, engaging news appearances, creating convincing platforms, and winning debates. In particular, debates represent a key moment in every politician’s campaign, either boosting the candidate’s popularity or plummeting their poll numbers. Specifically, primary debates constitute an exciting component of a candidate’s public image, positioned at a juncture between the starting blocks of the race and the Iowa caucuses.

Two out of the three Republican primary debates have already occurred. Strangely, former President Donald Trump did not attend either forum. Regardless, the business tycoon won both debates. Now, Donald Trump stands unchallenged as the Republican front-runner, and the nomination only constitutes a formality. Appearing as either calculated tactics or dumb luck, a combination of choices and coincidences produced such an outcome.

Trump’s tactics aptly matched the current context of the GOP. The former President left just the right amount of spotlight for his opponents to reveal their incompetence whilst also manipulating the media’s narrative through his absence. The result: candidates embarrassed themselves and debate viewership decreased, while Tucker Carlson, the ex-Fox News ally, calmly interviewed Trump.

The candidates

Amongst the causes of Trump’s invulnerability is the array of unlikable and uncharismatic competitors. Thus far, candidates have yet to make a favorable impression on Republican constituencies. With the clear favorite absent and a scrambled hierarchy, Fox News broadcasted contenders’ embarrassing gaffes and obnoxious attacks.

Namely, despite an abundance of efforts, candidates failed to penetrate Trump’s armor and ultimately lost the crowd’s and viewers’ favor. Additionally, debate participants damaged each other and themselves throughout the contest. Untouched by the end of the night, the former President rhetorically dominated his opponents while not even present on the debate stage.

During the first two debates, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie led the attack, continually attempting to denigrate the former President’s image. “We’re going to call you Donald Duck”, stated Christie. However, such powerless insults only served to damage his own reputation rather than effectively dismantling Trump’s name.

Throughout the first debate, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis also came out swinging, immediately using his first answer to criticize Trump. "Donald Trump is missing in action. He should be here on this stage tonight. He owes it to you to defend his record," DeSantis said. Nonetheless, the Florida Governor, after losing the attrition war with Donald Trump, has now flatlined at a low percentage in the polls. An unimpressive performance in the debates just confirmed his newly found low-tier status.

On the other hand, candidate Vivek Ramaswamy embraced Trump’s absence and, trying to become the GOP’s next star, mimicked the former President’s debate style with clunky and atypical insults. Moreover, the 38-year-old businessman pledged absolute loyalty to Trump, promising to deliver a presidential pardon if elected. Echoing the former President, Ramaswamy antagonized his opponents within five minutes of the first debate: “Now that everybody got their pre-prepared slogans out of the way, we can actually have a real discussion”. Despite successfully rallying the Trump base, Vivek Ramaswamy struggled with foreign policy and came out inexperienced, ultimately proving too divisive and not charismatic enough to attract the masses.

Former Vice President Mike Pence, Trump’s closest soldier for four years, is now gunning for the highest rank in the White House. Seemingly torn between riding the Trumpian wave and condemning his previous superior, Pence’s campaign has been intriguing to follow. Particularly, Mike Pence faces the difficult task of navigating the discourse surrounding the January 6th Capitol incident. In fact, Vivek Ramaswamy attempted to entrap Pence by drawing out his allegiance to Trump. “Join me in making a commitment that one day you would pardon Donald Trump,” Ramaswamy provoked Pence. The Indiana Republican demonstrated his prowess and experience with a careful response: “(a pardon) usually follows a finding of guilt and contrition by the individual that’s been convicted.” But, finding himself caught between Trump and anti-Trump politics, Mike Pence left GOP voters confused. Coupled with the second-lowest speaking time among all candidates, Pence’s platform remains grounded in the polls.

Other candidates that have failed to distinguish themselves include: North Dakota businessman Doug Burgum, South Carolina senator Tim Scott, former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, and South Carolina diplomat Nikki Haley. After delivering a tepid and dull performance, these contenders left the stage and returned to their hitherto unremarkable platforms. Many candidates’ presidential campaigns seemed over before they began.

Controlling the media

In recent years, Donald Trump has been a headliner for the GOP. Knowing how to control the media and its narrative represents one of the former President’s strongest abilities. Once an entertainer, Republican audiences flock to Trump’s persuasive messaging.

By not participating in the debates and thus limiting their reach, Donald Trump has stripped his rivals of an opportunity to challenge him and expand their platform. Without the strongest candidate present, the Republican primary debates cannot captivate as many viewers.

For instance, from a statistical point of view, viewership for the Republican primary debates has decreased in comparison to the 2016 debates, going from 24 million viewers to roughly 10 million. Now, with an already struggling campaign, candidates also lack an appropriate launch pad. At a time when maximal outreach is paramount to the success of a political campaign, Donald Trump has even managed to reduce his rivals’ scope of action.

Of course, Donald Trump could not stay idle while others berated him. On August 24th, to upstage his competitors on the actual stage, Trump and his team arranged an interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson. Since being fired from Fox News, Carlson has hosted his new show Tucker on X.

During the interview, Trump demonstrated awareness in regards to the strength of his position: “I’m saying, do I sit there for an hour or two hours, whatever it’s going to be, and get harassed by people who shouldn’t even be running for president?” From Trump’s point of view, skipping the debate represents the only rational choice; the alternative consists of participating in an irrelevant debate with irrelevant candidates.

By the end of the first debate, the Tucker-Trump segment on X had amassed more than 80 million views. With an ingenious tactic, Trump garnered greater media attention and discoursed for 45 minutes without any disturbances, much unlike his rivals on the stage. Donald Trump dismantled his opponents’ platform and created his own, displaying decades of media training.

The future interception

Pundits and analysts selected their winner for the night, mostly choosing either Vivek Ramaswamy or Mike Pence. While a candidate may have emerged victorious amongst his peers, Donald Trump has already won the race. The Republican primary debates serve the purpose of increasing participants’ presence within the GOP rather than finding an actual rival to Trump.

Eventually, though, from the Republican primary debates, the strongest candidate will surface and move up in the polls. Rumoring and clamoring will occur around such a contender. Part of the GOP will support the newly found candidate. The Trump loyalists will voice their hostility. Such a candidate will participate in interviews on Fox News, perform rallies in key primary states such as Iowa or Florida, receive Super PAC donations, and appeal to voters in their home state.

And then Donald Trump will dominate an overwhelming majority of the primary caucuses and elections, ultimately becoming, as initially foretold, the GOP frontrunner.


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