11 min read

Four debate moments I’ll be watching for

A look at what to expect from tonight’s GOP showdown — informed by primary debates throughout history.
Four debate moments I’ll be watching for
(Photo by Nathan Brand / Scott campaign)

Good morning! It’s Wednesday, August 23, 2023. The 2024 elections are 440 days away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

Tonight’s the night. Eight Republican presidential candidates — but not the frontrunner — will face off for the first primary debate of the 2024 cycle tonight at 9 p.m. Eastern Time.

To prepare for the big event, in today’s newsletter, I want to lay out what to expect from tonight’s debate. And to do that, I’ll be dipping into the primary debate archives — with video clips! — and looking at moments from past debates that might inform the action tonight.

Here are a few debate archetypes to watch out for in Milwaukee:

The No-Show

Let’s start with the elephant who won’t be in the room. Donald Trump, who commands around 60% support in most primary polls, will not be participating in tonight’s showdown. Trump’s absence is the latest twist in his on-again, off-again relationship with Fox News (to add insult to injury, Trump’s debate counterprogramming will consist of uploading an online interview with Tucker Carlson, the former Fox star).

It’s also a strategic calculation: as a frontrunner with one of the largest polling leads in modern presidential primary history, Trump can really only lose by standing on a debate stage with the rest of the field, giving them a chance to take him down a peg. I don’t need this, Trump is saying to his rivals, you do.

That calculation has actually been more common than you might think in previous primaries. Mitt Romney skipped the first debate of the 2012 cycle. George W. Bush skipped the first three debates in 2000. Bob Dole skipped the first debate in 1996, and Ronald Reagan didn’t show up for the last debate before the 1980 Iowa caucuses. And, of course, Trump himself opted against attending the pre-Iowa debate — also hosted by Fox News — in 2016.

All of those candidates were frontrunners who made the same gamble Trump is making now. “I regret I can’t be there to get beat up on,” Dole joked in 1996. In the end, the decision to skip an early debate or two clearly worked out long-term for those contenders: they all went on to win their party nominations. But many of them still paid a price for their absences, facing short-term consequences (such as a polling dip for Bush or Reagan and Trump both losing Iowa) that pressured them to eventually start showing up on the debate stage.

Most famously, after his Iowa loss to George H.W. Bush, Reagan was so desperate to debate his rivals that he paid for the next debate, in New Hampshire, himself. That desperation led to one of the best-remembered moments in primary debate history. Reagan, who was underwriting the debate, and the New Hampshire Telegraph, which was sponsoring it, disagreed on who should have been invited to the event, leading the Telegraph to try and shut off Reagan’s microphone. “I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green!” Reagan responded, to thunderous applause. (The Telegraph moderator’s name was John Breen, but the mistake hardly mattered.)

That moment, seen above, is a reminder of the risks frontrunners can run by skipping primary debates. Even if the decision has usually not derailed their path to the nomination, the frontrunner might eventually find themselves so in need of some debate momentum that it sparks an outburst like Reagan’s. “We needed the debate” before New Hampshire, Reagan’s 1980 chairman in the state recalled later.

Trump wrote last week that he will “NOT BE DOING THE DEBATES” (plural), although NBC News has reported that he was only referring to the first two debates, leaving him some room to attend later on if things begin to go south. (The next debate is on September 27, hosted by Fox Business.)

Even in absentia, Trump is expected to loom over the debate stage tonight, just like previous frontrunners have in debates they skipped. “He’s gonna be a significant part of any debate, even if he’s not on stage,” Baier, one of the moderators, told the Wall Street Journal. Several questions will likely be asked about Trump, his policy stances, his indictments, his behavior on January 6th, and other matters. Per the New York Times, the Fox team is even “considering integrating video” of Trump into their questions, ensuring that the former president’s voice will be on stage even if he isn’t present physically.

The Pile-On

The last time Trump decided to skip a primary debate, in Iowa in 2016, it ensured that the attacks flowed instead to his closest competitor, Ted Cruz. Without Trump there, all of the candidates took turns roughing up Cruz — in his telling, egged on by the moderators. “I would note that that the last four questions have been, ‘Rand, please attack Ted. Marco, please attack Ted. Chris, please attack Ted. Jeb, please attack Ted,’” Cruz complained that night.

Trump couldn’t have been unhappy with that result, which left Cruz temporarily beleaguered — although the Texas senator still went on to win Iowa a few days later. (I was there for that debate, and I shared an elevator in Iowa with a defeated-looking Cruz the next morning. He mustered a smile and some small talk, but couldn’t have been cheered by the sight of the Des Moines Register in my hand, bannered with a painful headline: “ROUGH NIGHT FOR CRUZ.”)

A similar dynamic is likely to play out tonight. Without the frontrunner present, the two candidates standing at center stage — Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy — are expected to shoulder the brunt of the attacks from the rest of the field.

How they respond will mark a key test for both contenders. If DeSantis deftly fends off the onslaught, he could breathe much-needed oxygen into his flagging candidacy. If he performs poorly under the pressure, it would deprive him of one of his best chances to gain momentum and reverse the narrative that his campaign is failing.

Ramaswamy, too, has a lot on the line. Several candidates have telegraphed plans to attack the political novice, which will either blunt his recent surge of momentum or only serve to fuel it. His repeated flip-flops, unorthodox foreign policy approach, and occasional conspiracy theorizing (including recently being caught in a lie about comments on 9/11) make him an especially juicy target for his rivals.

Such a pile-on would be part of a time-honored tradition of candidates ganging up on a mutual enemy on stage — think 2004 Democrats vs. Howard Dean or 2020 Democrats vs. Michael Bloomberg (seen below).  

Sometimes a candidate emerges stronger from a pile-on, like Pete Buttigieg winning Iowa after a 2020 debate in which he was pummeled from all sides. Sometimes, like Dean and Bloomberg, a pile-on can prove disastrous. We’ll see which path DeSantis and Ramaswamy follow tonight.

The Takedown

This common debate move is a cousin of The Pile-On, but it’s when one candidate goes after another particularly fiercely, creating a memorable moment that threatens to tank the target’s campaign.

Clearly, several candidates were dreaming about taking down Trump at tonight’s debate. The opportunity to tangle with Trump on stage was practically the entire reason Chris Christie joined the presidential race. (“If Chris Christie Debates Without Donald Trump, Does He Make a Sound?” the Times asked this week.)

Asa Hutchinson, the next-most-anti-Trump candidate, was also plainly hoping to skewer the former president on live TV, and Mike Pence’s team has been hyping up a showdown between the former running mates for weeks.  

There are many iconic debate takedowns throughout history, but one that’s on my mind today is Christie tearing apart Marco Rubio on stage in 2016 (seen below).

Even with Trump absent, Christie will likely try something similar tonight — with DeSantis as his expected target. His line of attack against DeSantis might even echo his takedown against Rubio, which focused on the Floridian being too canned and inauthentic.

DeSantis has left himself open to such attacks, not just because of his awkward interactions on the campaign trail, but also because of the debate advice memo his allied super PAC posted online for all to see. (Super PACs cannot legally coordinate with campaigns, often leading to info dumps in the public eye like this one. That is one of the dangers of effectively outsourcing your campaign management to a super PAC, as DeSantis has done.)

Now, if DeSantis follows the super PAC’s advice, he’ll be vulnerable — just like Rubio — to attacks that his campaign persona is too obviously scripted by outside operatives. In addition to the Christie-DeSantis attempted takedown, if the super PAC memo is to be believed, you should also expect DeSantis to try for a Ramaswamy takedown tonight.

“Take a sledge-hammer to Vivek Ramaswamy,” the super PAC advised, even suggesting nicknames the Florida governor could deploy against the millennial entrepreneur: “Fake Vivek” or “Vivek the Fake.” (If DeSantis even tiptoes in that direction now, charges of inauthenticity will surely follow.)

There is a long history of debate takedowns being aimed at the wrong candidate. In the end, Rubio wasn’t Christie’s real threat; it was the reality TV host standing center-stage. When Elizabeth Warren engineered her famous takedown against Bloomberg in 2020, perhaps she should have focused her energies on a different moderate septuagenarian, the former vice president. (Also, takers-down often sputter themselves, creating something of an electoral murder-suicide. After all, neither Christie nor Warren went very far even after destroying a rival candidacy.)

Tonight, several candidates will likely try to take down DeSantis, who will, in turn, try to take down Ramaswamy. It will probably only make the debate look like a bunch of also-runs squabbling amongst themselves, having the effect of making them all look small while Trump towers above the field.

Even as they try to take each other out, it’s unlikely that any major candidates will go after Trump. “Defend Donald Trump in absentia in response to a Chris Christie attack,” the DeSantis super PAC suggested. It’s fairly remarkable that a candidate’s advisers would recommend defending their biggest rival — although it isn’t necessarily bad advice in this case, since Trump is so popular among GOP voters.

Still, before anyone on stage tonight can become the nominee, they’ll have to find some way to (carefully) dethrone Donald Trump, and sending daggers at each other — which is likely what we’ll see tonight — ultimately doesn’t do much to achieve that goal. (Unless, that is, your real goal is to stay in Trump’s good graces, end the race as the runner-up, and then be tapped as his VP. There’s a reason Trump’s super PAC created a website promoting tonight’s event as the “2024 Vice Presidential Debate.”)

The Breakout

Finally, we’ve arrived at what everyone on stage tonight is hoping for: a breakout moment.

Particularly strong debate nights have often allowed underdog primary candidates to unexpectedly jump to the lead of the pack, like Herman Cain in 2012 or Ben Carson in 2016.

At another 2016 debate (seen below), Carly Fiorina was considered the breakout star — allowing her to triple her support in just a few days, leaping to third place.

But breakout moments are almost always fleeting. Cain, Carson, and Fiorina quickly came back down to earth. Similarly, Kamala Harris doubled her support after a breakout performance in the first Democratic debate in 2020 (seen below). A month later, she was back down to where she started; as we know, she never recovered and eventually dropped out.

Everyone wants a breakout, but often the best model is not coming in hot at one debate but a slow boil over time. Buttigieg in 2020 broke out at a CNN town hall, which he then followed up with several impressive debate performances, remaining constantly strong each time instead of candidates like Carson who ran hot some nights and barely spoke on others.

Not all at once, but slowly, he accumulated support that way — enough to win Iowa but still not enough to displace that year’s frontrunner. (A breakout moment this year could be even more quickly blunted by the fact that Trump is set to surrender to authorities in Georgia tomorrow, ensuring that coverage of the debate will be quickly overshadowed.)

This year’s field is striking in that there are two candidates who combine for about 80% support (and, really, only one of them is doing the heavy lifting to get that number) — and the rest are scrambling for scraps.

Everyone in that bottom tier will be looking for a breakout moment tonight — or, better yet, the first in a string of strong debate performances — in order to make the argument that they deserve to stay in the race and that their presence isn’t just splitting up the non-Trump vote. In a race that has been unusually stable thus far, they’ll all be jockeying for some long-awaited movement, and perhaps even a promotion to replace DeSantis as the leading Trump alternative.

Ramaswamy, who has mimicked Buttigieg’s go-everywhere media strategy, will be worth watching for a potential breakout. The fact that he will be standing at center stage with DeSantis tonight, due to his third-place polling status, should be seen as fairly remarkable. Despite being virtually unknown a few months ago — and, alone on stage, never having run for office — he has vaulted ahead of governors, a senator, and a former vice president, and banished them all to the farther edges of the stage. A strong debate tonight — which will likely be his introduction to many voters just beginning to tune into the primary — could solidify that standing and allow him to creep even closer to DeSantis.

But who knows? Maybe Tim Scott’s inspiring personal story will resonate with the GOP electorate. Perhaps Nikki Haley, the only woman on stage tonight, will catch fire. Maybe Doug Burgum, who is only on stage because of a gift card giveaway scheme, will convince Republican voters that a tech billionaire turned governor of North Dakota is the man for the moment.  

Since Trump reliably sucks up so much oxygen, his absence could create more space than usual for one of his rivals to break out from the pack tonight. However, without Trump there to gin things up, the TV audience is expected to be smaller, meaning fewer voters will be watching if someone does manage to have a good night.

But, still, even in a field as seemingly calcified as this one, it’s always possible for someone unexpected to break out on the debate stage – although history tells us that it’s hard to make such moments last.

Debate viewer’s guide

The podium order for tonight’s debate. (Photo by Fox News)

In case you need one last refresher, here are the candidates who will be participating tonight. These eight contenders qualified by meeting specified polling and fundraising thresholds, as well as by signing a pledge promising to support the eventual 2024 Republican nominee:

  1. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis
  2. Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy
  3. Former Vice President Mike Pence
  4. Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley
  5. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie
  6. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott
  7. Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson
  8. North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum

The moderators will be Fox News anchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum.

Candidates will have 60 seconds to answer questions and 30 seconds to respond to follow-ups. There will be 45-second closing statements but no opening statements.

The debate will start at 9 p.m. ET and last two hours. It will air on Fox News and Fox Business Network, and also be livestreamed on Rumble and the Fox website.

After the debate, candidates and their surrogates will go to the “spin room” to hype up their performances. Trump had been planning to send Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and other supporters to the spin room in his stead, but Fox News kiboshed the plans, saying that if Trump wasn’t coming to the debates, no one could come to spin for him.

More news to know.

Mar-a-Lago IT Director Flipped on Trump After Switching Lawyers, Prosecutors Say / WSJ

House Speaker Says Republicans Could Launch Biden Impeachment Inquiry As Soon As September / The Messenger

D.C. Attorney General is probing Leonard Leo’s network / Politico

The day ahead.

White House: President Biden and Vice President Harris have nothing on their public schedules.

Congress: Both chambers of Congress are on recess.

Campaign trail: The first GOP debate will air at 9 p.m. Eastern Time.

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