The Republican National Convention’s second primary debate will be held tomorrow in Simi Valley, California. But with former President Donald Trump skipping the debate – while maintaining a massive lead on the rest of the field – the night’s biggest question is likely to be existential: does the debate even matter?
Short answer: kind of.
Does the debate matter?
Seven candidates qualified for the second debate. Doug Burgum, Chris Christie, Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, Mike Pence, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Tim Scott. Can any of the candidates compete with Trump? Probably not. Trump is so far ahead of the rest of the GOP field, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which he does not secure the nomination. The fact that the rest of the field has resisted consolidation further enhances Trump’s viability in that the GOP isn’t even settled on a Trump-alternative. Instead, the prospective alternatives are bickering amongst themselves about abortion and Ukraine and Vivek Ramaswamy’s relative experience – all while Trump sits above the fray.
Speaking of ‘above the fray,’ Trump will be skipping the second GOP debate, sending a simple and stark message: primary debates are beneath him. I don’t blame Trump. Mixing it up on hypotheticals, with aspirants to a job Trump once had, doesn’t make much sense for the former commander-in-chief. Especially given Trump’s commanding lead. And as we saw during the first debate last August, Trump can skip the debate, and still manage to be central to the debate. For example, during the last debate, the moderators effectively drew a line in the sand, asking debaters whether they would support Trump were he nominated. How the debaters answered became one of the debate’s primary takeaways – and perhaps the GOP’s most obvious litmus test.
So, assuming Trump has the GOP nomination locked, what does the GOP debate matter?
Playing the long game
Typically the debate is perceived as a tool for presidential campaigns to gain traction and win a primary, or win a general election. But with the GOP nomination so likely to go to Trump for the third consecutive time, the also-rans aren’t entering the debate stage with hopes of winning the nomination. But the end goal is roughly equivalent: self-advancement. What that means depends on the person. Maybe some are vying for the vice presidency. Others may be angling towards a spot in a Trump cabinet. Others are likely thinking further down the road, to 2028 and beyond, when the GOP will finally be clear of a term-eligible Donald Trump. Others are simply working to improve their name brand recognition. Take Vivek Ramaswamy. Few people knew who Vivek was before the first debate. Now he’s a name brand entity in conservative politics.
So, the second debate does matter. Just not in an immediate who-is-going-to-win-the-nomination sense.
Gauging where GOP is at
The debate will also have value with respect to gauging where GOP elected officials stand – which is at least partially a manifestation of where the officials believe their constituents stand. So, debate performance can be construed as a gauge of where the broader population stands with respect to today’s hottest issues.
But while the candidate slug it out on stage, staking out territory with respect to abortion et cetera, Trump has the advantage of sitting back, and seeing how things unfold, without having to commit in real-time to a position.
Harrison Kass is the Senior Editor and opinion writer at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, Harrison joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison holds a BA from Lake Forest College, a JD from the University of Oregon, and an MA from New York University. Harrison listens to Dokken.
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