The third Republican debate of the 2024 United States presidential race came and went this week with a whimper.
The New York Times dismissed the event as “the undercard that underwhelmed”. The Washington Post cast it as “a lower-tier competition”. And The New Yorker brushed it aside as “an incredible waste of time for any but the most masochistic of Republican viewers”.
What prompted the withering criticism was the seeming insignificance of a debate without the Republican Party’s heaviest hitter, former President Donald Trump.
Now one year into his 2024 reelection campaign, Trump remains far and away the party frontrunner, trouncing his Republican rivals in seemingly every poll. Confident in his lead, he has skipped every Republican debate so far this election season.
Experts say this creates a novel dynamic: one where Trump is acting more like an incumbent than a candidate trying to unseat a sitting president.
“What’s unusual about this is there’s a former president, not a sitting president, who is dominating the field and skipping debates,” said Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institute and author of the book Primary Politics.
Above the fray
Traditionally, in the US, the incumbent’s party never holds primary debates, even if other candidates from the same party enter the fray.
That is the case with current President Joe Biden. Though he faces Democratic challenges from long-shot candidates like Marianne Williamson and Dean Phillips, he will not have to confront them on the debate stage.
The decision is largely a practical one. Incumbents have name recognition and a track record of success at the ballot box — and public spats within a party could dent the prospect of a repeat victory.
Where primary debates come in handy, however, is in establishing a frontrunner among challengers from the opposing party. But Trump, with his commanding grip on the Republican base, has eschewed mixing in with the rest of the Republican field.
Lynn Vavreck, an American politics professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, indicated that choice was strategic.
“If he were to go to the debates, he would be reinforcing the idea that, in some way, these people are the same as him,” she told Al Jazeera.
A signature tactic
Vavreck pointed out that Trump was relying on some of the same tactics he used when he himself was an incumbent in 2020.
Trump has a long history of undercutting opponents through counter-programming, a technique common in the television industry. It involves drawing viewers away from a given event by offering competing attractions.
A former TV star himself, Trump made heavy use of counter-programming when he was seeking reelection while in office.
At the time, a broad field of Democrats were vying to unseat him, and Trump invested heavily in YouTube ads set to coincide with their first primary debate. One expert at the time told the publication Vox that he anticipated Trump’s ads would generate twice the viewership.
“It’s very on-brand for him. He likes to be the star of the show,” Vavreck said of Trump’s counter-programming playbook. “One way to make sure you get attention is to do something totally different.”
Trump has continued to use counter-programming against his own party’s debate schedule. On Wednesday, while the third Republican debate unfolded on stage in Miami, Florida, Trump was a mere 20 minutes away in the Cuban American stronghold of Hialeah, holding a rally.
“The last debate was the lowest-rated debate in the history of politics,” Trump said in his speech. “So, therefore, do you think we did the right thing by not participating?” The crowd responded with cheers.
Sowing doubt over 2020 loss
Vavreck added that Trump’s status as a former president gives him much of the same stature and sway as an incumbent — and that puts his rivals in a “tough spot”.
“They’re trying to navigate this unusual situation,” she said.
Trump has maintained — falsely — that the race was “stolen” from him through voter fraud. And though he faces 91 felony charges in four separate criminal cases, he has reframed his legal woes as evidence of a Democratic conspiracy, an argument that has galvanised his base.
“Within his own party, Trump remains strong, and right now, nobody else is anywhere close,” said Quinnipiac University polling analyst Tim Malloy. “Trump so far has been impervious to the indictments he’s faced.”
A September poll from Malloy’s firm showed 62 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning voters supporting Trump, up from 57 percent support in August.
Malloy said there are currently no Republican contenders that could overtake Trump. Even household names like former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis remain distant prospects, more or less tied for second place.
“We’ve watched DeSantis go down pretty dramatically, Nikki Haley closing in on DeSantis,” Malloy explained. But, he added, none of that changes the fact that “at the moment, Trump is the prohibitive favourite”.
Potential for a primary shakeup?
Still, at Wednesday’s debate, the five leading Republican contenders behind Trump took modest jabs at the former president, hoping to chip away at his lead.
“I think he was the right president at the right time,” Haley, a former member of Trump’s administration, said from the primetime stage. “I don’t think he’s the right president now.”
Meanwhile, DeSantis said Trump should appear at the debates: “He owes it to you to be on this stage and explain why he should get another chance.”
Primary debates have been a US tradition since 1948. But even with Trump boycotting the debates, the experts Al Jazeera spoke to said the primary races themselves could yield unexpected outcomes. They decide who ultimately receives the party nomination.
“If somebody gets in second place, it’s very possible that the second-place winner could turn out to be someone who challenges him all the way down the road,” Primary Politics author Kamarck said.
Vavreck, the politics professor, said the upcoming primary races — starting in January with the Iowa caucus — may create an opening for one of Trump’s Republican rivals.
“If any one of those other candidates does significantly better than they’re expected to, history tells us — the data from the past tells us — that they will pick up momentum and it could become a contest,” Vavreck said.
But even she acknowledged that, for now, Trump’s grip on the party nomination seems ironclad. “It still seems highly unlikely that Trump doesn’t come out ahead in the end.”