MILWAUKEE – For once, the candidates got to run the debate stage. That included the candidate who wasn’t there.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis shut down a show-of-hands question about whether “human behavior is causing climate change,” and Fox News moderators Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum dropped it. Mike Pence sparred with Vivek Ramaswamy about minutiae until Nikki Haley begged the hosts to “get control.” Neither moderator brought up Donald Trump for an hour, in a (successful) ploy to keep conservatives from switching the channel.
“We spent an hour talking about policy,” Baier said late Wednesday night, after DeSantis waltzed around a question about Pence’s refusal to overturn the 2020 election. “Former President Trump is beating you by 30, 40 points in many polls.”
The first debate of the 2024 GOP primary showed the success of a 10-year plan, by the Republican National Committee, to make a headline-hungry media less relevant and give candidates more space to speak. No candidates created a next-day problem for themselves; Pence and Haley landed attacks on Ramaswamy that they’d previewed in the run-up to the debate.
And Donald Trump crashed every gate, with a team of his surrogates showing up in media and spin rooms that they’d been warned not to enter — security was even given photos of them — after the former president boycotted the event. As the debate wrapped up, Donald Trump, Jr. and fiance Kimberly Guilfoyle, herself a long-time Fox News personality, roamed the media center. They talked about how many views the ex-president’s interview with Tucker Carlson was getting — “90 million,” the president’s namesake said — and decried the network for not letting his supporters join the spin room officially.
“The candidates that they’ve been boosting — while simultaneously trying to cut down Trump for, what, the last two years? — didn’t perform as they had hoped,” said Trump, Jr. “So, they can’t have someone who can, maybe, serve as a representative of my father.”
He called the debate a “set-up.” Guilfoyle added that it was “un-American” and “against the First Amendment.” But it was also a ratings hit, one that helped each candidate.
We’re probably watching the end of the traditional, TV-era campaign debate, at least for Republicans — replaced by a more candidate-friendly format that has to compete with free online media. No candidate walked offstage with a limp, and each did themselves some good.
That was what the Republican National Committee had hoped for, in a post-2012 autopsy that recommended a tighter grip on the process, with fewer debates and friendlier moderators. Much of this ire was focused on CNN that cycle: Moderators asked Newt Gingrich about his failed marriages, Ron Paul about whether an uninsured comatose man deserved to die, and CNN’s Candy Crowley fact-checked Mitt Romney while he was debating President Obama — never again, Republicans said.
But Fox News came in for fire during the 2016 election cycle, too — their moderators were arguably the toughest on Trump of anyone, even using video clips of him contradicting himself in one late debate, and he boycotted the network’s pre-caucus Iowa debate entirely. After his primary and general election victory, there was even more pressure from the GOP base to protect the candidates from moderators like Megyn Kelly, who Trump infamously said ”had blood coming out of her wherever” after their debate.
On Wednesday, the moderators seemed more focused on giving the candidates enough room to be their best self. The exposure from Wednesday night was crucial for the lesser-known Asa Hutchinson and Doug Burgum, and vital for Haley. All of them got their first real attention without endless questions about Donald Trump, and Haley got to deliver her electability message – that “Trump is the most disliked politician in America.”
Democrats have tried to minimize the risk from these events for their own candidates, too. The party has not let Fox News host a debate since 2007, when the Democratic front-runners heeded progressive activists and scuttled a planned one in Detroit.
But even outlets that conservatives see as hopelessly liberal could knock Democrats off-message. It was on NBC News, four years ago, where each Democrat agreed that their healthcare plans “would provide coverage for undocumented immigrants,” which Republicans saw as a gift. Eight years earlier, it was NBC’s Tim Russert who pressed Hillary Clinton on whether she supported proposed drivers licenses for non-citizens in New York, prompting a stumble that hurt her campaign.
Republicans in Milwaukee didn’t get the same pressure. Not only did DeSantis shut down both attempts to get him on a yes-or-no question, neither Republican from South Carolina was pressed on the state supreme court upholding a six-week abortion law. Instead, they got to deliver the message that anti-abortion groups were craving; in Tim Scott’s words, that “states like California, New York, and Illinois have abortions on-demand up until the day of birth.” Even the word “woke,” seen constantly on Fox News in coverage of corporate and academic progressives, was mentioned just once, reflecting new thinking on how the term might mean little to swing voters.
Polling from Ipsos and the Washington Post found that every candidate onstage improved his or her image with the debate, and the only post-game grumbling came from Chris Christie, who told CNN on Thursday that the “stage was completely out of control.” But the view from Trump allies was that the party was still letting the media shape impressions of the candidates. Kari Lake, one of the Trump surrogates who seemed to be everywhere in Milwaukee, told Semafor that the party needed to take an even stronger hand — not that Trump would show up if it did, of course.
“I think that the RNC, in future debates, should not cede control to a network,” Lake said. “Especially a network who’s already made it perfectly clear where they stand — out there with Ron DeSantis, or anybody but Trump.”
The View From The Moderators
MacCallum and Baier did an after-action interview with Politico’s Playbook podcast, recapping why they asked what they asked and sometimes regretting that the candidates didn’t say more. “We had a lot more questions on education, school choice, some of those issues,” said MacCallum, “and in some cases we let them go because one of the candidates had brought them up and they had sort of battled it out over it on their own.” Baier had hoped that a question about “Rich Men North of Richmond” would get a more personal response; asked of DeSantis, it prompted him to recite part of his stump speech, including a jab at Hunter Biden.