SIMI VALLEY, Ca. — Late Wednesday evening, as strategists for seven Republican campaigns roamed a post-debate spin room, Trump strategist Chris LaCivita asked why anyone was still there.
“These debates are becoming a sideshow,” LaCivita told Semafor. “No one’s really materializing as a threat.” Trump was going to keep skipping these events, he said. As the second primary debate was wrapping up, he’d urged the Republican National Committee to “put an end to any further primary debates” and let the campaign “train our fire on Crooked Joe Biden.”
The Trump campaign’s gambit, skipping RNC-sanctioned debates and forfeiting the free media attention to his rivals, has paid off. When Republicans walked onstage at the FiServ Forum, Trump held a 26-point lead over the field in Iowa, according to an average of all polling in the first caucus state. When they wrapped up at the Reagan Library this week, Trump’s lead had grown to 36 points, and Fox was cutting its debate ad rates.
Trump’s rivals are trailing a candidate who has spent far less time campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire; who’s been indicted four times, and burned millions of dollars on lawyers, with no impact on fundraising; and who’s been targeted by $6 million of early-state ads warning that he could lose to Biden again.
Yet there’s evidence that the debates have strengthened Trump’s position, for two reasons.
First, the clear beneficiary of last month’s debate was Nikki Haley, who leapfrogged Ron DeSantis in some polls of New Hampshire – and who attacked DeSantis on Wednesday, asking how voters could take his energy plan seriously when “you banned fracking, you banned offshore drilling” in Florida.
The Trump campaign celebrated that, seeing no long-term threat from Haley, who, according to LaCivita, has a low ceiling. Much of her mini-surge has come from peeling off moderate and liberal Republicans — the party’s least relevant voting bloc. “DeSantis finds himself with another challenger for a distant 2nd place,” Trump pollster Tony Fabrizio wrote in a memo last month.
Second, giving Trump’s challengers time and space to criticize the ex-president has benefited him more than them: The likeliest primary voters don’t like to see him under attack. In early-state polling, DeSantis’s negatives have increased all year, as his campaign and super PAC have attacked Trump over his handling of the pandemic, his spending record, and his early (and abandoned) support for transgender rights.
The candidates most critical of Trump — Mike Pence, Chris Christie, Asa Huchinson, and Will Hurd — are the ones who the largest share of primary voters say they won’t support. And a Thursday memo from conservative anti-Trump PAC Win It Back, first reported by The New York Times, found that virtually all messaging against the former president, no matter how carefully packaged, wasn’t flipping many votes. In some cases, it even strengthened his support.
“Even when you show video to Republican primary voters with complete context of President Trump saying something otherwise objectionable to primary voters, they find a way to rationalize and dismiss it,” PAC leader David McIntosh wrote.
One way to look at this primary is as a road with a series of off-ramps, any of which could have been used by Republican voters to ditch Trump. When Trump announced his run in November, it was a disappointing midterm performance frequently blamed on the most MAGA candidates. In March, it was the threat of indictments. In May, it was the DeSantis campaign launch — the arrival of a younger candidate with more money to spend and the biggest grassroots operation in the field. In August, it was the debate, with its opportunity for some Trump rival to break out and begin consolidating opposition.
Republican voters are driving straight ahead, as they have for eight years. (Apologies to Lindsey Graham, who came up with the “off-ramp” analogy in 2016.) Trump has advantages that no candidate can replicate, including something most ex-presidents eventually benefit from — nostalgia. Polling consistently finds that voters remember the Trump years as a time of relative peace and prosperity, while giving him a mulligan on the pandemic.
No challenger disputes this, trying instead to take some credit for the Trump years and promise that they can bring them back, too. Pence is the most direct about it: “The Trump-Pence administration proved that you can turn this country around faster than you can imagine, and I have faith we can do it again.”
Primary voters just don’t care about his legal struggles, and most agree with the meta-narrative advanced by Trump and conservative media: Everything he’s accused of is a ruse by political enemies who want to destroy their most effective opponent. In a poll released by Fox Business just days before its own debate, 46% of likely Iowa caucus-goers supported Trump, unchanged from July. Two-thirds of Republican voters thought that Trump would “likely” defeat President Joe Biden, more than said so of any other candidate. Just one-third of Republicans thought that Trump’s “legal issues” would be a problem; one in four thought that they might actually be an asset.
Meanwhile, the process arguments candidates have made about Trump refusing to defend his positions on stage — DeSantis called him “missing in action” in Wednesday’s debate — are falling flat. As the Washington Post’s Aaron Blake noted, the percentage of Republicans in YouGov polling who say Trump should attend the debates plummeted after the first one. Just 39% of GOP voters want him to participate in the future, versus 31% who say he should not.
Trump’s rivals have a plan: Run unexpectedly strong in Iowa, win New Hampshire, then get a one-on-one contest against a weakened Trump in South Carolina. But Trump is simply far stronger than any of the recent front-runners who’ve stumbled in Iowa — and the last three Republican caucus winners in open races went on to lose the nomination anyway. Unless they can figure out how to dramatically cut into Trump’s support, rather than just reshuffle the dwindling non-Trump vote, their path is fully blocked.
The View From Trump Rivals
Like Nikki Haley’s T-shirt says: “Underestimate me, that’ll be fun.” Meanwhile, the Trump campaign talks about DeSantis as if he’s irrelevant, but its allied super PAC just made a six-figure buy on direct mail to oppose him in Iowa. DeSantis spokesman Andrew Romeo pointed back to July, when a big ad buy helped Tim Scott jump in Iowa polls and there was speculation that he could overtake DeSantis. He didn’t.
“After the debate everyone was saying that Vivek was going to overtake him, and he’s dropping off,” said Romeo. “Now they’re saying it’s Nikki Haley. There’s a lot of fluidity in that alternative lane.”
- In the Wall Street Journal, Alex Leary and Aaron Zitner find Trump critics, from donors to pollsters, worrying that “the race is past the point of no return.”
- In the Washington Post, Robert Costa covers donor Thomas Peterffy’s Ahab-like quest to get Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin into the race, which will resume at a mid-October retreat: “Wednesday’s debate in California likely did little to calm the restlessness felt by plugged-in Republicans desperate for an alternative to Trump.”