DANIEL VAUGHAN: Republican Party Prepares for High-Stakes 2023 Primary Debate

 July 10, 2023

Don't look now, but we have the date for the first Republican Party primary debate: August 23, 2023. The 2024 election is in full swing. Fox News is slated to host the debate on television, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, will be the host city. The nod to the importance of Wisconsin is a good sign from the Republican Party. In 2016 and 2020, Wisconsin effectively determined the outcome of the election. Wisconsin and Pennsylvania are the hinge states upon which the dreams of every candidate rest.

Donald Trump has already started his rope-a-dope maneuver, the "will he or won't he attend the first debate" schtick. It's a similar tactic he's used politically and in his television and business career. It helps keep the limelight on his decision-making. Until he definitively backs out, it's best to assume he'll be there. He made similar threats in 2016 and 2020, and he'd cede the ground to his opponents if he doesn't attend this one. DeSantis gave a straightforward answer to the debate, "I'll be there." 

A Fresh Set of Rules: Filtering the Candidates

After that, the main focus will be on the new rules the Republican Party has applied to debates. These rules are meant to cut down on non-serious GOP candidates. There's no point in wasting everyone's time with GOP candidates who can't make it before the starting gun goes off.

The main rules deal with donors and polling: "Candidates will have to garner donations from at least 40,000 national contributors and poll consistently above 1 percent in three national polls or two national polls and a state poll ... Candidates must secure donations 'with at least 200 unique donors per state or territory in 20+ states and/or territories.'"

Republican candidates have until August 21, 2023 - 48 hours before the debate - to meet the qualifications. Polls before July 1, 2023, don't count toward the polling criteria. Additionally, candidates will have to agree to a pledge to support the eventual nominee from the Republican Party.

Who's In, Who's Out: Potential Debate Participants

Instead of having a swarm of candidates on the stage, like in 2012 and 2016, this will cut the dais down to actual contenders. Already, you can look at the early GOP candidate locks for the debate stage: Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, and Tim Scott. Vivek Ramaswamy and Mike Pence are likely additions. However, it's unclear if they qualify on the donor qualification.

Politico adds a few more names that may make it on the stage: Chris Christie, AR. Gov. Asa Hutchinson, CA Gov. candidate Larry Elder, ND Gov. Doug Burgum, and former Rep. Will Hurd. Each of these candidates will struggle to meet debate or donor requirements in the necessary window.

Navigating the Political Landscape: Trump vs. DeSantis

Donald Trump's main objective is to try and get Ron DeSantis out of the GOP primary by any means necessary. DeSantis has polled consistently with support from one in five Republican voters going back before the 2022 midterm elections when he was one of the only bright spots of the night.

The Wall Street Journal and other outlets leaking lines from the Trump campaign say DeSantis's campaign has stalled. But there's little evidence of that. The RealClearPolitics average of primary polls shows Trump and DeSantis where they were before the 2022 midterms. The DeSantis bump from his avalanche victory in Florida has faded. Still, there's no evidence that Trump has surged because of the indictments.

Republican primary voters have stuck to their places to see where things shake out. That makes sense, given that it's July, and no one will cast a vote in these primaries until January 0f 2024. The press pushing an anti-DeSantis narrative is likely based more on the combative nature of the DeSantis campaign's relationship with journalists.

Examining the Polls: Stalled Campaigns and Party Sentiments

If anyone has stalled, it's the set of candidates below Trump and DeSantis. Tim Scott has seen some growth. But you can't say the same for anyone else. Chris Christie is so universally hated within the Republican Party that Richard Nixon and George W. Bush circa 2008 are about the only other people equally negative. And in Bush's case, he's rehabilitated his image within the party and generally. That's something you can't say for Christie.

Donald Trump is the incumbent of this primary. It's an unusual situation where's he running again after losing a national election. But regardless, he is the incumbent. His position is no different than John McCain and Hilary Clinton in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012. It just has the added weight of winning in 2016 and losing in 2020. The expectation is that he should lead the race until someone successfully challenges him.

The real question isn't whether DeSantis is stalling; the correct question is why can't Donald Trump increase his lead. If he's genuinely the runaway candidate of the base, as his supporters assert, then where is the runaway? Gravity is pulling against him, and Republican voters seem interested in hearing from alternatives.

Looking Ahead: The Future of the 2024 Election

Republicans experienced embarrassing losses in 2018, 2020, and 2022. These are all races where Republicans had built-in advantages. And those advantages got squandered because Democrats ran on a single platform plank: "Donald Trump is bad." Biden and the Democrats would love to try a proven strategy again.

Trump has to convince everyone that 2024 will be different. He may win the primary without proving that point. But at this stage, Republican voters are interested in hearing the alternatives. If Trump wants to skip out on the chance to make that case, it'd be another miscalculation from a man riding hard on his singular electoral accomplishment of defeating Hilary Clinton in 2016.

I am looking forward to hearing what the alternatives have to say. This is a primary election, not a coronation. Bring on the first Republican Party primary debate.

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