Why Trump might regret passing on the first debate

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Donald Trump wants to deprive his competitors of any oxygen. That’s why the former president is likely skipping next week’s debate in Milwaukee.

But it probably won’t work.

As presidential primaries have become more national in scope, debates have arguably been all that’s really mattered in the run-up to the early states. Candidates like Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Ben Carson and Pete Buttigieg surged in the polls after strong showings.

And Fred Thompson, Rick Perry and Beto O’Rourke stand as cautionary tales of hyped-up candidates who bombed on stage and saw their campaigns crumble months before voting even began.

The proof is in the numbers: Much of the movement in recent primary fights has been marked in time by the nationally televised debates. Candidates sink or swim based on their debate performances — and the first debate has often been the catalyst for the first real changes in those races.

Even if Trump doesn’t show, the debates will still command larger audiences than anything else the candidates will do over the next six months. So it’s an unparalleled opportunity for those seeking their breakthrough moment, like Tim Scott, Nikki Haley or Vivek Ramaswamy. And the peril for a once-hyped hopeful like Ron DeSantis if he doesn’t deliver is real.

Yes, Trump has a huge lead in the national polling at this stage — far larger than any of the six primaries we examine below — and a slightly-smaller-but-still-commanding advantage in the early states. But if he's serious about skipping the debate, he risks being upstaged.

Here’s how the debates have mattered over the past few primary cycles:

2008 Republicans

RealClearPolitics leader on day of first debate (May 3, 2007): Rudy Giuliani +10.2

RealClearPolitics leader on day of second debate (May 15, 2007): Giuliani +7.5

Only 12 days stood between the first two debates of the 2008 GOP race, which also came extremely early in the election cycle. Thompson, the former Tennessee senator and actor, wasn’t yet a declared candidate. (This year, DeSantis, Scott, Pence and Chris Christie were not yet official candidates as of mid-May.)

Thompson wouldn’t take the stage until the seventh televised debate on Oct. 9, 2007. He entered the meeting at 20.2 percent in the RealClearPolitics average, good for second place behind Rudy Giuliani.

His freefall started soon after. Less than three months later, he was in the single digits going into the Iowa caucuses and dropped out in mid-January.

2008 Democrats

RealClearPolitics leader on day of first debate (April 26, 2007): Hillary Clinton +9.7

RealClearPolitics leader on day of second debate (June 3, 2007): Clinton +11.2

The primary wouldn’t end up going Hillary Clinton’s way, but the first debate in April 2007 helped cement her as the nominal frontrunner in the race for the Democratic nomination.

A weak performance from former Sen. John Edwards hurt the North Carolina Democrat: He entered the first debate at 16 percent but was only hovering around 10 percent by the candidates’ second gathering.

The most consequential debate moment came in the days before the New Hampshire primary, which Clinton would go on to win after losing Iowa to Obama. A strong performance, combined with Obama’s awkward “likable enough” moment, helped catapult Clinton to victory, despite pre-primary polls suggesting Obama was riding a wave of momentum out of Iowa.

2012 Republicans

RealClearPolitics leader on day of first debate (May 5, 2011): Mitt Romney +8.5

RealClearPolitics leader on day of second debate (June 13, 2011): Romney +12.5

Here’s a parallel Trump will like: The polling frontrunner skips the first debate, on Fox News Channel, and sees his lead grow by the time the candidates gather again.

Mitt Romney rejected Fox’s invitation to a debate in Greenville, S.C., in early May of 2011, when he had an 8.5-point lead over Newt Gingrich. He did attend the second debate, in New Hampshire — an event probably best remembered for then-Rep. Michelle Bachmann’s attempt to upstage the debate by filing with the Federal Election Commission to run for president during it.

While skipping the first debate didn’t hurt Romney, it did catapult Cain, the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO, from fifth place into second place by the time the candidates debated again.

Cain’s campaign was undone by a sexual harassment scandal, but the debates were a good forum for him.

They were not helpful to Perry, the Texas governor who entered the race during the summer. When Perry first joined a debate, on Sept. 7, 2011, he led Romney in the RealClearPolitics average, 29 percent to 18 percent.

A month later, on Oct. 7, Perry (15.8 percent) had dropped to third place, behind both Romney (21.8 percent) and Cain (16.2 percent).

And while everyone remembers Perry’s most famous gaffe — when he forgot the third executive branch department he planned to eliminate as president — that came in Perry’s sixth debate, on Nov. 9. By then, he had already dropped to fourth place at just 10.2 percent in the polling average, and his numbers kept falling from there.

2016 Republicans

RealClearPolitics leader on day of first debate (Aug. 6, 2015): Trump +11.8

RealClearPolitics leader on day of second debate (Sept. 16, 2015): Trump +10.5

Trump was already on the march, passing Jeb Bush for first place in the polling average about three weeks before the first debate.

And while Trump’s lead technically shrank between the two debates, his share of support did not, increasing from 24.3 percent on the day of the first debate, to 30.5 percent on the day of the second.

The most significant movement came from Carson, the former neurosurgeon who would go on to join Trump’s cabinet. On the day of the first debate, Carson was in fourth place, at 5.8 percent. But after making a good impression, he surged into second, clocking in at 20 percent on the day of the second debate.

2016 Democrats

RealClearPolitics leader on day of first debate (Oct. 13, 2015): Clinton +18.2

RealClearPolitics leader on day of second debate (Nov. 14, 2015): Clinton +20.7

The first meeting between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in 2015 was mostly seen as a draw between the two leading candidates: Clinton maintained a solid lead over the upstart Vermont senator, though that lead would erode once voting began in early 2016.

Despite Sanders’ early 2016 surge, the race was fairly stable between the first two debates, largely because there were only two major candidates. Only five candidates participated in the first debate: Clinton, Sanders, Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee.

2020 Democrats

RealClearPolitics leader on day of first debate (June 26, 2019): Joe Biden +15.1

RealClearPolitics leader on day of second debate (July 30, 2019): Biden +15.8

The first Democratic debate four years ago — split over two nights thanks to a field of 20 qualified candidates — is best remembered for Joe Biden’s confrontation with the senator he’d later pick as his running mate, Kamala Harris, who hit the former vice president for his praise of segregationist Senate colleagues and on school bussing.

The clash sent a jolt into Harris’ poll numbers, but it didn’t last: She was at 7 percent on the day of the first debate and jumped up into the mid-teens, even passing two fellow senators, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, to eke into second place briefly.

But by the time the second debate came around, Harris had retreated down to 10.5 percent. And she never recovered, leaving the race before the first votes were cast.

Warren rode her best debate performance, in the third debate on Sept. 12, 2019, to a polling bump into second place. The Massachusetts senator was at 16.8 percent on the day of the third debate and bounced to 23.4 percent ahead of the fourth debate on Oct. 15.

That night, Warren got the frontrunner treatment and faced attacks from all sides — memo to DeSantis, who could feel the heat with Trump absent. The shots at Warren took a toll: She was back down to 18 percent for the fifth Democratic debate on Nov. 20.