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Republican Voters Split Over Trump's Decision to Avoid Primary Debates

Former President Donald Trump throws a football to the crowd during a visit to Iowa State University before a football game between Iowa State and the University of Iowa, Sept. 9, 2023, in Ames, Iowa.

Donald Trump skipped the first Republican debate in Wisconsin last month, and the GOP frontrunner has indicated he will not join his party’s second debate in California on Sept. 27.

Republican primary voters are split over whether this strategy will help or hurt the former president in his quest to win the GOP's nomination to unseat Joe Biden in next year's presidential election.

"I have zero issue with him not debating," said Marilyn Moses, a registered nurse and self-identified Trump supporter from Zionsville, Indiana. "When you're that far ahead in the polls, why should he even have to? I mean, Biden isn't debating on the Democratic side, and no one's saying a word about that."

Historically, expectations are different for sitting presidents. According to the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, no sitting president has participated in a primary debate, even those who faced significant primary challenges.

"Plus, as I'm sure you're aware, Trump's got a lot going on right now," she told VOA, referencing the multiple criminal indictments he is facing.

The former president reinforced his debate-skipping strategy on his social media site Truth Social writing, "The public knows who I am & what a successful Presidency I had. I WILL THEREFORE NOT BE DOING THE DEBATES!"

FILE -The Fiserv Forum is seen before the Republican presidential debate Aug. 22, 2023, in Milwaukee.
FILE -The Fiserv Forum is seen before the Republican presidential debate Aug. 22, 2023, in Milwaukee.

It is an approach Trump explained in a June interview with Fox News host Bret Baier in which he wondered aloud, "Why would I allow people at 1 or 2% and 0% to be hitting me with questions all night?"

Despite big leads over all his Republican rivals, there are still some party members who are unhappy with Trump's strategy.

"I'm disappointed in his decision not to debate," William Keene, a former police officer from Pismo Beach, California, told VOA. "His decision might be smart for him, but not for the country. We deserve to see him battle over ideas with the other candidates. There's no way I'd vote for anyone who is afraid to debate."

Strategy or fear?

"I wouldn't say he's afraid," said Robert Collins, professor of Urban Studies and Public Policy at Dillard University in New Orleans. "We've seen him debate many times and he did well."

Rather than skipping the debates out of fear, Collins told VOA it was likely a strategic decision.

"When you're as far ahead in the polls as he is, the prevailing political advice among campaign strategists and political consultants is to advise their candidates not to debate," he said. "The reason is because the moment you get on stage with your opponents, you're giving them credibility they didn't earn themselves, and you're giving them an opportunity for free publicity by attacking you."

It's a strategy that appears to be working. Morning Consult conducted a poll of potential Republican primary voters one day after last month's first GOP primary debate. Fifty-eight percent of respondents said they backed Trump for the presidential nomination.

That number, and the large lead Trump held over Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, remained unchanged from before the debate.

"I don't think that should surprise anyone," Collins laughed. "Indictments, impeachments, insurrections, and everything else — his polling numbers don't change."

"That's because he's a polarizing figure," Collins continued. "Voters know him so well from his first term as president, and if they support him, they'll support him through anything. If they don't, nothing is likely to change their mind. So, what could he say on a primary debate stage that is likely to help him?"

FILE - Former president Donald Trump supporters walk near the Fiserv Forum before the Republican presidential debate on Aug. 22, 2023, in Milwaukee.
FILE - Former president Donald Trump supporters walk near the Fiserv Forum before the Republican presidential debate on Aug. 22, 2023, in Milwaukee.

Frank Fogel, a Republican voter from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, agrees with Collins. He believes that given Trump's lead, attending a debate can only hurt the former president.

"These other candidates like Chris Christie and DeSantis know they can't win," he told VOA. "The only reason they're in the debate is to try to stop Trump."

"And the debate was on Fox News," Fogel continued, echoing complaints by the Republican frontrunner, himself. "Why on Earth would Trump go to a debate run by what's basically the Ron DeSantis Network. Their whole mission is to take him down, but thankfully they won't be able to."

Shifting circumstances

Some of the former president's supporters, however, are worried he could be making a grave mistake.

"I think he's making a horrible decision by not showing up for the debates," Joseph Johnson, an engineer from Los Angeles, told VOA. "He could very well lose the nomination if he keeps standing on the sideline while his policy gets ripped apart by other candidates."

"Silence in situations like this looks like weakness," Johnson continued, "like he's not willing or able to defend himself."

Another Republican voter, attorney Cory Johnson from Boston, believes a shift in circumstances could cause Trump to change his mind.

"I think it's a smart strategic decision for now, but if one of the other candidates truly breaks out and has a big moment, then Trump might have to switch tactics," said Johnson, who supports the Florida governor.

"And I hope it happens," he added. "I want Governor DeSantis to have an opportunity to directly challenge Trump in front of a larger audience."

Still, Johnson said he found the Trump-less debate refreshing and appreciated the policy discussions that he believes could not have taken place if the Republican frontrunner "was sucking all the oxygen out of the room with his antics."

A poll by The Economist/YouGov from Aug. 26-29 suggests that even though most Republicans (61%) agree with Trump's decision to skip the debate, the majority hope he will attend the second one. Fifty-seven percent of Republican voters said they think Trump should participate in the event, while just 17% said they did not. Twenty-six percent said they were not sure.

"As much as people might want it, I think it would be unlikely to happen," explained Collins, the university professor from New Orleans. "Maybe after the anti-Trump vote coalesces around a single candidate later in the race and everyone else has dropped out — if that challenger has 35% or 40% of the vote — maybe then Trump will decide it would benefit him to debate."