Donald Trump’s shock announcement on Tuesday night that he would skip the Republican debate scheduled for Thursday sent the political world into a tizzy. His supporters claimed he was a genius; his detractors claimed he was simply afraid of Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly.
In reality, Trump’s move is a calculated risk. He wanted this to happen – that’s why he sent his campaign surrogates out to make Fox News an offer they couldn’t accept, the withdrawal of their top-rated anchor.
Trump obviously believes his consistent poll lead more than questions about possible ground game in Iowa, and he’s concerned that another debate with his chief rival, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), could end with him in shambles. He’s not particularly scared of Megyn Kelly or Fox News – after all, he can employ his tried-and-true “whine until I win” strategy, which worked wonders in the aftermath of the first Republican debate, in which he claimed victimization at Kelly’s hands. He’s more worried that Cruz will ask him tough questions about his background and his conservatism just days ahead of the Iowa caucuses, with 46 percent of the Iowa electorate still undecided. That’s why he has ignored Cruz’s offer for a one-on-one, moderator-free 90-minute debate.
So, how does this play out if Trump actually skips the final debate? Obviously, Trump either benefits, or he pays a heavy price for a risky gamble.
Trump’s game plan here relies on one of four possible fact patterns. First, Trump could simply hope that his headline-grabbing shenanigans somehow freeze the polls where they are, that he goes ahead and solidifies his base, and that nothing big happens in the debate. This is the Dean Smith four-corners college basketball offense: run out the clock.
Second, Trump could hope that Fox News takes his bait and attacks him, allowing him to play the victim; he could hope that the debate turns into a Trump bash-fest, allowing him to play the victim. That tactic has worked well for him thus far, and Fox News seems inclined to play up the feud with Trump as personal, obscuring the fact that Trump is actually ducking the other candidates, not Megyn Kelly.
Third, Trump could count on the other candidates ignoring him during the debate and savaging one another. If Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) tears down Trump’s chief rival, Cruz, Trump could walk away with an Iowa victory simply by riding out the storm. And with attack-attack-attack candidate Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) on the stage, that isn’t implausible.
Finally, Trump could lose Iowa, and then claim that he only lost Iowa because of media bias that forced him to stay out of the debate. This probably wouldn’t stifle concerns, but it would play to his base – and he’s still up by nearly 20 points in the second primary state, New Hampshire. A narrow loss in Iowa plus a victim-playing routine over Fox News could allow him to save face for New Hampshire.
To defeat Trump’s gambit, his opponents need to spot the strategy. That means that Cruz’s team shouldn’t get overconfident in Iowa, and should ensure that the ground game turns out the voters; Fox News should act as though Trump doesn’t exist; his opponents should play nice with each other; and nobody should give Trump an excuse to play victim here. For all the talk about Trump being undisciplined, however, the chances of his opposition remaining disciplined in the face of his provocations are significantly slimmer than they should be.