Sure, it seems insane for any candidate–even a frontrunner–to consider skipping the final debate before the Iowa Caucus, but Donald Trump is not your typical candidate. If Jeb! Bush or Marco Rubio led Iowa with a week to go and decided to skip the final debate, it might be considered a fatal mistake, costing the candidate not only Iowa, but other early states as well. However, Trump continues to prove his impervious to the usual traps that ensnarl campaigns and cost candidates elections. No, Trump continues to win and his defiance may be the reason why.
Trump’s entrance into the race last summer (has it really been that long?) defied logic. His campaign kickoff speech, filled with grotesque words about Latinos and undocumented workers was equally baffling. Surely, no one serious about winning the presidency would say these things and think they’ll win, right? But Trump’s poll numbers shot through the roof. Nothing he’s said or done since that fateful day have affected Trump’s numbers. The only thing that’s truly changed is the candidate nipping at his heels, and who stands to his left and right during debates. Trump, however, has remained front and center at every debate, and through every gaffe, ramble, and scoff, Trump reigns supreme.
So why skip the final debate before real votes are cast?
Trump’s spent the entirety of his campaign thumbing his nose at the establishment. He entered the race–and has maintained–that our establishment politicians are bought and sold by special interests and corporations. Despite his billionaire status, Trump can’t be bought and is the “man of the people” for disaffected conservatives and Republicans completely disillusioned by the system. He’s the Republican answer to Bernie Sanders. Sure, there’s almost nothing that ties the two men together, other than their lineage, but both men rail against the establishment, scream about a broken system, and continue to rack up massive crowds, as their unconventional politics sells with millions.
Skipping the debate is thumbing the nose at the establishment, the RNC, FOX News, and by doing so, Trump may turn conventional wisdom on its head. See, candidates will do almost anything for earned media. Debates are held in primetime, advertised as sporting events on the highest level, and give candidates a free opportunity to speak. It doesn’t require buying up ad time, or producing a TV spot; it even allows candidates the opportunity to bash one another without requiring the dreaded negative ad. Unless they’re plum awful at debating, candidates relish the opportunity. (Seriously, look at Martin O’Malley during a debate. He’s thrilled to have a few minutes on national television.)
Trump isn’t a particularly skilled debater, but he’s supporters don’t care. Plus, one final thumb of the nose to the establishment might be the push his supporters need to caucus on his behalf. Thousands upon thousands of disaffected Republicans pack Trump rallies and it’s likely that a lot of them are angry at the establishment (Washington, the RNC, Jeb!, you name it). They’re sick and tired of debates, where candidates promise the moon, only to lose to weaselly Democrats. They’re annoyed at a party who settled on two consecutive establishment candidates, only to have them both get trounced by President Obama. They’re fed up with stagnant wages, and believe gridlock in Washington is the result of the establishment. They want something different. They want Donald.
Trump doesn’t need the debate to seal the deal in Iowa, if his supporters show up. Hell, Trump could buy up 30 minutes of primetime TV on every local channel in Iowa and simply rant and rave about making America great again, and he might have a bigger impact than Ted Cruz needs to have on Thursday. See, Cruz is one of those guys who needs Thursday’s debate. While he’s doing fine in the money department, Cruz still needs the earned media debates offer. Trump doesn’t.
There’s one final opportunity, which makes this post all the more ironic: Trump is trolling everyone. His fellow candidates, supporters, and the media and he will show up on Thursday. At the very least, he’ll have everyone talking about him–and not Ted Cruz–for the next two days. Brilliant, unconventional, and a bit unhinged, but unconventionality and a screwball, fuck all attitude’s kept Donald Trump in first place since July, while conventional, typical primary politics got Jeb! nearly kicked to the curb. Maybe Trump’s onto something after all?