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So What If Trump Skips A Debate

A Commentary By Fran Coombs

Donald Trump plans to sit out the final Republican debate before the Iowa Caucus on Monday. Does it really matter?

For Rand Paul who didn’t make the main stage for the last debate two weeks ago, tomorrow night’s debate is critical to his last-ditch effort to keep his campaign alive. For Fox News which stands to lose a lot of viewers if the main attraction is missing, Trump’s absence potentially means a lot of lost revenue.

Trump is sure to take a beating from the other candidates on the stage, so much so in fact that it will almost be like he’s really there. But he won’t be there to make any gaffes or engage in potentially risky sparring with Ted Cruz and the others. He also won’t have to face tough questions from Fox’s Megyn Kelly.

Meanwhile, the other candidates, if they can take their eyes off the empty rostrum, have a good chance of setting themselves apart from each other and making some headlines of their own.  

Trump has generally been seen as the winner or one of the winners of all the debates to date. Following Sarah Palin’s endorsement, our latest weekly Trump Change survey finds Republican voters are more strongly convinced than ever that Trump will be their party’s presidential nominee. We’ll update those numbers on Friday morning and see if his debate decision has changed that perception.

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It’s not all together unreasonable, however, to think that debate fatigue is setting in among many voters. They’ve seen the candidates; they know the candidates, and they have a good sense of where they stand on the issues. Trump’s supporters who have told Rasmussen Reports that they are the least likely to change their minds feel like they know where their candidate stands, and two more hours on a debate stage aren’t likely to change that feeling. 

Trump won’t be hurt either by reports that Ronald Reagan skipped the last debate before the Iowa Caucus in 1980. He lost that caucus but won in a landslide in November.

It’s also not a bad thing for a GOP candidate to be sparring with Fox News which for most Democrats and many independent voters is seen as the Republican news network.

Republicans have now had six debates. The one tomorrow night in Des Moines, Iowa comes four days before the Iowa Caucus, the first time voters will have a chance to show whether the pollsters and pundits have been right or wrong. Another debate is scheduled for next week in New Hampshire, and there’s one a week after that in South Carolina, each one just before the respective primaries in those states.

Eighty-one percent (81%) of Republicans told us in mid-December that they have been closely following the GOP debates, with 45% who said they have been following Very Closely. A plurality (48%) said the debates have done a good job helping voters learn about the candidates.

Last summer just before the debates began, though, just 43% of Republicans said pre-primary debates are Very Important in determining how they will vote in their state party primary. 

Trump has clearly been dominating the headlines without the help of the debates, making it difficult for the candidates of both major parties to get their message out, and he’s done it again with his debate decision, dominating the news cycle as the hours click down to the caucus vote.

Seventy-five percent (75%) of voters believe that when it comes to covering prospective presidential candidates, the media is more interested in creating controversies about them than it is in reporting where they stand on the issues. Trump has quickly learned to capitalize on this.

It’s interesting to note, too, that 48% of Republicans now say they prefer a candidate who is a political newcomer over one with political experience. A sizable 18% more are undecided when asked that question.

Trump and Dr. Ben Carson are the only political neophytes in the top tier of GOP candidates.

Reagan historian Craig Shirley, among others, has compared the Republican establishment’s hostility toward Trump to the treatment it dished out to Reagan in 1976 and 1980. Now, of course, any Republican running for office leaps to embrace Reagan. That isn’t surprising given that for most voters, Reagan remains the best president in recent decades for a politician to be compared to

But despite their claimed allegiance to Reagan, these GOP candidates have proven more and more disappointing to most Republican voters. One debate isn’t going to change that feeling, but many are starting to think one candidate might.

Fran Coombs is the managing editor of Rasmussen Reports.

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See Other Commentaries by Fran Coombs.

Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports. Comments about this content should be directed to the author at fran.coombs@rasmussenreports.com.

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