Hindsight will show Trump skipping the latest debate is the pivotal point in the 2016 primary. The move will either set him up to control the campaign through Super Tuesday, or set the stage up for a long bloodbath primary season with no clear winner. While I wish he would attend, not doing so is a smart short-to-mid term political view.
Skipping the debate and railing against Fox plays to his strength. From a short-to-mid term viewpoint it energizes his base. While the mainstream and establishment view are criticizing him as ego driven and unable to handle criticism his base views it as a candidate standing up against the media. Ben Carson’s bounce showed there’s support in standing up against the media. Since it’s Fox he’s standing up against the base sees him as someone who won’t take crap, even if it comes from the right.
This sentiment plays well in New Hampshire, and to a lesser extent in South Carolina. If Trump were to win New Hampshire and South Carolina, and Cruz wins Iowa and Nevada it sets up a brutal attack for Trump to use against Cruz. Trump can repeat over and over in elections where people have the say (New Hampshire and South Carolina) I am the winner. In caucuses, where only the select few have their say, Cruz wins. I’m the man of the people, Cruz can only win where the people are shut out. Good luck to anyone else trying to get a message out in that toxic environment.
Even the negative with this move has upside for Trump. Some people are irritated by his move and will drift away from his camp. Both Trump and Cruz have positioned themselves as not in the establishment, and the voters who are irritated with this move will likely be the ones who are softer in their antiestablishment view. Some of those will go to Cruz, but more will go to Rubio. This keeps Rubio’s campaign at least marginally viable. A three man race favors Trump since the anti-Trump vote will be split between Cruz and Rubio.
While he may not have a majority in states on Super Tuesday, as long as he is raking delegates with a plurality his “I’m a winner” theme is fed. A strong showing on Super Tuesday sets up a picture of him being the decided front runner, and the psychological pull to be associated with a winner will kick in and replenish some of the voters lost by this move. The slog for delegates will continue, but it’s going to be an uphill climb for anyone to surpass Trump.
Now, maybe I’m wrong and this moves proves to be a disaster. Maybe New Hampshire and South Carolina are horribly aggrieved by this move and only the core Trump supporters remain. Maybe the core isn’t enough to get a plurality of the votes and bring in the delegates. Polling in the next few days will let us know. Whatever the result, though, this is either a stroke of exceptional luck, or the sign of a wily campaign advisor being listened to. As brash as Trump has been he didn’t become “the Donald” by not considering advice given to him. He makes the calls, but as a shrewd businessman he knows the value of good advisors. Maybe the decision is disaster. Maybe it’s a sign of him acquiring better advisors and taking their advice.
We don’t know the answer, but don’t underestimate Trump. He may be a far better campaigner than is believed.