Band of Outsiders

Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images
Peter Hamby
August 28, 2023

Tucked in between the death of Yevgeny Prigozhin in Russia and the mugshot arrest of Donald Trump in Georgia, last week’s Republican presidential debate was appropriately downgraded in relevance. It was a third-tier news event, befitting a bunch of third-tier campaigns, with all but one candidate currently running for third place. It’s worth stepping back to point out that despite all the snap takes about who “won” the debate in Milwaukee—Ron? Vivek? Nikki?—there were really only two winners: Joe Biden and Donald Trump. Biden won because many of the Republican candidates staked out a range of hard-right positions that remain unpopular with much of the national electorate, like supporting a federal abortion ban. And Trump won because none of his challengers did much to cut into his exorbitant lead in the primary.

Yes, even without Trump on stage, people still watched. Presidential debates are still one of few mass tune-in events left on linear television, along with big sporting events and new episodes of Taylor Sheridan dramas. Almost 13 million Americans watched on Fox News, and many millions more probably saw clips circulating online after the fact. But what viewers witnessed was a sideshow, not the main event. There was no concerted effort to move the Republican Party past Trump, no figure possessing the kind of charisma or attentional power rivaling the frontrunner. 

Instead, we got stasis. The debate embodied the very thing that anti-Trump forces in the G.O.P. have been fearing since the 2024 cycle began: A stage packed with many challengers, but sans a singular rival to Trump rising above the rest, scraping with each other and failing to offer any coherent worldview beyond a watered-down version of the Trumpism that animates the party’s base. Quality polls conducted after the debate showed the Republican primary race basically unchanged. According to Morning Consult, Trump had a 44-point lead over his closest rival, Ron DeSantis, among potential Republican primary voters. After the debate? Trump had a 44-point lead over his closest rival, Ron DeSantis.