During the Republican Party’s second presidential debate on Wednesday evening, Chris Christie, former governor of New Jersey and current long shot 2024 presidential candidate, admonished the 45th U.S. president: “If you keep doing that, no one up here is going to call you Donald Trump anymore. They’re gonna call you Donald Duck.” The former U.S. president and current Republican frontrunner was not present, but Christie creepily stared into the camera and fantasized before a live audience—who had spent a significant amount of time booing him—that Trump was out there listening (in fact, Trump was preparing for a live interview on Newsmax after speaking to auto workers in the swing state of Michigan).
Christie’s jibe is arguably the mildest insult in American presidential politics since George H. W. Bush called Bill Clinton and Al Gore “bozos” in his failed 1992 reelection campaign. Those who think a presidential contender facing 91 felony charges, a civil judgment for sexual battery, and—one day before the debate—an adverse civil fraud ruling is bothered by the insult might have a wit singular enough to put them among the 3% of Republicans who support Christie’s hopeless candidacy. “Anybody that would come up with that nickname shouldn’t be running for president,” was Trump’s eventual response.
Trump’s dismissive assessment of Christie’s candidacy is hard to dispute, but his opponent’s words said much more about the debate and its participants than they did about Trump, who, thanks to his massive polling lead, had no realistic need to participate in or even take notice of it.
Since the first Republican debate on August 23, according to RealClear Politics, Trump’s lead has increased from a polling average of 40% to 46%. He has also begun to establish a durable lead over incumbent Democratic President Joe Biden in a hypothetical 2024 rematch, which now seems virtually unavoidable. In comparison, Biden’s prospects are fading—more than 70% of Americans believe he is neither physically nor mentally fit to serve as president, while 82% including 67% of Democrats would prefer he not run for reelection. In recent weeks, as legal scandals around the president mount and a congressional impeachment inquiry is in progress, there is open speculation that Biden may not be the Democratic candidate next year. On Thursday, in what seemed like an act of desperation, the president lashed out in an uncharacteristically direct attack on Trump and his supporters, calling them “an extremist movement that does not share the basic beliefs in democracy.”
If Biden’s plaint suggests that he expects to face Trump next year, then he is not alone in assuming his predecessor won the debate. That opinion is widely shared. Republican candidate Larry Elder, who did not qualify to participate, certainly thinks so, calling Trump the “10,000-pound gorilla in the room.” So do politicians as ideologically opposite as Democratic California Governor Gavin Newsom—who attended the debate as a representative of Biden’s reelection campaign—and failed Arizona GOP gubernatorial hopeful Kari Lake, who was there as a Trump surrogate. USA Today agreed in its editorial analysis, bluntly opening with “Donald Trump won.” The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Times, The Hill, Politico, Spectator, Vox, The Economist, and many other publications and pundits across the political spectrum have all run concurring op-eds.
A special Leger poll commissioned by the New York Post, whose results were released late Thursday, found that Trump has increased his lead since the first debate, in which he also did not participate. He now commands 62% of Republican support, with his closest rival, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, reduced to 10%, less than half of the support that he enjoyed at the beginning of 2023. Reports suggest that anti-Trump Republicans are trying hard behind the scenes to persuade Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin to enter the presidential race even though he has disclaimed any intention of running and would not go very far if he did.
Polls may not tell the whole story, but they have told a remarkably consistent one since at least March, when support for Trump was regalvanized by his first indictment, which, like all of his indictments, is widely believed to have been politically motivated and legally questionable. There seems to be little—and very likely nothing—that his opponents can say or do to sway opinion away from the former president. All of their campaigns have fallen remarkably flat.
The second debate was an embarrassing case in point. Leaving aside popularity polling, viewing indexes showed that about two-thirds of Republican voters did not even bother to watch it. Of those who gave it a miss, half reported watching something else on television, indicating that they did not even bother to change the channel as their party’s future was literally up for debate on the major networks. Regardless of whatever undoubtedly scintillating entertainment distracted them— or how the other half of GOP non-watchers chose to spend the evening—the starkest lesson for Trump’s top seven challengers is that tens of millions of Republicans simply have no interest in anything they have to say. Post-debate polling suggests that DeSantis and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy gave the best performances overall, but to paraphrase an old philosophical question, if a presidential candidate is on television and no one is there to tune him in, does he make any noise when he falls?
The absent viewers did not miss much. The format singled out individual candidates for directed questions that had to be answered within a prescribed time limit. The debate’s two hours passed awkwardly, like a 1980s game show on which eager contestants had to beat a timer while performing some bizarre feat in order to win a prize. The prize here was elusive, given Trump’s overwhelming shadow, but the competition mostly involved debating wonky policy points that the moderators reliably chose to protect Fox News from anything approaching real controversy. There was little or no discussion of Biden’s prospective impeachment, Trump’s legal woes, the alleged weaponization of federal law enforcement, critical race theory, radical gender ideology, education policy, election integrity, or anything else that could potentially embarrass a nattily bow-tied DC establishment Republican whose wife does not want to get thrown out of their wine-soaked book club. The candidates occasionally tried to exceed their allotted minutes or jump in to get more airtime but were easily contained.
The candidates’ frustration was apparent. In his best moment of the evening, DeSantis led the participants in a mass refusal to comply with moderator Dana Perino’s humiliating direction that they write down the name of the candidate whom they most felt should be excluded from the contest. North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum complained immediately after the debate that its format merely produced “televised cable clickbait” and that as a result the American voters were the “people that lost tonight” for want of any clear idea of what the candidates stand for.
The largest number of personal attacks were tellingly made against the physically absent yet overpoweringly present Donald Trump, but even in these pointed remarks the candidates confined themselves to commenting on his absence from the debate and making disingenuous accusations about his approach to federal spending, crime management, and the border crisis. Rarer drama among the candidates on stage proved petty and silly. Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley told Ramaswamy, who tried to strike a more modest pose than in the first debate, that she felt “dumber” every time he spoke, after droning on in an addled Baby Boomer rant against the evils of TikTok. Later on she got into a sharp exchange with her home state’s junior Senator Tim Scott over … her curtain budget.
With none of Trump’s rivals polling above 10%, it may well be curtains for the Republican nomination contest. Trump’s campaign is not alone in calling for no further debates to be held. The morning after this latest debate, Ben Domenech, an anti-Trump editor of the Spectator who described the previous evening’s event as “craptastic,” wondered “What’s the point of these debates?” Their major purpose seems to answer to the same reason we have Harry Potter fan fiction, seemingly endless iterations of Star Wars, and Taylor Swift: to give hope to the hopeless.