Fewer and fewer people are watching the GOP’s presidential debates, raising sharp
er questions about their relevance in a cycle where the party’s front-runner, former President Donald Trump, is skipping them.
Fewer than 7 million people tuned in for this week’s debate, where Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis both got solid reviews for their performances.
But with a dwindling audience and time running out before the Iowa caucuses, Trump’s competitors face questions about whether they have a realistic path to the GOP presidential nomination.
“I feel like we’re living in ‘The Twilight Zone’ watching this because none of these people are going to be the Republican nominee with Donald Trump at 30 points ahead,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean.
Pressure has been mounting for months for the other Republican candidates to gain momentum and be in a position to rival Trump for the nomination. The candidates have jostled to become the GOP alternative and coalesce the non-Trump support.
The field has narrowed over the past month, most significantly with former Vice President Pence dropping out.
But the debates, which have historically been a hallmark of the primary process and an opportunity for candidates to surge, have had little effect on Trump’s substantial lead with just two months before Iowa votes. And the public seems to be losing interest.
While 12.8 million people watched the first debate in August and 9 million tuned in to the second debate in September, only 6.8 million watched Wednesday’s debate on linear television. NBC News said the total is 7.5 million when including digital and streaming.
Primary debates have often seen this decline in viewership in successive events, with the first one bringing in the widest audience. But the GOP race in 2024 is unique in having a front-runner with a steady and commanding lead who has skipped all the debates.
Front-runners have forgone some debates in past years, but Trump does not show any indication that he will participate in any primary debate.
Republican strategists said Trump’s absence poses a problem for the candidates trying to break through, noting the significant audience that the former president would likely bring. But they said Trump’s strategy is working, and they do not expect him to join.
“In the end, it just seems like a very futile exercise,” Bonjean said. “The [Republican National Committee] has to have the debates because it’s something that we do as a democracy, is every candidate has a chance to debate. You don’t want to shut that down… it’s a futile exercise, but it’s a necessary one.”
He said Trump has no need to be “cross-examined” by the other candidates when he already has the press coverage that he needs. The former president has instead held
multiple events as counterprogramming during each debate.
On the stage, Haley has most consistently performed well, turning in three straight memorable performances. She has particularly shined in talking about foreign policy, a strength given she served as United Nations ambassador.
She has also scored some notable hits on Vivek Ramaswamy, most recently calling him “scum” over his mentioning of her daughter during Wednesday’s debate.
The former South Carolina governor has enjoyed a rise in the polls that has placed her in a close contest with DeSantis for second place on a national and state level.
The Florida governor is still most consistently placing second in polls to Trump, and he seemed to have a stronger debate performance this week.
A FiveThirtyEight/Washington Post/Ipsos poll found after the debate that Haley was seen as the biggest winner, while DeSantis came in a decent second.
In past cycles, candidates have seen a surge following a strong debate performance that puts them in a position to at least fight for first place if not become the front-runner. But even with Haley’s recent momentum, she’s only at about 9 percent nationally and 14 percent in Iowa, according to FiveThirtyEight’s polling average.
While Trump is still below a majority in Iowa in the polling average, he has had a majority in the national average for months.
Republican strategist Mary Anna Mancuso said the combination of the polling for the five candidates who were on stage Wednesday is still not “within striking distance” of Trump.
“Even if they have the greatest debate in their life, it’s not going to make a difference for the primary election with Trump as all but the de facto nominee at this point in time unless he’s convicted,” she said.
Mancuso noted that the next debate, scheduled for December, could shrink the stage further and give candidates more airtime to focus on substance and their policies.
The RNC raised the requirements for candidates to make the debate stage again, requiring them to reach 6 percent in two national polls or in one national poll and two polls of the four early-voting states (Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada). They also must have at least 80,000 unique donors.
That could pose an issue for former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who have consistently polled below that. Ramaswamy has polled close to that level, and only Haley and DeSantis are regularly exceeding it.
Mancuso said the smaller stage could be a chance for the candidates on stage to differentiate themselves from others but still within the context of a dwindling audience.
“At the end of the day, is the audience really going to be focused and tuning in at the beginning of December when we’re coming out of Thanksgiving, people are looking to the holidays?” she said.
Zachary Moyle, a Republican strategist and former executive director of the Nevada Republican Party, said the idea of a non-Trump alternative will not work in 2024 because Trump is above 50 percent in national polls, unlike in 2016.
A dozen candidates remained in the race in 2016 heading into the Iowa caucuses, significantly splitting the GOP primary vote.
Moyle said he believes the debating candidates are using it as an opportunity to prep for the future, such as becoming vice president or running for president in 2028.
He said the audience would “triple” if Trump decided to attend the next debate. But without him, a wide national audience won’t tune in, comparing the debates to this year’s World Series between the Texas Rangers and Arizona Diamondbacks, which had the lowest viewership in TV history.
“If you have a World Series without the Yankees or the Dodgers, the ratings suck. If you have a Super Bowl without a team from Los Angeles or New York, the ratings are smaller. That’s all you’re seeing,” Moyle said.