The first Republican Presidential Debate took place on August 23rd, at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and was hosted by Fox News. The debate, moderated by Fox anchors Martha MacCallum and Bret Baier, lasted two hours, commanded a viewership of over 12.8 million Americans, and spanned topics from the war in Ukraine and fentanyl to the GOP elephant not in the room: former-President Donald Trump.
The unlikely attendance of former-President Trump was a widely-discussed concern in the days leading up to the debate. Though former President Trump’s candidacy fit well within the debate’s criteria, having at least 40,000 individual campaign contributions, achieving at least one percent of the vote in a number of reputable polls, and including at least 200 donations from 20 different states, Trump announced that he would be skipping the debate and instead releasing a pre-recorded interview with ex-Fox Primetime host, Tucker Carlson. Political pundits that have weighed in on Trump's abstention attribute his decision to personal animosity with Fox coverage and Trump’s wish to hold onto his over 30-point lead in the GOP primary polls.
Nevertheless, the former-President was present, just only in references. According to Politico, Fox’s rationale was that Trump’s political moments would be worked into the debates’ questioning, should he not attend. “There may be sound bites, there may be elements where 'this is what the leader of the primary says about this issue.' ‘He'll be there, even if he's not there,' said debate moderator Bret Baier.
The candidates present were Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, former Vice President Mike Pence, North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson,and South Carolina Senator Tim Scott.
The debate began with the topic of inflation. For this segment, the moderators played “Rich Men North of Richmond,” a newly-viral song by musician Oliver Anthony that criticizes the DC swamp and culture of coastal elitism in contemporary American politics. Here, the moderators asked each candidate their view on the issue and how they plan to solve it. However, this question section quickly morphed into a quasi-opening statements segment. Outsiders like Vivek Ramaswamy began by introducing themselves, saying, “So let me just address a question that is on everybody's mind at home tonight: who the heck is this skinny guy with the funny last name and what the heck is he doing in the middle of this debate stage?”
This line landed well with the audience. That is, until it was brought up by former-New Jersey Governor Chris Christie that this line sounded familiar: it’s what President Obama said in 2004 at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. In a speech kicking off his political career, Obama said that the American dream was about “the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too.”
Christie and Ramaswamy went on to attack each other for the remainder of the evening, Christie speaking to the Never Trump faction on one side and Ramasamy speaking to the MAGA base on the other.
Other candidates, like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, displayed a different debate strategy: keep out of the crossfire and establish dominance among donors. While both concluded the debate without stuttering or making unlikely promises, DeSantis did not have the night he expected, the night that was planned for him.
DeSantis' debate performance was only the second most important news story concerning him that week. DeSantis received significant negative media coverage in the week leading up to the debate after a member of his super PAC "Never Back Down" accidentally maladminstered a 400-page dossier detailing specific attacks, talking points, and a key memo that he was coached to reference in the debate onto the front homepage of the super PAC website. This leak caused DeSantis to have a much quieter night, as most of his talking points were met with criticism from his candidates and retorts about whether someone 'told him to say that.'
Former-Vice President Mike Pence enjoyed the most airtime, with 12:37 minutes of speaking time. He had several notable moments throughout the night— setting the record straight on Joe Biden and January 6, as well as garnering praise from his opponents on his commitment to the Constitution during the 2020 election certification.
During the section on January 6th, Pence asserted that Trump “had no right to overturn the election.” When Vivek Ramaswamy implemented an onstage-challenge for the rest of the candidates to “Join [him] in making a commitment that one day you would pardon Donald Trump,” for his role in the January 6th insurrection, Pence avoided the question.
Asked whether Joe Biden’s age should be a concern for voters, Pence memorably said, “The American people can make those judgments. But let me say, I'm running for president of the United States because we don't need a president who's too old, and we don't need a president who's too young.”
This line was thought to be aimed at Vivek Ramaswamy, the 38-year old tech entrepreneur who entered the race in February of 2023 and did not personally vote in 2008, 2012, or 2016.
Ramaswamy wasn’t Pence’s only target though, as he and Governor Haley went head to head on the topic of abortion. Though all eight candidates on stage made it clear from the start that they held pro-life stances, the reasoning (and religiosity) behind their beliefs differed between candidates.
Abortion has quickly emerged this election cycle as the issue with no throughline. In states like Wisconsin, there's significant support for a complete ban on the procedure. Conversely, states like Georgia and Arizona, which now behave as swing states, support bans between six and twelve weeks. Meanwhile, traditional swing states like Michigan support legal abortions throughout all stages of the presidency. Due to the asymmetry of this topic, many candidates have chosen to withhold their definitive stance on abortion, preferring to reveal their position on the issue later in the campaign.
Pence began his answer to, “Would you sign a six-week abortion ban?,” by saying, “Well, look, I'm not new to this cause. After I gave my life to Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior…”
Others on the stage, like Governor Haley, offered an unspecific, but more strategy-driven answer.
“I am unapologetically pro-life, not because the Republican Party tells me to be, but because my husband was adopted, and I had trouble having both of my children,” Haley said. “So I'm surrounded by blessings. Having said that, we need to stop demonizing this issue…When it comes to a federal ban, let's be honest with the American people and say it will take 60 Senate votes. It will take a majority of the House. So in order to do that, let's find consensus,” said Haley. Haley then suggested she would support a 15-week abortion ban.
FiveThirtyEight’s post-debate polling has Trump and DeSantis as the party front runners, with Trump holding 52.7% of the vote and DeSantis with 13.3%. Vivek Ramaswamy hit a post-debate peak of 10.3% on August 24th: his support currently sits at 7.6%. The second Republican Presidential Debate will take place on Sep. 27, 2023, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. As it stands, the future of the GOP nomination is uncertain: as Donald Trump, who leads the Republican field by double-digits in most polling, is also under investigation for his role in the January 6th insurrection and has four active indictments against him. These cases will go to trial in the spring and summer of 2024, predicating what will surely be a turbulent election year.