Donald Trump does a lot of things that are unacceptable, unimaginable, and unexplainable. But his decision to skip the Fox News debate was entirely understandable.
Trump, the supposed outsider in the Republican race, was playing politics in a very predictable and potentially very smart way—as Thursday night’s events in Des Moines illustrated. What this tells us is something important: Trump often seems as if he’s on some bizarrely egocentric political joyride. Perhaps that was the case at the start of this race. But now, he’s making sly moves—and that’s something Republicans and Democrats (who ought not dismiss the billionaire casually) should note.
Trump skipped Thursday night’s Fox News debate in Des Moines, a move that at the start of the 2016 Republican race would, indeed, have been considered unacceptable, unimaginable, and unexplainable.
But anyone who watched the debate without Trump quickly understood why he decided that he was better off across town.
It wasn’t just that Trump’s counter-rally in Des Moines drew an overflow crowd and wall-to-wall coverage on the other cable news networks. It wasn’t just that Trump got to brag about raising millions of dollars for veterans. It wasn’t just that Trump invited excluded GOP contenders Mike Huckabee (the winner of the 2008 Iowa GOP caucuses) and Rick Santorum (the winner of the 2012 Iowa GOP caucuses) onstage at his event, thus linking himself to two old favorites of evangelical voters.
Trump was not just grabbing an opportunity to help himself. He was encouraging the other candidates to hurt one another.
The billionaire is a narrow front-runner in polls of likely Iowa caucus participants and a wide front-runner among New Hampshire primary voters. Trump faces genuine competition in both states from Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Florida Senator Marco Rubio. In New Hampshire he faces additional competition from Ohio Governor John Kasich and former Florida governor Jeb Bush. (Yes, Bush’s Granite State poll numbers have been on a notable upswing in recent days.)
Had he taken the stage with the rest of the candidates, Trump would have taken hits directly from them. He also would have had to stand by while they took shots at one another. They did just that: Cruz took shots at Rubio, Rubio took shots at Cruz, Bush took shots at Rubio, and Rand Paul took shots at everyone.