What will a debate without Trump look like?

Posted at 3:54 PM, Jan 27, 2016
and last updated 2016-01-28 09:50:33-05

Donald Trump likely won’t take the stage for the next Republican debate but, don't worry. He'll still be there in spirit.

This will be the first GOP debate during the campaign where the Republican presidential front-runner, Donald Trump, will not be on stage. Trump announced late Tuesday he was dropping out of the debate because of his dispute Fox News moderator Megyn Kelly.

But even without Trump’s presence, media coverage of his campaign and conversation about the candidate might peak Thursday, said Miami University political science professor Christopher Kelley.

“He gets more mileage out of shouting from the sideline of the debate,” Kelley said. “During the debate, there’s going to be media attention on his Twitter feed, there’s going to be attention given to him after the debate. There will probably be a number of questions based on Trump.”

The seven candidates on the stage will likely go one of two routes when they’re asked about Trump: attack him for not being at the debate or redirect the conversation to another topic.

“It will be interesting to see which candidates go after Trump and how they go after Trump, especially if he’s not there to directly defend himself,” said University of Dayton political science professor Dan Birdsong. “It might be the smarter move to ignore Trump in this instance. If you do ignore him, and you say, ‘I’m here to talk about this and talk about me,’ that might be the smart move for candidates.” 

If the Fox News moderators push for candidates to answer questions about Trump, Birdsong said, the candidates would be wise to push back harder – and refuse to answer the questions.

“If the moderators keep coming back to Trump, the smart move is to stop them and say, ‘What are you doing here?’” Birdsong said. “Whoever does that first and whoever does that in a strong way could set himself apart from the other candidates.”

Trump suggested TV ratings for the debate could suffer if he’s not on the stage. But with all of the chatter leading up to the performance, viewers might be more likely to tune in to the show, Kelley said.

“This helps Fox News,” Kelley said. “This has got to help Megyn Kelly because of the attention she’s getting.”

In an extremely unscientific poll that I’m only mentioning here so I can shamelessly plug my Twitter account, more than 60 percent of 175 voters told me that Trump’s absence wouldn’t influence their decision to watch the debate.

Hamilton County Republican Party Chairman Alex Triantafilou said he suspects ratings for Thursday’s debate might not be as high without Trump, but he also hopes the debate will focus on more substantive issues.

“The whole thing just seems like gigantic theater at this point,” Triantafilou said. “So many Republicans would rather have a conversation about ideas. Tomorrow will be an opportunity for some people to get serious about (the election).”