Do you know what Marco Rubio did Tuesday? Probably not. How about Ted Cruz? Probably not him either. Almost certainly, you have no idea what the rest of the candidates did.
You may very well be aware that Donald Trump spent Monday and Tuesday grumbling and tweeting about the bias he thinks GOP debate moderator Megyn Kelly harbors against him, and that he just might not participate in the Thursday’s Fox News debate because of it. Then, you probably know, Tuesday night he decided that, indeed, he won’t be debating, but will instead raise money for veterans.
Once again, Trump was stealing the show, this time by NOT being in it.
No doubt on Wednesday, all anyone will be talking about is how Trump is skipping the debate, what this means for him and the others, and whether anyone can convince him to change his mind. The other candidates will issue criticisms that will be mentioned on the news and then vanish into the ethers as Trump continues his high decibel colloquy with Fox News, the media, and the country.
Thursday, debate day, will be more of the same, until the debate itself, when the elephant in the room will be the absence of Donald Trump. All the candidates will talk about him, the moderators will ask about him, and everyone watching will be checking his Twitter feed. And then Friday, the debate analysis will feature urgent discussions about how things went for Trump by NOT participating in the debate.
That is, five of the eight days leading up to Monday’s Iowa caucuses will be about Trump, Trump and Trump. What’s more, skipping the debate emphasizes everything voters love about Trump: He’s the burning iconoclast who will stand up to the Establishment and anyone else in order to do exactly what he thinks needs to be done. It’s what his backers think this imperiled nation needs.
This week will be little different than last, when he grabbed headlines by leaking out that he would have a “secret” guest at a campaign event and then unveiled none other than American politics’ other great attention-grabber, Sarah Palin. They appeared together again the next day, guaranteeing two days of Trump, Trump, Trump.
Meantime, Trump threw in some daily ad hominem attacks against chief rival Sen. Ted Cruz — he’s “nasty” and “looks like a jerk” — to make sure Cruz’s press is viewed through the filter of Trump.
The GOP frontrunner’s seemingly effortless ability to dominate every news cycle is not just the result of random bluster. Trump’s business is based on his talent for self-branding, making his face and personality the drawing card for his real estate. His skill at getting attention has been honed over the years, and it is now being used like a sledgehammer to smash the presidential dreams of his GOP rivals, who no doubt thought his entrance into the campaign last spring was a joke.
And beyond the publicity splash, not debating makes raw strategic sense. He is leading in the polls. It’s nearly the end of the trail. Everyone in the debate was going to be throwing desperate Hail Mary’s right as his nose. Who needs it? He’s been voted the winner in these debates constantly, so now he can only lose. He has the momentum in Iowa and is ahead everywhere else. The seemingly capricious Trump is just methodically following one of politics’ oldest rules: Frontrunners don’t debate.
Front-runner projects a kind of strength his opponents can’t quite match
But the irony of this is that if Trump wins the Republican nomination, it won’t be because of superficial tactics like garnering publicity. It will be because, dynamic to the core, he beats his opponents to the punch every single time. When they all go north, he heads south. While they were putting their alarm clocks on snooze, he was dressed and headed out the door. He has out-hustled and out-innovated all of them.
Nobody makes billions of dollars by shooting from the hip. They take aim at flamboyant and unexpected targets, and sometimes they miss. But when they hit, it’s remarkable. They seem crazy to everyone else, but they are merely plowing ground only they thought to sow in the first place.
That’s not to say it’s all a big, master plan. Trump is spontaneous and vindictive, to be sure. But he also knows what he’s doing. Problem for his opponents is, they can never guess what it will be.