MILWAUKEE — The deadline for GOP candidates to qualify for Wednesday’s first primary debate has come and gone.
The debate will be the first opportunity for the entire nation to hear from a GOP candidate. While voters will be hanging on every word said on the stage inside Fiserv Forum, the elephant in the room will be the one who is not there.
Former President Donald Trump announced he will not be attending this or any future debate. However, a recent poll by Firehouse Strategies shows GOP supporters want to see him on the stage.
“The majority of them want for President Trump to participate in the debate,” Matt Terrill, Managing Partner at Firehouse Strategies said. “He won’t be on the stage Wednesday night but certainly, he has got a very large presence in this race. He’s a clear frontrunner in this race and right now, I suspect he’ll be still taking up a lot of the oxygen in the debate, come Wednesday night.”
According to the Firehouse Strategies Poll, 66 percent of Republican primary voters want to see Trump at the debate. That number jumps to 77 percent among Trump-supporting pollsters. Firehouse Strategies writes that these types of responses indicate, “[Trump] risks disappointing his base if he fails to show up at the first debate on Wednesday night.”
“Time is going to tell in terms of how voters react to all these events,” Terrill said. “Whether it’s debates or other key events will take place in this process including the upcoming Iowa voting process, New Hampshire and other states will decide this nomination.”
Terrill acknowledges Trump is the clear frontrunner in the race but because we’re more than 12 months away from the election, there’s room for the other candidates to start chipping away at his lead by getting more name recognition at events like Wednesday’s debate.
“This race does not go around President Trump,” Terrill said. “It goes straight through President Trump and at the end of the day, it’s a balancing act. These candidates need to draw a contrast in this race. But the reality is, many of these GOP-based voters, even those who are undecided in this race, still like former President Trump.”
NBC News reports 10 people appear to have qualified for Wednesday's debate including former President Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, Michigan businessman Perry Johnson and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
With such a wide field of candidates, it’s also an opportunity for undecided voters to get a look at a possible candidate they’d be interested in. It’s why Dennis Walton, a local organizer focused on decreasing youth violence, is going to have his eyes glued to the debate Wednesday.
“I’m remaining independent,” Walton said. “I’m open to whoever has the best appeal and who can guarantee and ensure that they’re going to deliver.”
Walton says he has never voted Republican. However, he says the current state of things for African Americans in Milwaukee has opened his eyes to any candidate, regardless of party.
According to Cornell University analyses of elections dating back to 2000, African Americans vote for Democrats at a rate of 9:1 compared to Republicans. But even going back to 1976, Republicans never received more than 17 percent of the African American vote in presidential elections nationwide.
So this debate, while extremely early in the landscape of the 2024 election, could be pivotal in Republicans securing more African American voters.
“If there is a significant level of communication that’s targeted to Black people, to help them understand what their challenges are and that there’s going to be support to help them overcome those challenges, then I believe that you have the opportunity to be able to sway the vote,” Walton said. “Those Republican presidential candidates who come in here are going to have to fight hard to win that over but, as of right now, I’m still undecided.”