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Is Trump's debate-skipping ploy a brilliant move or a devastating blunder?

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gives a thumbs-up as he speaks during the Outdoor Channel and Sportsman Channel's 16th annual Outdoor Sportsman Awards at the Venetian Las Vegas.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gives a thumbs-up as he speaks during the Outdoor Channel and Sportsman Channel's 16th annual Outdoor Sportsman Awards at the Venetian Las Vegas.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Donald Trump's campaign shocked the political world by saying Tuesday night that Trump would skip Fox News's Thursday debate, which is the final debate before the Iowa caucuses on February 1. The billionaire argued that moderator Megyn Kelly would be "really biased" against him, and said that he had no confidence Fox News would treat him fairly — so he wouldn't show up, and would instead "host an event in Iowa to raise money for the Veterans and Wounded Warriors."

Is this the latest brilliant move by a candidate who seems to be able to defy the laws of political gravity? Is it an incredibly arrogant blunder that, in retrospect, will be remembered as the downfall of his campaign?

Or is it just a negotiating ploy that will inevitably be followed up with some last-minute deal that gets Trump to agree to debate? Here's a rundown of these three scenarios.

Scenario 1: Trump is brilliant, and this is exactly the right move

Justin Sullivan/Getty
(Justin Sullivan/Getty)
Justin Sullivan/Getty

Donald Trump is already the frontrunner. His polling trend lines both nationally and in Iowa are headed upward. What does he have to gain at this point from another debate? It's really all downside for him. From Trump's perspective, Megyn Kelly probably really does have it out for him — even if this is only because he's been such a horrible jerk to her — and she's probably seeking to manufacture a moment that would humiliate him and tank his campaign days before Iowa.

By not attending, Trump will dominate press coverage before and after the event with his refusal to show up, fomenting a media circus that drowns out his rivals on yet another of the precious days before Iowa. Plus, his competing fundraiser to raise money for wounded veterans makes him look good. The actual debate will seem boring and irrelevant with him not there, and he'll unmistakably communicate to future debate hosting networks that he is willing to walk away if he doesn't get what he wants.

And the best possible outcome of all, of course, is that Fox caves. Perhaps Kelly is encouraged to let someone else fill in for her as moderator for the good of the network, and agrees. In that case, Trump looks like a brilliant negotiator who bends powerful institutions to his will.

Scenario 2: This was an idiotic blunder that could doom Trump's campaign

Joe Raedle/Getty

By the traditional rules of politics, Trump's move here seems insane. The Iowa caucuses are just days away, and voters tend to make up their minds quite late. Many conservatives watch Fox News, and many of them would be expected to tune in to a debate on Fox News, the most important conservative media outlet in the country. Trump is voluntarily giving up a chance to win over these other undecided voters — voters who could swing to someone who actually shows up at the debate and performs well.

Furthermore, refusing to debate does not look good in voters' eyes. The norm is that major presidential candidates agree to debate, and that's why even sitting presidents generally tend to agree to do it. He looks weak and afraid. And while Trump has good reason to brag about his poll numbers, he hasn't won any actual votes yet.

And then there's the actual debate. Ratings might go down, but probably not as much as Trump expects. It's days before Iowa, the GOP race is unsettled, and voters will want to see what happens. Plus, by not showing up, Trump has given every candidate onstage a free pass to repeatedly bash him without any consequence or rebuttal. Why not just show up and make his case? He's handled debates perfectly well before.

Scenario 3: This is a negotiating ploy, and the story ends with Trump debating Thursday night

When I saw Trump speak at a rally in Clear Lake, Iowa, earlier this month, he made the case that the Obama administration disastrously botched its negotiations for the Iran nuclear deal. The problem, as he saw it, was that the administration didn't play hardball at the start of negotiations to ensure that the Iranians released several Americans they were holding as prisoners. Here's what Trump said he'd do differently:

You say, "We want our prisoners back, gotta have 'em back before we start negotiations." They’ll say no. And what we say is, "Bye bye, we gotta go, enjoy yourself, we’re leaving, bye!" and wave goodbye, get up, leave. They should have left that negotiation four or five times, by the way, instead of sitting there.

So you ratchet up the sanctions…. You bring 'em up, you know, double 'em. I guarantee you within 48 hours they will be calling… saying, "We’re giving you your prisoners, when can we start negotiating?"

Those American prisoners Iran held were actually released days later, which casts at least some doubt on Trump's claims that the Obama administration was massively incompetent here. But the point of this anecdote is to show that Trump loves walking away from negotiations as an attempted power move. So is that what this is?

Indeed, according to New York magazine's Gabriel Sherman, one of the best-sourced reporters covering Fox News, Trump's people are signaling that negotiations between him and Fox are in fact not yet over, and that Trump would be willing to "deal" with Rupert Murdoch:

It's not exactly clear what kind of a deal could be made here. Trump's main complaint is that he believes moderator Megyn Kelly is biased against him. Yet it would be too big a concession for Fox to remove her as moderator or restrict her questioning in some way — the network would be humiliated.

Still, there is a lot of money in this debate for Fox. The network undoubtedly would far prefer that Trump be onstage. And it may be too big a risk for Trump to skip the final debate before Iowa. So perhaps an accommodation will be reached after all. Stay tuned.

VIDEO: How the Iowa Caucus works

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