Candidates with big poll leads have sought to wriggle out of debating without looking like cowards or risking a slip into obscurity for years, but Donald Trump actually lived the dream Thursday night.
By picking a well-timed fight with Fox News and Megyn Kelly, Trump dominated days of debate coverage without even participating, and then stood aside and laughed — hosting his own rival televised event while on the main stage his GOP rivals spent hours squabbling with each other and turning in poor man's versions of Trump-style demagoguery.
Debates are risky moments for frontrunners like Trump. They run the risk of making a gaffe or otherwise screwing up in a costly way. And debating is particularly unappealing to frontrunners in multi-candidate fields, since the odds of all your opponents messing up simultaneously are objectively low. Challengers can screw up, too, but when you're already losing the cost of doing worse is low. It's why Trump won the debate Thursday night without even showing up.
Trump's advantage: Everyone assumes he will lose
Thursday night's spectacle was the clearest illustration yet of Trump's fundamental advantage at this point in the race: Every other campaign is operating on the assumption that he will lose.
That means the goal of every non-Trump candidate at this point is not to beat the guy who is currently leading the field; it's to beat up every other non-Trump candidate in hopes of emerging as the guy who will inevitably defeat the big final boss later in the year. So rather than stab the frontrunner in the back on a night when he was unable to defend himself, the field's various senators and governors stabbed each other in a Hobbesian war of all against all.
Rand Paul and Ted Cruz got into a hair-splitting argument about Cruz's no-show for a doomed vote on an audit the Fed bill. Jeb Bush slammed Cruz and Marco Rubio for refusing to vote to authorize the use of military force in Iraq. Chris Christie slammed Cruz and Paul for voting to end an NSA surveillance program. Paul slammed Rubio for some old votes related to scrutinizing visa seekers.
Most beneficial of all to Trump was a brutal series of exchanges between Bush, Rubio, and Cruz over immigration in which essentially each man accused the other two of being inconsistent in their opposition to illegal immigration. This made none of them look very good, and it played directly into Trump's narrative that if you are serious about the immigration issue he is your only real shot.
Rubio: "You used to support a path to citizenship!" Bush: So did you!" The GOP immigration issue in one exchange.— Benjy Sarlin (@BenjySarlin) January 29, 2016
Had Trump been present, some of his own inconsistencies on the issue might have surfaced. But, of course, he wasn't, so they didn't.
Trump might actually win
Even though the debate made Trump look good and served his short-term interests, nobody will care about that if six months from now he is not the nominee. And the logic that drove his rivals Thursday night certainly makes some sense. Trump, popular though he is, has never polled above 50 percent and stands well outside the bounds of conventional conservative orthodox and Republican Party politics. In theory, consolidating all the non-Trump vote behind a single contender should defeat him.
But as New Republic's Brian Beutler wrote this week, the confidence that there is an anti-Trump vote out there waiting to be consolidated increasingly looks more faith-based than anything else.
In the realm of second choices, many Cruz voters may like Trump's defiance of the GOP leadership. Many Christie voters may like Trump's gruff affect and unusual-for-a-Republican Northeastern regional identity. Kasich voters may enjoy Trump's relative moderation on the welfare state. Bush voters may appreciate Trump's presentation as a get-things-done leader. Rubio voters, to be fair, genuinely don't seem to have much conceptual overlap with Trump voters. Still, some Rubio voters may feel common ground with Trump on the general themes of American nationalism and national greatness.
Floating above the fray, Trump was perfectly positioned to grow even stronger just days from the beginning of voting.
Trump was all over the debate without being at the debate
The spirit of Trump and Trumpism was the dominant force of the evening even without Trump in the room. Cruz reiterated his promise to "carpet bomb" ISIS regardless of the civilian casualty. Rubio archly referred to his desire to bring back torture as a matter of American policy. Asked if he was worried about a rising tide of Islamophobic incidents in the United States, Ben Carson said simply that "we need to stop allowing political correctness to dictate our policies."
Every candidate in the race — even the once-sunny Rubio — has adopted Trump's essentially dark and pessimistic worldview. There's no sense in this field that the economy is stronger than it was three or seven years ago, and there's no sense that the world beyond America's shores offers anything other than danger.
Good god Trump getting some ~awful~ headlines. pic.twitter.com/JBVFeOpEud— Matt McDermott (@mattmfm) January 29, 2016
Trump himself, meanwhile, escape unscathed from the attacks. There's now only one tune anyone in the field is singing, and it's a tune that he wrote — with a message he delivered on his own terms in a setting of his own choosing. It was a bravura debate performance, one of the best I've seen from any candidate in any election. And he wasn't even there.