Polling Indicates Skipping the Debate Appears to Have Hurt, Not Helped, Donald Trump

Donald Trump is resolute in his belief that he doesn’t need to debate and that none of the other candidates deserve to be on stage with him. So, when last week’s debate rolled around, the Republican frontrunner was notably absent. But, looking at the polling numbers, that appears to have cost Trump in ways he was not prepared for.

A string of polls in the wake of last week’s debate indicate that Trump’s decision may have actually hurt him, rather than help. Overall, his national average has dipped from 54.3 percent to 53 percent, according to RealClearPolitics. There is no state-level polling among early primary states to see if there is an effect on that level.

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It also suggests the latest indictment against Trump did not provide a bump in the polling as it had previously.

A poll from Emerson out Monday morning explains some of the effects the debate had on candidate perceptions.

“While Trump saw a slight dip in support, the question from this poll is whether this is a blip for Trump or if the other Republican candidates will be able to rally enough support to be competitive for the caucus and primary season,” Spencer Kimball, Executive Director of Emerson College Polling said. 

“Different candidates have been able to pull varying demographic support from the Trump base, for example Mike Pence who saw an overall four-point bump in voter support was able to increase his support in the Midwest from 4% to 13% of the vote, while Trump saw his Midwest support drop from 54% to 42% after the debate,” Kimball said. “Nikki Haley’s support increased from about 2% to 9% among voters over 50 while Trump’s support dropped within this age group from about 56% to 49% after the debate.”

Overall, 57% of Republican Primary voters say they will definitely vote for the candidate they selected, a five point decrease from last week. Forty-three percent say there is a chance they could change their mind and vote for someone else. 

“There appears to be a softening of support for Trump since last week’s survey, where 82% of Trump voters said they would definitely support him, compared to 71% after the debate. DeSantis’s support also softened from 32% who would definitely support to 25%, while Ramaswamy support remained consistent from 47% to 45%,” Kimball said. 

Kimball also noted in Emerson’s summary that if Trump were out of the race, his voters would split between Ron DeSantis, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Mike Pence.

Kimball notes, “When Trump is removed from the GOP ballot test, his voters split between DeSantis at 32% and Ramaswamy at 29%, with Pence at 16% — which suggests if Trump was to not run, a race between DeSantis and Ramaswamy could take shape.”

Emerson’s poll is the second poll to confirm that Trump was hurt, not helped, by his decision to skip.

However, Trump is still very much in the race, and even if his polling hasn’t been impacted by the indictment, his fundraising sure has. A little extra juice in the tank is good for Trump, considering most of his money is going toward legal fees rather than campaigning.

Still, Trump’s lead in the polls is sure to be frustrating for candidates who were hoping to use the debate to put a dent in that lead. The number of candidates in the race makes it all but impossible, though, as voters struggle to come to a consensus. That gives Trump an advantage, though we have to wait and see if the effects of the debate, indictment, and arraignment have a long-term effect or just represent a blip in the machine.

However, there is one important fact here: All of this is national polling. While it’s good for noticing trends, what ultimately matters in this primary is polling at the state level. Currently, there is nothing up-to-date to indicate how the polls might have affected the primaries, so aside from any internal polling the campaigns are doing, it’s hard to say how the debate or arraignment might have helped or hurt the former president.

What we do know is that DeSantis is halfway through a tour of every county in Iowa, the first state contest candidates are trying to win. He took a brief break from that to return to Florida after a racially motivated shooting over the weekend and released a video condemning the violence.

Other candidates are also making their way through the early states, each with hopes of both winning the state and knocking Trump off his grove, thwarting his momentum. Still, given the polling numbers we do have, it is quite the ask.

We are less than a month from the next debate, with no signs as to whether or not Trump will attend. We’re also several months out from the Iowa caucus, and anything can (and probably will) happen between now and then as we gear up for an extremely volatile year.

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