How beneficial will Milwaukee's GOP debate be for voters? Experts weigh in
MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- Over the last few election cycles, several races in Wisconsin and across the U.S. have staged fewer debates than years past as some political operatives see them as more of a risk than a reward.
During the 2022 midterms, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and Republican challenger Tim Michels held one debate. Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson and his Democratic rival Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes participated in two.
Others don't see the benefit of participating when a candidate is dominating the polls. That's part of the reason why former President Donald Trump said he's skipping Wednesday's presidential primary debate in Milwaukee.
In a new CBS News poll, the former president received 62% support, with his closest opponent, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, at 16%. The rest of the candidates are in the single digits.
Still, some debate experts and political strategists believe debates remain a major part of how voters elect their candidates.
"Even though the country is so divided, and people are in their political corners, debates are still important because they are the perfect job interview for being a president of the United States," said Aaron Kall, debate coach and director of debate at the University of Michigan.
It's also become more difficult to influence voters through debates, as there's a much smaller pool of undecided voters each presidential cycle, Kall said. Topical questions about issues facing voters can often turn into attacking another candidate's stance on-stage, leaving voters without direct answers.
That's not to say debates are pointless. Post-election surveys conducted by Pew Research Center since 1988 show voters find debates “useful” and "helpful" in making their decisions, but not pivotal.
While viewership has fallen over the decades, Kall said debates can still draw in millions of Americans compared to any other type of campaign event.
He also added it's not unusual for the leading candidate to sit on the sidelines.
"Having the frontrunner not participating in debate is not unprecedented," Kall said. "Trump skipped the primary debate in 2016. Not having Trump there will probably decrease the audience, but it will still be large, and millions of people will still tune in."
Mark Jefferson, the executive director of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, agrees. He says while fewer Americans watch debates, the excitement around Milwaukee hosting the first GOP presidential primary could attract a sizable audience.
"Yes, a lot of people may not be watching, but I also think there will be a lot of interest in that first debate," Jefferson said. "We are seeing that this is the unofficial kickoff to the presidential campaign for 2024."
Not having Trump participate will also open the door for other candidates to make an impression and talk about issues important to voters, Jefferson said.
"Trump will not be taking all of the energy and attention out of Fiserv Forum, and that will give the rest of the candidates an opportunity to talk about what they'll do to reduce crime in this county. What are they going to do to make sure inflation is under control."
When asked if he thinks Wisconsinites will remember Trump skipping this debate, Jefferson said, "I think it's possible. I do think it was a missed opportunity."
Instead of debating, Trump pre-taped an interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson that will air as counterprogramming to the debate, according to reports.