Donald Trump bragged that he could shoot someone and still win the nomination. But he's about to find that skipping the Fox News debate might actually be more costly to his campaign, especially if his followers see it as an insult or cowardice.
Ever heard of Mexican Presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador? Probably not. He was from the leftist PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution) and had a commanding lead over the bookish Felipe Calderon Hinojosa of the PAN and the corrupt PRI, led by Roberto Madrazo in 2006. Lopez Obrador had a commanding lead, almost Trump-like, until he decided not to attend a key debate with his rivals. All that remained was an empty chair, la silla vacia.
Calderon performed well, Lopez Obrador lost his big lead, as Mexicans saw his absence as an insult, and he amazingly lost the election.
Eight years ago, John McCain threatened to skip the debates during the financial crisis, to a general outcry. Four years later, Clint Eastwood harangued an empty chair, hampering Mitt Romney's chances in the 2012 election.
Angry that Megyn Kelly was tapped to host the Fox News debate, Trump announced wouldn't participate, according to Robert Sobel with The Examiner.
"Based on Megyn Kelly's conflict of interest and bias she should not be allowed to be a moderator of the next debate," Trump tweeted out over the weekend. As the article notes, Corey Lewandowski, Trump's campaign manager said that it was possible that the GOP front runner would not attend the upcoming Fox News debate because Kelly would be a moderator. "Lets [sic] see what happens," Lewandowski said, noting, "It's fair to say Mr. Trump is a significant ratings driver for these debates." Going even further, Lewandowski said there is talk about hosting a televised town hall event at the same time the Fox News debate is set to air, calling it a "great idea.""
It didn't take long for Fox News and GOP rivals to accuse Trump of being afraid to face Kelly, noting he can't just run from ISIS, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and China's leader Hu Jintao the way he's ducking a debate moderator.
By suggesting a last minute rival town hall meeting, Trump is also undercutting his own appeal. It's unlikely that event will beat Fox News in ratings that night. Interest in Trump's rivals will grow, and he won't be around to suck up all the oxygen in a debate, as he usually does. Students and fellow Southern residents that I spoke to today seemed bewildered by Trump's latest statements about shooting people, and skipping debates because of fears about the moderator.
Trump then said he'd leave it up to his followers. According to Igor Bobic, his fans voted for him to participate in the debate, but it seems he's going to ignore their wishes, and will skip the debate anyway. Well, so much for caring about what your supporters think.
There's a chance that Trump might still show up. Given that he portrays himself as a straight-shooter, it would be a John Kerryesque flip flop. There's nothing Trump can do to evade this problem.
It's a huge opportunity for the others. If they can show some bold leadership, and ideas for implementing their plan, they can benefit tremendously from Trump's gaffe. But don't make the night about Trump. Let the front-runner's absence speak for itself, without spending time harping on it. Otherwise, Trump will keep his lead, even if he drops in the polls due to his error.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.