On Wednesday, August 23, eight of the nine top Republican presidential candidates took the stage in Milwaukee, Wisconsin for the first primary debate of the 2024 U.S. presidential election hosted by FOX News. This debate was an introductory platform for the candidates to present to primary voters a broad overview of their positions on various issues rather than delving deeply into policy intricacies. APCO’s Nina Verghese and Dan Meyers, both former Republican operatives, attended the debate and had the chance to reflect on their observations.
From left to right: Asa Hutchinson, Former Governor of Arkansas; Chris Christie, Former Governor of New Jersey; Mike Pence, Former Vice President of the United States; Ron DeSantis, Governor of Florida; Vivek Ramaswamy, American Entrepreneur; Nikki Haley, Former Governor of South Carolina; Tim Scott, South Carolina Senator; Doug Burgum, Governor of North Dakota. (Credit: Reuters)
Nina: Having worked in politics, I look at debates and this election more as a tactician. What’s the goal for each candidate? How do they want to be known after the debate? The ones that stood out to me were Nikki Haley—she brandished her policy chops; Vivek Ramaswamy—he was gunning for popularity with the Trump crowd; and Ron DeSantis. Many thought he would be the most attacked and perhaps lose the most ground as a result, but because of Ramaswamy, DeSantis avoided being the center of attention and may have even gained a few votes, which is what I think he was aiming for.
Dan: Like Nina, my career in politics has brought me to many debates. However, this is the first time I was seated in the audience and not in a green room working, which was a unique experience.
Nina: The average viewer may not realize, but everyone there was by invitation of someone on a campaign, meaning you had to be somehow connected to the party to attend. That also meant a good portion of the audience is actively a part of one of the candidate’s campaigns, which made the cheering, booing or “laugh track” more intense for those watching at home.
Dan: Listening from the crowd, one of the earliest things I noticed was the pro-business theme throughout the debate. A few days ago, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce released a memo cautioning candidates around attacking corporations, which polled as more trustworthy than the federal government among Republican voters. The memo was ostensibly nonpartisan yet seemed strategically timed ahead of the debate. The Chamber itself wasn’t explicitly targeted, but if you were listening for it, you could tell the memo findings had worked their way into the candidates’ remarks.
Nina: I noticed this pro-business theme too. I also quickly realized having eight candidates on stage with only one minute to answer questions wouldn’t allow for much in-depth policy talk. This kept the debate very limited to “in my administration” responses, with limited acknowledgement of the complexity of governing that involves more than just the executive branch.
Dan: Yes, while they didn’t give every candidate equal airtime, they did structure it to focus on key topics for business and commerce, immigration, foreign policy, education etc.
Nina: It was interesting that the first audience question was about climate change, and it came from a young Republican who said it is the number one issue for young Republicans.
Dan: That question is a testament to both parties now paying attention to young voters and their priority issues. There was also substantive discourse around border security and immigration, though the way it was talked about marked a shift in Republican politics and policies, exhibiting a modest departure from staunch protectionism towards a renewed emphasis on globalization and collaborative engagement with other nations.
I also found the attention on cooperation with the European Union and various international partners noteworthy. We haven’t seen this emphasized as much in the preceding eight-years and suggests a gradual shift in the GOP or right-of-center toward a more global outlook. That applies solely to the specific set of eight candidates present on the stage—Donald Trump’s absence may have influenced these dynamics.
Nina: Overall, the foreign policy portion did not feature the American protectionist stance across the board as strongly we might have expected if Trump had been onstage. The clearest divide was between Ramaswamy and DeSantis from the rest of the participants, particularly on foreign policy and especially Ukraine.
Dan: I’d elaborate there on reflections of overall performance and expectations. It was clear during the debate that Tim Scott had the most to gain and didn’t seize the moment. Conversely, Haley unmistakably leveraged her foreign policy expertise, leaving an indelible mark on the audience and effectively conveying her stance on geopolitical matters.
Nina: With a mere minute allocated for each response on the stage, I think the challenge was striking a balance between punchy remarks and substantive policy explanations. Ramaswamy used a less conventional approach where he leveraged debate rules to secure more speaking time by garnering mentions in the candidates’ responses, which allowed him to follow up on responses directed his way.
Speaking of which, do you think anybody in that room gave Trump a reason to attend the next debate?
Dan: No, but I believe it will eventually affect his lead. As the debates progress, more people will reach discontent with all the indictments surrounding Trump and possibly look for an alternative candidate. I’m not sure if this shift will entirely erode his lead, but it undeniably has potential to influence the dynamics.
Nina: I agree. Trump doesn’t need to be at the next debate if he’s way ahead in the polls, but it will cause escalation and discontent among the candidates. Also, Trump’s indictments are a big concern to a large part of the general election voters versus Republican primary voters. Chris Christie said during the debate, “the conduct is beneath the office.” To a certain extent, Ramaswamy seemed intent on presenting himself as a contemporary counterpart to Trump during this debate. While he effectively delivered impactful and witty lines, the question arose on his ability to substantiate these statements with robust policy proposals.
Nina: As the debate concluded, I thought about the 12+ million people who tuned in to watch on Fox—are they looking for an alternative to Trump? It made me think about the potential for a persuadable middle ground and its potential trajectory.
Dan: For me, one standout from this debate is the political reality today in the United States. While becoming president is often portrayed as the goal, candidates enter the race with varying aspirations and strategies. For some, the debate platform offers an opportunity to amplify their policy positions, enhance their public profile, or champion specific issues important to them. This strategic use of debates as a means to an end reflects the broader reality that political campaigns encompass diverse ambitions beyond just clinching the highest office.
In the wake of this compelling GOP debate, we find ourselves at a pivotal juncture in American politics. The discourse on the stage not only unveiled the multifaceted nature of the Republican party’s aspirations but also underscored the evolving landscape of our democracy. As the nation continues to grapple with its diverse challenges, the candidates’ performances remind us that these debates are not merely showcases of policy prowess, but emblematic of the vibrant exchange that fuels our democratic process. It is incumbent upon us, as engaged citizens, to distill the insights gleaned from these discussions and channel them into informed decisions that will shape the future of the United States and global impacts.