Each of the eight participants in the first 2024 Republican primary debates went to Milwaukee knowing they had to make an impact. It’s likely that they imagined this would be easier given the absence of Donald Trump, the attention-grabbing frontrunner currently crushing his opponents with ease despite his frankly impressive list of state and federal indictments covering a variety of crimes. Unfortunately for them, his absence only reminded viewers why he easily coasted to victory the last time he had to compete against Republicans.
No one really questions Trump’s decision to skip the debate. The math makes sense: he’s polling miles ahead of Florida Governor Ron Desantis, his closest rival and the only other candidate polling in double digits, so why bother sharing space with his lessers while fielding uncomfortable questions about his several alleged crimes from moderator Bret Baier, with whom he is already nursing a grudge? Why not just stay home and watch on TV as Chris Christie, his (ahem) biggest critic, takes shots at his closest competitor instead? Plus, by scheduling his surrender and booking at the Fulton county jail for the day after the debate, he can ensure that in the aftermath the press will again be focused almost entirely on himself instead of anyone’s performance at the debate.
Truth be told, he needn’t have gone to all that trouble. The Republican Party without Trump is exactly as boring, disconnected, and soul-crushing to watch as they were before Trump’s arrival. Nobody made an impact, nobody knew who half the participants were, and nobody will remember this debate.
WHAT WE EXPECTED TO HAPPEN: Everyone attacks Ron Desantis, Desantis has mental breakdown
It’s hard to imagine someone fumbling the bag harder than Ron Desantis. He began the year in an amazingly strong position and was seen by many as a sincere danger to Donald Trump, but it didn’t take long for him to reveal himself as a freak of the highest order and a shockingly terrible politician. Month after month he would helplessly watch as his lead in the polls steadily shrank while the politicians he counted on for endorsements would immediately spurn him and endorse Trump. His campaign would face multiple staffing shakeups over the summer, leading to potential funding problems that could end his run before 2024 even rolls around.
But even with these problems he’s still twice as popular as his closest competitor, which, when you look at the numbers, is still some damning-ly faint praise. He was expected to be a target at the debate, and sufficient firepower might have cracked his extremely fragile “I’m normal” disguise wide open and caused an incident on stage. His sweaty, shakey smile moments before the debate began seemed to presage this breakdown.
WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED: Everyone attacked Vivek Ramaswamy instead
Vivek Ramaswamy has the energy of someone from Corporate who looks you in the eye for too long and laughs too much when he talks to you, and then lays off your entire division. A lot of pundits recently became convinced that Vivek Ramaswamy had charisma, but he was probably just standing next to Mike Pence. On Thursday night he unexpectedly and repeatedly became the target of several of his competitors and, once, after he claimed that man-made climate change was a hoax, the audience as well. The booing was unexpected and seemed to catch him off guard. Chris Christie had the best insult of the night when he remarked that Vivek talks like a Chat GPT response, but Vivek was able to laugh off most of the attacks until Nikki Haley went for his throat in the last half-hour and we finally saw him get flustered.
WHAT WE EXPECTED TO HAPPEN: Mike Pence is booed, possibly attacked by audience
Former Vice President Mike Pence, once referred to as a “Sun-faded Department Store Mannequin” and “Fat Slenderman” by local wits, has been polling at roughly 4% nationally and is not expected to do well in this primary, or possibly anywhere in Republican politics ever again. Fans of the extremely popular former President have, on multiple occasions, expressed an earnest desire to hang him, and the president he served seemed to think that was an appropriate opinion to have about Mike Pence. He’s not very popular outside of the more evangelical part of the Republican Party, and even there he’s significantly less popular than Donald Trump. He was getting repeatedly booed even before he finally started criticizing the guy who supported the idea of him being lynched, and was expected to get just as chilly a reception at the debate.
WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED: Mike Pence was only booed a little bit
Shockingly, when Mike Pence spoke about his refusal to acquiesce to Trump’s demands on January 6th, the audience was largely supportive. During his clashes with Chris Christie and Nikki Haley the crowd was often on his side as well. He did get some boos during an exchange with Vivek Ramaswamy, though they were pretty mild.
WHAT WE EXPECTED TO HAPPEN: Chris Christie attacks Trump a lot, is booed a lot
His unabashed criticism of Donald Trump has earned Chris Christie a lot of negative coverage in Republican circles. Even in a field of losers his numbers are hovering near the bottom. So far this hasn’t stopped him from being one of the most vocal and insistent critics of the former president.
WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED: Chris Christie attacked Trump a little, was booed a lot
Though he did get applause for some boilerplate lines about the economy or Joe Biden, his small but overt digs at Trump resulted in extended booing and shouting that Christie attempted to wait out. But the audience, seemingly emboldened by the effect they were having on the proceedings and Christie himself, kept going until Bret Baier threatened to turn this car around and head right back to Winnipeg. I expect this to keep happening at every debate Chris Christie attends.