Donald Trump decided to skip the latest Fox News GOP primary debate because the “biased” Megyn Kelly was tapped to moderate it. There were at least two things Trump’s absence could have proven: first, that Fox News desperately needs Trump for ratings (and the ad revenue those ratings bring) and second, that the GOP primaries would be a lifeless snooze-fest without Trump’s larger-than-life personality buoying it up.
Sadly for Trump—perhaps happily for the rest of us—his absence wasn’t a complete disaster for either Fox News or the GOP primary.
According to Nielsen estimates, Fox News Channel’s debate from Iowa averaged 12.5 million viewers Thursday night. This is up from 11.1 million for the most recent GOP debate, on Fox Business Network earlier this month, but it stands as the second lowest-rated of the six Republican gatherings this cycle. The 11.1 million does top three of the four Democratic debates to date.
Fox News reports satisfaction with its ad revenue from last night’s debate, but there is no question that allowing Trump to walk was a gamble. Viewers and ad revenue aside, however, Donald’s duck of this debate gave us a momentary glimpse into what the GOP primary could have looked like without him. And it was refreshing.
Don’t get me wrong. Trump boasts incredible entertainment value, and even those who hate him often find themselves in the crowd of rubberneckers watching his campaign throw off sparks.
So there is no doubt that last night’s debate was more about important political issues and less about entertainment value and big personalities. To the average person, politics is not all that entertaining. There’s a reason why C-SPAN feeds from the floors of Congress tend to captivate few viewers. So it makes sense that political debates that don’t look like political Jerry Springer won’t draw the crowds. Is that a bad trade-off though?
Last night’s debate sans Trump began to dig into some real political issues that had been formerly overshadowed by Trump’s personality. There was real policy discussion of immigration, government subsidies, ObamaCare, states’ rights, privacy and data collection, and foreign policy, among many others. Megyn Kelly did an excellent job of calling out candidates (with clips and quotes) on purported policy flip-flops. All in all, it was a refreshing change of pace.
If all the debates had been handled like this, rather than as segments in the Donald Trump show, who knows how elevated the GOP primaries could have gotten. As it is, Trump is by no means out of this thing, and this was merely the calm before the storm.