With front-runner Donald Trump skipping the first Republican primary debate, the event (whose 2015 equivalent amassed 24 million watchers) is the perfect opportunity for the eight other leading Republican candidates to creep out from under Trump’s media dominance, boost their name recognition and set themselves apart in the crowded primary field. Yet, a recent CBS News/ YouGov poll finds that some attention-seeking strategies might work better with Republican primary voters than others.

The polling’s topline finding showed 91 per cent of Republican voters want Trump’s opponents to “make the case for themselves” rather than “make the case against Trump” during the first debate. The finding may well serve as a rebuke for candidates like former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who was booed at a Republican convention in June 2023 when he said “I'm running because [Trump has] let us down” and has set himself apart in the field so far by deriding the former president as “an ugly, divisive, horrible figure.” Indeed, any candidate seeking to leverage Trump’s recent legal woes to get ahead in the debate should heed the warning offered by the polling, which shows 77 per cent of likely GOP primary voters think the latest Georgia state indictment is “politically motivated.”

Perhaps throwing bombs at the former president might just earn candidates the votes of some undecideds or more moderate Republicans unimpressed by the former president. In fact, around 42 per cent of those who voted for Trump in 2020 and say they are considering candidates other than Trump in 2024, indicated that Trump’s controversies are a reason they are considering alternatives. Yet, the reality remains that prising away Trump’s supporters, a necessary step to secure the nomination, will be a significant challenge for all the ‘other’ candidates. Among the more surprising findings in the poll — Trump voters are more likely to say that they believe what Trump tells them is true (71 per cent), than their friends and family (63 per cent), conservative media figures (56 per cent) or religious leaders (42 per cent).

To help prepare for the next Republican showdown, listen to the latest episode of USSC Briefing Room podcast, and for more analysis after the debate, register to watch us at the University of Sydney from 6pm on 24 August 2023 for our next event: ‘The GOP debate breakdown: What just happened?’