The logic behind Donald Trump's decision to boycott Thursday's GOP presidential debate hosted by Fox News in Iowa is full of legitimate complaints, inconsistent contradictions, and quite possibly, brilliant political maneuvering.
First, the legitimate complaint.
When Trump floated the idea of not participating in this week's debate because he believed one of the moderators, Megyn Kelly, couldn't “treat him fairly,” Fox News held firm and stood by Kelly and her co-moderators Bret Baier and Chris Wallace. On Tuesday, Trump took to Instagram and Twitter and asked his followers to tell him if he should participate in the debate or not.
Fox News' response, delivered to Mediaite, was a snark-laden, disrespectful statement, presumably approved by the network's Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes:
We learned from a secret back channel that the Ayatollah and Putin both intend to treat Donald Trump unfairly when they meet with him if he becomes president — a nefarious source tells us that Trump has his own secret plan to replace the Cabinet with his Twitter followers to see if he should even go to those meetings.
This, frankly, only succeeded in poking the bear and raised the stakes in what was a delicate negotiation. If Fox News' intention was to ensure that Trump participated in the debate so that the voters of Iowa could evaluate all of the candidates four days before the caucuses, they failed miserably.
Ultimately, Trump pointed to the statement as the reason why he decided to pass on the Fox News debate and, as TV Newser reports, will instead host an event for veterans.
“I didn’t like the fact that they sent out press releases toying, talking about Putin and playing games. I don’t know what games Roger Ailes is playing. With me, they’re dealing with somebody that’s a little bit different. They can’t toy with me like they toy with everybody else. When they sent out the wiseguy press releases a little while ago done by some PR person along with Roger Ailes, I said, bye-bye.”
You may not agree with Trump's ultimate decision, but objectively speaking, he has a legitimate gripe here.
Let's face it: If NBC News responded to the GOP candidates' very legitimate complaints about the CNBC moderators' atrocious behavior at the debate hosted by that network in October with the same kind of mocking, sarcastic statement Fox News sent out, Republicans would be screaming bloody murder. And rightly so.
Now, the contradictions.
In January of 2012, Trump criticized Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) for dropping out of a debate:
How is Trump's boycott different? It isn't.
Trump also criticized Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) for relinquishing his microphone at a rally to Black Lives Matters protesters in August. “Bernie can't even defend his microphone, how will he defend the country” said his ISIS footage-laden ad released on Instagram at the time.
Of course, the same argument could now be made against Trump. “Trump can't handle Megyn Kelly's questions, how will he handle ISIS?” is the obvious political ad to run against him.
How is the argument different? It isn't.
But, as Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-AR) explained last night, the normal, political rules don't necessarily apply to the Trump campaign:
Now, the politics behind all of this.
If Trump is running a national campaign and all he cares about is the media narrative and winning the news cycle, then he's a happy man today. Instead of media outlets doing the standard pre-debate preview stories comparing all the candidates on an equal footing, everyone's talking about Trump. The discussion is not about the debate or the candidates, it's about Trump's boycott.
By the “media buzz” measurement, Trump wins the day. However, media buzz doesn't always translate into votes and certainly not in a persnickety state like Iowa. Don't believe me, ask President Howard Dean.
But, even if Iowa voters punish Trump, this debate boycott could still work in his favor, in the long run.
Monday evening, a very reliable poll of likely Iowa caucus goers provided a wake-up call to Team Trump. WHO-TV in Ames, along with Iowa State University, released the stunning numbers:
On the Republican side, 25.8 percent of likely caucus-goers are backing Cruz, while 18.9 percent say they support Donald Trump. Ben Carson came in third (13.4 percent) followed by Marco Rubio (12.3 percent), Rand Paul (6.9 percent), Jeb Bush (3.8 percent), Mike Huckabee (3.7 percent) and Carly Fiorina (1.1 percent). Rick Santorum, Chris Christie and John Kasich registered less than 1 percent.
This is the widest margin Cruz has had over Trump from a poll of “likely caucus goers,” not just of registered Republicans. It also shows danger for Trump from the “second tier” candidates like Carson and Rubio who are within 6 points and gaining. Considering the fact that nearly 40% of Iowa voters decide in the final week before the caucus, this poll could be an early indicator that Trump will have trouble pulling out a win in the Hawkeye State.
Pundits have been speculating for months about how Trump would weather a potential loss in the early states considering so much of his campaign message has been that he is a proven winner and he's got an insurmountable lead. If Trump loses the very first opportunity for actual voters (not just poll respondents) to have their say, would that diminish his narrative?
Possibly, but now that's all changed.
You see, if Trump does lose Monday night, he can legitimately say, “Iowa voters punished me for not doing the debate, otherwise I would've won, and Iowa doesn't really matter anyway, on to New Hampshire!”
And, as they say inside the Beltway, that dog may hunt.
Let's face it, Trump has already shown that he's willing to criticize Iowa voters for not supporting him. In November he asked “how stupid are the people of Iowa?” when polls showed Dr. Ben Carson with a slight lead in that state. It would be in keeping with his past political style and strategy to dismiss a loss in the Iowa Caucuses as the “stupid” voters angry at the debate boycott and then move on. And his supporters would agree with him.
As is often the case with Donald Trump, even if he loses (in Iowa) he wins with political spin and a national narrative. And afterall, isn't that the essence of “The Art of the Deal”?