Once again, Donald Trump is proving that when it comes to his 2016 campaign playbook, there are no rules.
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Only hours after Fox News issued a tongue-in-cheek statement mocking Trump’s complaints against the network (he and Kelly sparred at the very first debate last year), Trump turned the network’s invitation down and declared that he would hold his own event in Iowa.
But with the caucuses fast approaching, could this be Trump’s riskiest move yet?
For the loyal supporters who have cheered Trump’s brazen style, the candidate’s absence from the debate stage will not likely affect their caucus night choice, Matt Strawn, the former chairman of the Iowa Republican Party, said in an interview.
“Most Trump supporters are set on supporting him so perhaps it’s not as crucial for him to be on stage. But for Cruz, Rubio, the other candidates, there is no audience that is just as large,” Strawn said. “It’s invaluable to get that kind of exposure.”
But Trump risks alienating undecided and first-time caucus goers, according to David Yepsen, a former long-time Des Moines Register political reporter.
“I think it’s a mistake and I say that because there are a lot of caucus goers who have not made up their mind,” said Yepsen, who is currently the director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University.
In 1980 Ronald Reagan passed on an Iowa debate and it didn’t help his campaign, Yepsen noted. Reagan lost the Republican Iowa caucus vote to George H.W. Bush that year.
“It hurts, it takes away from the campaign and it makes it look like they have something to hide, especially on the eve of the election,” Yepsen added. “I don’t buy it that it has to do with Fox. I think that it’s a strategic decision to sit on a lead and avoid taking hits here at the end.”
Those hits will likely fall on Sen. Ted Cruz, who is polling in second place in Iowa. In a Monmouth University poll released on Wednesday, Trump leads his fellow GOP competitors with 30 percent of support among Iowa Republicans.
Instead of appearing alongside his rivals at the debate, Trump said he will host an event “to raise money for the Veterans and Wounded Warriors,” according to a statement released by his campaign. Although the other Republican presidential hopefuls may be slightly relieved that Trump won't be on stage, the billionaire businessman likely won’t lose out on any publicity.
“If past performance is any indication of future coverage, we’ll all be talking about Trump Friday morning,” Strawn said.