Trump’s biggest gamble yet?

SMU experts are available for interview on all things debatable in connection with tonight’s prime time matchup GOP contest, the final debate before Republicans cast their votes in Iowa and New Hampshire.

DALLAS (SMU)SMU experts are available for interview on all things debatable in connection with tonight’s prime time matchup GOP contest, the final debate before Republicans cast their votes in Iowa and New Hampshire.



Donald Trump’s bombshell announcement that he won’t participate in tonight’s Republican debate shook up all calculations of what would happen during the party’s final debate before the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary. What remains to be seen, Voth says, is whether Trump’s absence will make him vulnerable, or lift him above the fray.

“Debates typically level political fields and help lower candidates to be perceived as equals to higher-rated candidates,” Voth says. “With Trump off the stage, that leveling effect will be lost. It will almost seem the main debate is an undercard where Trump deemed his competitors sufficiently defeated after six debates that he no longer needs to publicly argue with them on a stage.”

Voth adds there is an opportunity for Trump’s opponents to benefit from his absence – as long as they don’t go overboard.

“Candidates will be able to make largely uncontested claims against Trump and they will implicate him as unwilling and afraid to debate them,” Voth says. “In this election, the populist public feels they are reviled by an elite American class of leaders, so harsh attacks against Trump can backfire and fuel the fires of distrust that the public feels toward government and politics.”

Voth is SMU’s director of debate and an associate professor of corporate communications and public affairs

Can discuss:

debate prep
debate strategy
comparisons between this debate season and the 2012 election’s debate season



Martin says Trump is taking two big gambles with his refusal to participate in tonight’s Republican debate: That viewers won’t watch when he’s not on the stage, and that voters will support his decision not to participate.

She expects him to split his results, winning one bet and losing the other.

“The second tier candidates can finally have a debate that’s extremely substantive, but I expect viewership to be half of what it would have been,” Martin says. “Compare the number of people that watch the Democratic debates to the number that watch the Republican debates. Nobody watches the Democratic debates and it’s not because fewer people will turn out in the Democratic primary. It’s because they don’t have a Trump character on stage.”

Though Martin expects Trump’s threat of lower ratings to come true, she expects him to pay dearly for his actions.

“Trump’s saying he’s going to take viewership that will cost Fox money, and when you’re that coldly calculating about what you will and won’t do, I’m not sure voters will respond well to that,” Martin says. “If he gets away with this, it will embolden him, but at a certain point he will have to play for a more general electorate and actions like this put a ceiling on his candidacy.”

Martin is an SMU assistant professor of Communication Studies in the Meadows School of the Arts

Can Discuss:

    • economic messages in political campaigns



Trump’s decision to sit out the debate is in many ways a good strategic move, Kirk says, but could present an even better opportunity for his mainstream opponents to break out of his shadow and revitalize their campaigns.

“Trump has been the lightning rod others have blamed for not being able to talk about substance,” Kirk says. “His absence might give a mainline candidates a chance to stake out ground they haven’t been able to claim until now.”

Kirk is SMU professor of communication studies and director of the Maguire Center for Ethics & Public Responsibility

Can discuss:

    • sound bite substance
    • undecided voters
    • presidential debates
    • the use of second screens and social media in politics
    • political communications



The economy was once a hot topic on the campaign trail, but fell to the wayside when Republican candidates turned much of their ire to immigration or Obamacare. Now, as Trump’s rivals seek ways to destabilize the frontrunner, Weinstein says an economic attack might be just the approach needed to topple the effusive billionaire.

“Trump is great at losing other peoples’ money,” Weinstein says. “Many of his ventures go bankrupt – his plaza hotel investment went belly up, his casinos went belly up – but he’s usually smart enough not to have much of his own money at risk. Will this attack play well with the public? I’m not sure.”

Weinstein is an economist and associate director of SMU’s Maguire Energy Institute. He can be reached at his office during the workday.

Can Discuss:

    • energy and public policy.
    • taxation policy.
    • economic development policy.



Despite a highly publicized flubbing of a Bible verse at Liberty University on Jan. 18. Trump continues to dominate the polls in Iowa, where evangelical voters are notorious for holding sway, leaving many experts – and rivals – flummoxed that such a traditionally strong voting block has been fractured by the real estate mogul’s camp.

“Anyone who looks at the situation can see Trump is not a profoundly religious person,” Wilson says. “It’s surprising how many evangelical voters seem not to care about that very much when there are committed Christians in the field.”

At one point, Cruz appeared most ready to turn the evangelical vote into a caucus victory, but his one-time lead has evaporated under a barrage of attacks from Trump.

“Part of the reason (Trump’s) been able to reach evangelical voters is a lot of them, when push comes to shove, care more about other issues than religious concerns,” Wilson says. “They care more about immigration positions or anti-terror positions. Not all evangelicals swing that way, but enough for Trump to do OK despite his religious unorthodoxies.”

Wilson is an SMU associate professor of Political Science

Can Discuss:

    • religion and politics
    • political psychology
    • voting behavior of religious voters
    • public opinion and politics



The once-cordial relationship between Cruz and Trump went out the window when Cruz threatened Trump’s lead in Iowa this month, but Engel says the recent animosity between the two doesn’t mean the rivals can’t be friends again in the future.

“We should remember one of the most vicious and heated Republican primaries occurred in 1980 when the two finalists were Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush,” Engel says. “Bush spent a lot of time debunking Regan’s views and even came up with the term, ‘voodoo economics,’ which became the go-to insult for Reaganomics. Despite that, they were able to reconcile at the convention and Bush even served as Reagan’s vice president.”

“The Trump-Cruz rivalry will get a lot uglier before it gets better, but no matter what we see in terms of them tearing each other down for the primary, they could still work together again down the road,” Engel adds.

Engel is director of the SMU Center for Presidential History

Can Discuss:

    • comparison’s to past presidential races
    • foreign policy
    • presidential rhetoric


SMU Uplink Facility

SMU has an uplink facility located on campus for live TV, radio, or online interviews.  To book an SMU guest in the studio, call SMU News and Communications at 214-768-7650

SMU is a nationally ranked private university in Dallas founded 100 years ago. Today, SMU enrolls approximately 11,000 students who benefit from the academic opportunities and international reach of seven degree-granting schools.