August 22, 2023

SIU debate/political experts: GOP presidential debate a chance to break out

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. — The Republican primary presidential debate Wednesday night in Milwaukee will give several GOP nomination hopefuls the chance to break away from their rivals — while battling an opponent who sidelined himself by not participating, former president and presumed front-runner Donald Trump, say Southern Illinois University Carbondale experts in debate and politics.

todd-graham.jpg Todd Graham, professor of debate in the School of Communication Studies, said Trump can win the debate even without his participation, if the other candidates don’t unify against Trump or if they have poor performances with continued interruptions or “the general melee that has been typical especially of Republican primary debates.”

But he noted former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s failed 2020 presidential campaign. “As Bloomberg found out, letting everyone else debate while you sit on the sidelines is like skipping spring training for a pro football team and then showing up on week one expecting to play well,” he said.

Yet, Graham said, Trump is at his best with a stage full of candidates where there is vey little speaking time and he can “pick off his opponents with quick and biting insults, as he’s done before in a large field of debaters.”

‘Intense scramble’

john-shaw-sm2.jpg John Shaw, director, Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, notes the first presidential debate is “always an eagerly anticipated event — at least by the media and the political world.” With Trump reportedly opting out of the debate, Shaw sees an “intense scramble among the participants to establish themselves as credible challengers” to Trump.

“Given a crowded primary field, the participants in this debate will all be looking for ways to break out of the pack and establish themselves as a plausible Republican nominee who could ultimately defeat President Biden in November 2024,” Shaw said.

john-jackson.jpg John Jackson, a visiting professor with the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, agrees. The first debate will “start the winnowing process,” Jackson said, adding that several announced candidates haven’t met the criteria established by the Republican National Committee.

“If you are not on that stage Wednesday night, you are not going to be the nominee, unless your name is Donald Trump,” Jackson said.

faculty-photo-mulligan.jpg Kenneth Mulligan, an associate professor of political science in the School of Anthropology, Political Science and Sociology, said while the debate might be “interesting theater for political junkies,” it is unlikely to affect the race for the Republican nomination.

“Politically, this Republican presidential debate is something close to meaningless because Trump is so far ahead and won't be there potentially to change the standings or make it newsworthy,” he said.

Media availability

Todd Graham is professor of debate in SIU’s School of Communication Studies, where his debate teams have won five national titles. He has been analyzing presidential debates for more than 20 years and is a regular contributor and regular debate expert for CNN and CNN Opinion. He can be reached at 314-495-7278 or at or

John Jackson, Paul Simon Public Policy Institute visiting professor, has more than four decades of political expertise and research in presidential politics, campaigns and elections. He is available via Zoom and can be reached at 618-303-1240 or

Kenneth Mulligan is an associate professor of political science in SIU’s School of Anthropology, Political Science and Sociology. His research and teaching involve American political behavior, media and politics, and public opinion.  He can be reached at 618-201-9634 and

John Shaw, director, Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, spent 26 years in Washington, D.C., covering Congress and economic issues for Market News International before his arrival at SIU Carbondale in 2018. He has been a guest on the PBS NewsHour and C-SPAN. He can be reached at 618-453-4009 or

A second function of the debate will “serve as a test of whether Trump can continue to ignore the usual norms and party rules and party interests and still prosper, as Trump has been doing,” Jackson said.

One of the candidates could have an impressive performance and be declared the winner by polls and the media and emerge as the strongest “not Trump” candidate.

“The Republicans desperately need that alternative to gain momentum early or Trump will wrap up the nomination quickly after the primaries start,” Jackson said.

The prevailing tactic of agreeing with Trump’s policies but saying there is “too much baggage” probably won’t work, Graham said, because the Republican “MAGA base” doesn’t focus on policy but gravitates to Trump and his reputation.

Graham explained it is also important for viewers to key in on several areas for the candidates on stage — truthfulness, answering the question, where the candidates stand on viewers’ own personal voting issues and their “red line.”

“The debates have shifted toward becoming excessively dishonest,” Graham said, citing the importance of post-debate fact-checking. He also noted there were times in the last debate cycle “when one or two candidates didn’t answer a single question directly.”

The ‘red line’ is what candidates, in terms of issues or personality traits, can do to eliminate themselves from consideration.

“Everyone needs to be able to objectively say, ‘enough,’ and move on to another candidate,” he said.