How to watch the Republican presidential debate

The debate will be aired nationally on Fox News at 9 p.m. ET, but the candidates will be trying to reach only a tiny sliver of the electorate.

The Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, where the first Republican presidential debate will take place.
The Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, where the first Republican presidential debate will take place Wednesday night. (Morry Gash/AP Photo)

When Republican candidates for president take the stage Wednesday night in Milwaukee for the first primary debate — which will be televised on Fox News at 9 p.m. ET — they won’t be trying to win over most Americans.

In fact, they’ll be aiming their statements at a very small group of people: conservative voters in states like Iowa and New Hampshire, where the first Republican primary contests will be held early next year.

That thinking informs their TV ads and other public statements too. Former President Donald Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the rest of the candidates in the party primary contest are talking directly to just a sliver of the electorate in a few states.

Their message is aimed at a tiny minority of Americans who will decide next winter — in contests that most people don’t participate in — who the rest of us get to choose from in the fall election of 2024, more than a year from now.

“Expect the primary debate to favor the bomb throwers and sideline the problem solvers,” Nick Troiano, executive director of Unite America, a group working to reduce radicalization on both sides in U.S. politics, told Yahoo News.

“We already know what the candidates will do, because we’ve seen this movie before,” Troiano said. “They’ll take positions popular with the fringes of the party — because all the system requires for them to win is a small percentage of Republican voters in a handful of early primary states. Many of those same positions, though, are drastically out of step with a majority of voters.”

The tiny group that chooses your choices

Nikki Haley, onstage, crouches to shake hands with someone standing below her while other onlookers stand nearby.
There's a reason that Republican presidential candidates like Nikki Haley, here at the Iowa State Fair on Aug. 12, are in Iowa a lot and not in other states. Iowa is one of a few states that largely determine who the Republican nominee will be. (Scott Morgan/Reuters)

In 2016, the last competitive Republican primary, only 1.3 million voters decided the first four state contests. The primary was not technically over at that point, but those first few states traditionally have given one candidate a boost of momentum and set him up to win the nomination, and 2016 was no different. These primary voters have been shown to be more hard-line and partisan than the average voter.

By comparison, almost 137 million Americans voted in the fall election to decide between Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton. Clinton received nearly 3 million more votes but lost in the Electoral College count, 227 to Trump’s 304.

In other words, 1.3 million voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada decided in the winter of 2016 who tens of millions of Americans got to choose from several months later in the fall.

The same system is in place now. So to win the Republican nomination, presidential hopefuls have to contort themselves to win over a sliver of the country that happens to be far more conservative than most Americans. (Democrats face a similar issue with left-wing voters in their primary system.)

Here’s how this shapes what these Republicans say, and don’t say, on the debate stage and elsewhere.

Ron DeSantis will punch down a lot and punch up a little

Ron DeSantis, wearing a red apron and appearing to wince with his eyes squeezed closed, holds a spatula in front of an outdoor grill among other people, many of whom are also wearing red aprons.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis prepares meals as he campaigns at the Iowa State Fair on Aug. 12. (Scott Morgan/Reuters)

Elections are math problems. It’s not just about adding to your total vote number. It’s also about subtracting from your opponents.

The goal right now for Republican candidates not named Donald Trump is to win the contest to be his rival in the primary. That means knocking down others who might be gaining traction.

So DeSantis, who has been the second-place candidate for months, is trying to hold on to that spot. A memo from the super-PAC supporting him encouraged DeSantis to go after entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy — to “hammer” the upstart candidate who has been creeping up in the polls behind him.

Ramaswamy has added to his numbers by subtracting from DeSantis’s. To reverse that trend, DeSantis needs to dispatch other non-Trump candidates while also cutting into Trump’s support.

The DeSantis super-PAC memo urged the Florida governor to both defend and criticize Trump. It’s a fine line: DeSantis’s advisers don’t want him to alienate hard-core Trump fans with personal attacks.

But they want DeSantis to persuade Republican primary voters — who, again, are among the most conservative Americans in the country — that Trump has “so many distractions that it’s almost impossible for him to focus on moving the country forward,” as the memo said.

The DeSantis super-PAC also saw attacks on Trump from former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as an opportunity for DeSantis to both defend Trump and ridicule him in the same breath as “weak” for failing to show up and debate.

“Trump isn’t here so let’s just leave him alone. He’s too weak to defend himself here,” the memo advised DeSantis to say.

Hyperbolic attacks on Democrats please partisans and attract attention

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and Vivek Ramaswamy.
Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy with Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds at the Iowa State Fair. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

Watch for how often debate participants use words and phrases that paint President Biden and Democrats as more than political opponents, but as dangerous and even evil.

Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., is no fire-breathing partisan. His main campaign message is one of optimism and positivity. He rarely criticizes his fellow Republicans.

But as a presidential candidate, Scott often refers to Biden and Democrats as the “radical left.” Biden, of course, won the 2020 Democratic primary because his party didn’t want the more liberal Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to win the nomination.

Scott’s portrayal of Biden as “radical” is a way for him to show the most conservative Republicans — that is, the most dependable primary voters — that he objects to Democrats as much as they do.

And hyperbole on the debate stage will be one way to produce what the DeSantis memo called “orchestra pit moments.” These are moments that stick out, that are memorable, even if they are absurd — such as someone falling into an orchestra pit.

DeSantis’s debate memo also prescribed a specific number of times that the Florida governor needed to “attack Joe Biden and the media”: at least “3-5 times.”

Sen. Tim Scott and Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds onstage.
Sen. Tim Scott and Reynolds at the Iowa State Fair, Aug. 15. (Scott Morgan/Reuters)