“I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters,” Donald Trump bragged over the weekend. If he believes that — and hell, why wouldn’t he? — then his decision to pick a fight with Fox News and boycott the last debate before the Iowa caucuses wasn’t much of a risk.
In fact, with the debate now behind us, I’d say the decision to boycott has worked out just perfectly for Trump. Let’s enter the Trump brain and try to think through, step by step, what may have led him to that decision:
Step One: “I gotta win Iowa. I win Iowa, it’s over. I run the table. Look at all the polls for the states after Iowa. Beautiful polls, by the way. Smart people. I’m up 19 points in New Hampshire, 16 points in South Carolina, 15 points in Nevada. So I win Iowa, all those numbers jump higher and suddenly everyone wants to be my friend. Who can stop me then? Nobody. So I gotta win Iowa.”
Step Two: “OK, so who can beat me in Iowa? They say Ted Cruz, they say he can win. But such a loser, this one. He’s been hiding in my shadow for months now, like a scared little boy. I say something brilliant, he says ‘Me too!’, and his numbers go up. A real leader, right? Pretends to be my friend, with that smug little face. Not nice.”
Step Three: “So … I duck this Fox debate, what happens. Maybe I lose some votes; maybe I don’t. Who cares? But Ted — with me not there, Ted can’t hide in my shadow. Because I do have a very big, very impressive shadow, I must say. My shadow passes, they think it’s a solar eclipse. Really, they do, I promise you. If I’m not at the debate, you know what happens? They all turn on Ted. The media, the other candidates, that Fox bimbo. They all hate him anyway. Everybody does. Let’s see if Mr. Harvard Law, Mr. Debate Champion, let’s see how he does being the big guy with the target on his back all night long. I bet they make him squirm. Make him sweat. Squirm and sweat and backtrack and whine, not a good look. That’ll be great. If I lose a few votes, but Ted loses more, fine, I win Iowa. Gotta win Iowa.”
Now, I don’t know if Trump actually sat down and gamed it all through like that. He likes to give the impression that such choices are driven by anger and affronted pride rather than shrewd calculation, and maybe they really are. But the fact is that his decision to boycott the debate last night left his top challenger, Cruz, exposed to incoming fire, and Cruz didn’t handle it well. As a result Trump today is in a better position to win Iowa than if he had attended the debate.
Dumb luck? Maybe. But it sure is interesting to see these supposed seat-of-the-pants decisions keep turning out in Trump’s favor.