Will Donald Trump’s refusal to debate affect his Iowa turnout?

Donald Trump smiles during a campaign rally Tuesday at a gymnasium in Marshalltown, Iowa.
Donald Trump smiles during a campaign rally Tuesday at a gymnasium in Marshalltown, Iowa. –Damon Winter / The New York Times

Since pledging to skip Thursday night’s Republican debate, Donald Trump has generated more headlines about himself than would’ve otherwise been written prior to the event.

However, the Republican frontrunner could be taking a big risk by skipping the last debate before the Iowa caucuses, where turnout among his supporters will be key.

A new poll Wednesday shows Trump leading conservative rival Ted Cruz 30 percent to 23 percent among likely Iowa caucusgoers. But the billionaire’s support is closely tied to how many people actually show up to Iowa’s arcane nominating process.

“Turnout is basically what separates Trump and Cruz right now,’’ said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “Trump’s victory hinges on having a high number of self-motivated, lone wolf caucusgoers show up Monday night.’’

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Monmouth estimates approximately 170,000 voters will turn out next Tuesday for the Iowa caucuses. When that projection is increased to 200,000, Trump’s lead widens to 11 percentage points. When it’s decreased to 130,000, according to the poll, Trump and Cruz are tied. Turnout in the 2012 caucuses was about 122,000.

David Redlawsk, a Rutgers University professor who studies the Iowa caucuses, says that Trump’s absence could affect his support among undecided Iowa voters.

“With Trump not on the stage they may look more carefully elsewhere,’’ Redlawsk said. “I don’t think this affects ‘true believers’ and their likelihood to turn out, but it may affect those who are more marginal.’’

The bigger question, according to Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, is how likely Trump’s base is to actually turn out and vote.

“There are a lot of legitimate questions about Trump’s turnout operation in Iowa,’’ he said. “But perhaps the high levels of enthusiasm shown by his supporters will make such concerns about ground game seem overwrought.’’

Traditionally, debates are important tools for campaigns to get voters familiar with their candidates and policies. But Kondik says the spectacle that is the Trump campaign has never been dictated to traditional primary race rules.

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“Debates matter in part because they can increase the visibility of candidates,’’ Kondik said, “but Trump hardly needs any help in that regard given the immense amount of news coverage he gets.’’

Redlawsk agreed: People know Trump and his message.

“How could they not when the media has been absolutely obsessed with him?’’ he said.

Indeed, a national survey this week found that 96 percent of voters could recognize Trump, second only to Hillary Clinton. Trump’s main competitor in Iowa, on the other hand, could use more airtime: Only 61 percent of voters recognized Cruz.

“Trump’s supporters love his disdain for the media and for his opponents,’’ Kondik said, “and they probably didn’t need to see him again.’’

And Trump knows it.

“I have the most loyal people,’’ Trump said at a recent rally in Iowa.

“I could stand in the middle of [New York’s] Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody,’’ he said, “and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK?’’

He’s correct, to some extent. A recent CBS News/New York Times poll found that 52 percent of Trump supporters say they have made up their mind to vote for the blustery real estate mogul, compared to just 24 percent of non-Trump supporters who say they’ve made up their minds.

Like a football team taking a knee in the fourth quarter, the Trump campaign is trying to secure their Iowa lead in the final minutes of the game.

“His biggest challenge would have been to not make a mistake as everyone trained their attacks on him,’’ said Redlawsk.

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So why risk fumbling in Thursday night’s debate?

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