This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
By winning nearly 70 percent of the vote in the Utah caucus last week, Sen. Ted Cruz soundly eclipsed the 50 percent threshold to collect all 40 of the state's delegates. Cruz had numerous political tailwinds and other advantages over frontrunner Donald Trump heading into the vote. Utah's Republican primary electorate has been historically dominated by Mormon voters, who are among the least supportive of Trump's campaign during this cycle. Cruz racked up high-profile endorsements from former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, Gov. Gary Herbert, Sen. Mike Lee and Rep. Mia Love.
In addition to these factors, Trump's ill-fated decision to skip the March 21 debate in Salt Lake City may have sealed Cruz's overwhelming victory in Utah. This unforced political error counteracted the momentum from Trump's impressive victory in Arizona while likely prolonging the Republican primary contest into June.
On Feb. 20, it was announced that a Republican debate would be held in Salt Lake City just before the Utah caucus. This would have been the first time ever a presidential primary debate was held in Utah, and Fox News announced on March 14 it would provide coverage while Chris Wallace, Bret Baier and Megyn Kelly served as moderators. The Utah Republican Party said it received more than 50,000 ticket requests to attend the debate.
On March 16, Trump announced he would pass on the Utah debate so he could instead address the American Israel Public Affairs Committee Conference in Washington, D.C. Trump's inept handling of this situation and implausible explanations likely offended the senses of Utah Republican primary voters. The AIPAC Conference spanned three days and tremendous flexibility existed for speaking slots and times.
In a press conference on March 18, Trump claimed he didn't know about the debate in Salt Lake City, even though it was publicly announced a month earlier.
Trump's sudden pronouncement that he would miss the Utah debate was the second time such an abrupt decision was made by the campaign. He boycotted the Jan. 28 debate in Des Moines so he could instead attend a Veterans rally. Trump held a five-point lead in the final Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll, but ended up with a disappointing second place finish to Ted Cruz in the Iowa Caucus by over three percentage points.
Trump publicly admitted that abstaining from the Iowa debate could have cost him a victory in the state, and it's surprising that he didn't learn from his previous mistake and repeated a similar error. By not participating in the Utah debate, Trump was denied the ability to deliver his closing argument to undecided voters and gain a tremendous amount of free television advertising. Close to 17 million people watched the last Fox News Republican debate in Detroit.
March 22 should have been a resounding victory for the Trump campaign, punctuated by an impressive win in the winner-take-all state of Arizona. Instead, he allowed Ted Cruz to run up the score in Utah and escape with all the state's delegates. Attending the debate in Salt Lake City would have increased the odds of both Trump and Gov. John Kasich padding their vote totals in the state, with the goal of ensuring the delegates were distributed proportionately. Instead, Trump's debate withdrawal was quickly emulated by Kasich, and Cruz now heads into the Wisconsin primary next month with some momentum.
Trump has now ducked two debates involving Fox News host Kelly, which runs counter to his campaign narrative of strength and fearlessness. In addition to the damage done in the Republican primary, a recent Deseret News/KSL poll finds a Trump-Clinton general election contest in Utah could produce a Democratic victory in the state for the first time since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. As the Republican frontrunner with a large delegate lead, Trump should have already begun his general election pivot. Missing out on the debate in Salt Lake City and subsequent interaction with Utah voters was a major missed opportunity in this regard.
Aaron Kall is director of debate at the University of Michigan.