Is Donald Trump winning his 'Red Queen's race'?

Donald Trump's decision not to participate in the Fox News debate is helping him maintain his domination of campaign news.

Mary Altaffer/AP
A Secret Service agent inspects the room ahead of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's arrival for a news conference at the Roundhouse Gymnasium in Marshalltown, Iowa, Jan. 26, 2016 – the same day he announced he would not participate in the upcoming Republican debate hosted by Fox News and Google.

Donald Trump’s refusal to participate in Thursday’s Fox News debate may or may not help his candidacy. It could be a brilliant move to avoid harsh face-to-face criticism from the rest of the GOP field. Or it might make him look cowardly, afraid to face the Fox anchor he’s angry with, Megyn Kelly.

But one thing seems clear: The unusual withdrawal is helping Mr. Trump, against all odds, to continue to win his Red Queen’s race.

In other words, it’s helping him maintain his domination of United States campaign news, despite the fact that doing so requires greater and greater effort as the days tick down toward Iowa’s caucuses.

The Red Queen race reference is to a scene in Chapter 2 of Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass.” The Red Queen (a giant chess piece) and Alice are running hard, but staying in the same spot.

A panting Alice notes that where she comes from, such action generally moves one to a different place.

A slow sort of country!” [says] the Queen. “Now here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

Various authors have appropriated this scene as a metaphor for continual effort. Political scientist Jonathan Bernstein first applied it to The Donald back in December, noting that as time passes, Trump has to do more and more outrageous things to attract the same (disproportionate) share of US media attention.

Maintaining Trump’s accustomed “yyyuuuuugee” level of coverage would seem to be difficult, if not impossible, to maintain. But look at how he’s managed it in the days leading up to Iowa’s Feb. 1 vote: He’s rolled out a Sarah Palin endorsement. Catnip for columnists!

He’s hammered Ted Cruz on the latter’s Canadian birth, claiming he’s just raising questions and that Senator Cruz should clear it all up. The think pieces write themselves!

Then there’s Tuesday’s endorsement from Liberty University’s Jerry Falwell Jr., sparking yet more discussion of whether Trump has trumped Cruz in the crucial evangelical demographic.

By nightfall Trump was at it again, with the back-and-forth with Fox over the debate generating massive amounts of social media discussion.

Consciously or not, Trump is smothering the media coverage of many of his rivals at the moment they need it most. He has regained the lead in Iowa, according to some measures. The FiveThirtyEight polls-only forecast now gives him a 55 percent chance of winning the Hawkeye State caucuses.

The other Republicans in the race have noticed this rise and the related symbiosis between Trump and the press, and they’re not happy about it.

“I think, you know, the media’s been handled by him,” said New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in a Fox interview Tuesday.

Will Trump’s outrageousness convince future presidential hopefuls that one-upmanship is a viable path to the nomination? If so, his withdrawal from a debate could end up as a turning point in US campaign history – as was the first such televised debate, which taught politicians that the tan, debonair demeanor of John F. Kennedy could win more votes than the wan appearance of Richard Nixon.

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