The winners and losers of the first Republican primary debate


The first Republican presidential primary debate in Milwaukee on Wednesday night attracted more than 11 million viewers on Fox News, according to ratings data from Nielsen. A Fox spokesperson said the total rose to 12.8 million when broadcasts on Fox Business Network and the company's streaming platforms were included.

The 11 million figure is lower than the average viewership for the GOP debates in 2015 and 2016, the last time there was a competitive primary, according to historical ratings data provided by Nielsen. In that cycle, the GOP primary debates attracted an average of 15.4 million viewers on the main broadcasts.

The average for Democratic debates in the 2020 cycle was 11.5 million viewers. In 2015 and 2016, an average of 8 million viewers tuned into the Democratic debates.

An industry-wide decline in cable subscriptions has eroded traditional television ratings for years, likely accounting for some of the decline. But Wednesday's debate was also notably missing a proven ratings magnet: former President Donald Trump, the GOP front-runner.

The first GOP primary debate in 2015 on Fox News drew 24 million viewers, more than double the previous record for a presidential primary debate at the time. That meeting was Trump's first appearance on a debate stage.

Trump skipped Wednesday's debate to instead appear in a pre-recorded interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson that appeared on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. Statistics on the post showed it had attracted more than 200 million views, but that figure is not comparable to Nielsen statistics since it includes any instance in which a user encounters the video, even if they don't play it.

Wednesday night's debate featured eight candidates: Gov. Ron DeSantis, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Sen. Tim Scott, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Vice President Mike Pence, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum.

The next GOP debate is set for Sept. 27 in California.

Donald Trump and Tucker Carlson have their own reasons for disliking Fox News these days. To spite the network hosting the first Republican debate, the pair sat down for a prerecorded interview at Trump’s estate in Bedminster that aired just five minutes before the festivities in Milwaukee started. They discussed his four indictments, Jeffrey Epstein’s death, and the “savage animals” of the Democratic Party. Below are the craziest moments from the interview.

Trump on why he’s ‘taking a pass on the GOP debate in Milwaukee

When Carlson opened the interview by asking Trump why he decided not to join the debate in Milwaukee, Trump cited his massive lead in the polls and his experience in the 2016 contests:

“Do I sit there for an hour or two hours, whatever it’s going to be, and get harassed by people that shouldn’t even be running for president? Should I be doing that? And a network that isn’t particularly friendly to me, frankly. They were backing Ron DeSanctimonious like crazy, and now they’ve given up on him — it’s a lost cause. It’s reminded me very much of 2016. In 2016, I went through the same stuff. I had to fight them all the way, and they became very friendly after I won … I’m taking a pass, as you probably noticed.”

Trump expects he’ll get better ratings ‘on this crazy forum’ than the actual debate

Trump, a stickler for ratings, gave his opinion on how cable news has declined. MSNBC is not just fake news, it’s “corrupt news.” CNN is “absolutely doing no ratings at all.” On Fox News, the “good old days are long ago.” Trump said that he expected that his interview with Carlson, posted in full on the website formerly known as Twitter, would have better ratings than the debate itself despite the “crazy forum” it was hosted on. It was an interesting comment from the former president — considering that he has refused to come back to Twitter since his ban was lifted.

Trash talking ‘Ada Hutchinson’ and ‘maniac’ Christie

Though Trump wasn’t on the stage in Milwaukee itself, he still took the opportunity to call everyone debating names. He calls Asa Hutchinson “Ada,” but does not explain why. “I could tell you, but I don’t want to get myself in a little trouble.” Chris Christie is a “maniac” and a “lunatic.” (“I’ve been friendly with him over the years,” he said in the next sentence.) Trump also said Ron DeSantis was “gone-zo” and that “people have figured him out.”

Trump suggests Jeffrey Epstein was murdered

Carlson asked a question that many Americans genuinely wonder to this day: Does Trump think sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein killed himself? “I don’t know,” said Trump, who was friends with Epstein prior to his arrests. Carlson claimed that then–Attorney General Bill Barr engaged in a cover-up following Epstein’s death, to which Trump replied, “Bill Barr didn’t do an investigation on the election fraud either.” After Carlson prodded, Trump said it was “possible” that Epstein was killed. “I think he probably committed suicide,” he added. “Life with beautiful homes, beautiful everything, and all of a sudden he’s incarcerated and not doing well … He knew a lot about a lot of people.” Carlson insisted that Epstein “was killed,” and Trump replied that “a case could be made either way.”

Carlson asked Trump if he’s worried ‘they are going to try to kill you?’

Carlson suggested that the “next stage” after Trump’s four indictments would be a potential assassination: “Are you worried they are going to try to kill you? Why wouldn’t they try to kill you, honestly?” Trump replied by calling his opponents “savage animals” and people who are “really sick.” Trump rambled about the “rigged” election and “open borders,” but didn’t really answer the outlandish question. He did say that he “retired” the “crooked Hillary” moniker and is now using it for President Joe Biden. “That was a good day for her,” he said. “I bet she was very happy.”

Trump on Biden: ‘I think he looks terrible on the beach.’

Trump, 77, commented on the age and health of Biden, 80, saying that he “is worse mentally than he is physically, and physically he’s not exactly a triathlete.” Trump said Biden “can’t lift his feet out of the grass” when he walks to the helicopter on the White House lawn. “And then you see him on the beach where he can’t lift a chair. Those chairs are meant to be light, right?”

“I don’t know what they’re doing with the beach,” Trump said. “The beach seems to be playing a big role. They love pictures of him on the beach. I think he looks terrible on the beach.” He added that the beach “doesn’t represent what the president is supposed to be doing.”

The indictments are ‘all bullshit’

The day before his mug shot in Georgia, Trump said the four indictments he is facing are “all trivia, all nonsense,” noting that his poll numbers remain high.

“It’s all bullshit,” Trump said, referring to the classified documents case as the “boxes hoax.”

Trump went off about how impressive the Panama Canal is

In a conversation about planned Chinese military installations in Cuba and Chinese infrastructure projects in South America, Trump gave a history lesson on the Panama Canal:

We built a thing called the Panama Canal. We lost 35,000 people to the mosquito. Malaria. We lost 35,000 people. We lost 35,000 people because of the mosquito. Vicious. They had to build under nets, it was one of the true great wonders of the world. As he said, one of the nine wonders of the world. No, no, it was one of the seven, it happened a little while ago. You know, nine wonders of the world. You could make nine wonders. He would have been better off if he stuck with the nine and just said, ‘Yeah, I think it’s nine.’ But this is one of the true seven wonders of the world.

It’s unclear who “he” is in this context, though Trump lamented that “China now controls the Panama Canal.”

Trump is complaining about water pressure in the bathroom again

Decrying the state of American bathrooms these days, Trump said that contemporary regulations on water — which “comes out of heaven” — have resulted in poor-quality washing machines and dishwashers and “sinks where no water comes out.”

“Wait, they have sinks where no water comes out?” asked Carlson.

“When I say water, very little water,” Trump said. “You want to wash your hands, right? You turn on the sink, and there’s very little. Or you want to wash your beautiful hair, and you’re standing under the shower, then the water comes out very slowly. I’m sure you’ve seen this.”

The first Republican primary debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin wrapped in the early hours of this morning. Here is the definitive list of the evening’s winners and losers.


Vivek Ramaswamy

Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy is the only candidate on the stage who spoke to an issue larger than partisan politics: a lack of American identity and purpose. He accurately pinpointed the undercurrent of malaise in the country. Ramaswamy also was the first to raise his hand unapologetically when asked if he would stop sending money to Ukraine and if he would support former president Donald Trump as the nominee even if he were convicted in one of his pending legal cases. In his early moments, he came off as a bit arrogant, but that wore off as he settled in and set himself apart from the field.

Doug Burgum

The governor of North Dakota would be a winner just for showing up, considering he tore his Achilles tendon playing basketball on Tuesday. But he gets bonus points too for actually performing quite well. Burgum was humble and charming and surprised everyone when he took his first question about Bidenomics and used it to intelligently tie economic decline and energy offshoring to national security. His best and strongest moment was when he called for bringing small-town values – the idea of helping out your neighbors and relying on transparency and accountability – to the White House.

Governor Ron DeSantis

I don’t think DeSantis performed exceptionally well and he definitely got overshadowed by the ‘skinny guy with the funny last name’ to his left. However, given the recent struggles of the DeSantis campaign and multiple revamps, a bad debate performance last night likely would have killed him. The bar was set pretty low – and since he managed to stay disciplined and get his points across without becoming the field’s punching bag, DeSantis gets a win.

Donald Trump

By avoiding the debate stage, the former president made Chris Christie’s and Asa Hutchinson’s attacks come across as desperate – and there wasn’t a whole lot of time spent on his legal woes. Meanwhile, millions of people watched Trump’s long-form interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Tim Scott

Scott was exceptionally dull but didn’t do anything to hurt his candidacy or his chances at being a VP pick and even gave a good answer about the weaponisation of our justice system. That’s enough to count as a win in his book.


Mike Pence

Pence’s sense of moral superiority while constantly interrupting the moderators, and his aggression toward some of the other candidates, was something else. The best thing that Pence has to run on is the record of the Trump-Pence administration, and unfortunately for him, the first name on that ticket is also running for president and has the support of the GOP base.

Nikki Haley

Haley may have won over the crowd with a Thatcher quote about women and her ardent defense of bloated Ukraine spending, but her position on foreign policy is out of touch with the Republican party and even the majority of Americans. Peace through strength is a legitimate strategy, but propping up unwinnable wars with American aid is not.

Asa Hutchinson

He looked bad and sounded bad, and no one knew why he was there. The only bright spot for the former Arkansas governor is that no one took him to task for his votes regarding ‘gender-affirming care’ for minors.

Chris Christie

His one-man kamikaze mission to take down Trump is not going well, judging by the reception to his case against the former president last night. Give it up, dude.

Young America’s Foundation

Sorry, but that question about climate change sucked.

Former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have dominated the Republican presidential nomination fight for much of the year. Neither dominated the debate stage Wednesday night.

Trump, of course, decided to skip the GOP’s opening presidential primary debate given his overwhelming lead in the polls. DeSantis showed up, but he was overshadowed for much of the night by political newcomer Vivek Ramaswamy.

And there was no shortage of aggressive performances from the others on stage either. Former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, former Vice President Mike Pence, and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie were aggressive when given the opportunity.

It took more than an hour for moderators to ask about Trump’s legal battles, a discussion previewed with a video of the Atlanta jail where he will surrender on charges Thursday.

The former president scheduled counterprogramming with an interview aired on X, formerly known as Twitter, while his team suggested that the debate was essentially an audience to see who’s best positioned to serve as his running mate.

Here are our takeaways from an action-filled night:


At the center of the stage, and the center of the debate’s hottest exchanges, was a 38-year-old man who no one expected to be there even a few months ago – a novice candidate and technology entrepreneur named Vivek Ramaswamy.

Though he’s well behind Trump, Ramaswamy has crept up in recent polls, leading to his position next to DeSantis at center stage. And he quickly showed why when he showcased his ready-for-video, on-message approach — talking about how his poor parents moved to the U.S. and gave him the chance to found billion-dollar companies.

Businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former Vice President Mike Pence look toward former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie during a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by FOX News Channel Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

Businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and former Vice President Mike Pence look toward former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie during a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by FOX News Channel Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

Then Ramaswamy started to throw elbows. At one point he declared, “I’m the only person on the stage who isn’t bought and paid for.” He slammed his rivals as “super PAC puppets” who were using “ready-made, pre-prepared slogans” to attack him.

He seemed to be betting that primary voters preferred something memorable said to something done. His rivals were having none of it.

“Now is not the time for on-the-job training,” Pence said. “We don’t need to bring in a rookie.”

Christie cut in during one of Ramaswamy’s most biting attacks. “I’ve had enough of a guy who stands up here who sounds like ChatGPT,” Christie said, adding that Ramaswamy’s opening line about being a skinny guy with a hard-to-pronounce name reminded him of former President Barack Obama — not a compliment on a Republican stage. Ramaswamy responded by asking Christie for a “hug,” referencing when Obama visited Christie’s state following Hurricane Sandy.

Haley attacked Ramaswamy’s argument that the U.S. shouldn’t support Ukraine in its defense against Russia’s invasion. “Under your watch, you would make America less safe. You have no foreign policy experience and it shows,” Haley told him, standing directly to his left.


It took more than an hour for the candidates to confront the elephant not in the room.

And when they did, most of the participants raised their hands to say they’d support Trump even if he was convicted. That’s after the moderators noted that Trump is facing more than 90 criminal counts in separate cases across four jurisdictions.

Ramaswamy vowed to pardon Trump if given the chance.

“Let’s just speak the truth. President Trump, I believe, was the best president of the 21st century. It’s a fact,” Ramaswamy said.

Christie, a former U.S. attorney and frequent Trump antagonist, pushed back aggressively despite being drowned out at times by the audience’s boos.

Even if people disagree with the criminal charges, Christie said, “The conduct is beneath the office of the president of the United States.”


The Republicans on stage did not downplay their strong opposition to abortion rights when given the opportunity. But there was a clear divide among the candidates over whether to push for a federal abortion ban.

Haley called on her opponents to be honest with voters that a federal law that imposes an abortion ban on all states would likely never get through the narrowly divided Congress. She said the issue should be sent back to the states. She also made a personal appeal.

“We need to stop demonizing this issue,” Haley said. “We aren’t going to put a woman in jail ... if she has an abortion.”

Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks during a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by FOX News Channel Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks during a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by FOX News Channel on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

On the other side: Pence, an evangelical Christian who has long fought against abortion rights. Both Pence and Scott openly endorsed a national ban on abortions at 15 weeks at least. Pence said that Haley’s call to find consensus in the states “is the opposite of leadership.”

“It’s not a states-only issue. It’s a moral issue,” he said.

As for DeSantis, who signed a 6-week abortion into Florida law just this spring, he didn’t take a position on a federal ban when asked directly. He said he was “proud” to sign his state’s abortion ban, which is one of the strictest in the nation.

Democrats were likely happy with the discussion. They already plan to make abortion a central issue in next fall’s general election.


The Florida governor was the highest polling contender on stage. Yet at the debate, he seemed to slide into the background as Ramaswamy took most of the attacks and fought with others on stage.

DeSantis rarely waded into the back-and-forth, preferring to wait for a moment when he could give a lengthy statement. His critics – especially Trump – have hammered him for being awkward and wooden, and he had relatively few opportunities to dispel that impression.

That’s not to say DeSantis didn’t have strong moments. He grabbed hold of a question about liberal billionaire George Soros, a major donor to left-leaning causes and frequent conservative target. DeSantis noted he was the only person on the stage who’s removed Democratic prosecutors who were elected with donations from Soros’ network.

“As president, we are going to go after all of these people because they are hurting the quality of life,” DeSantis said.

But even when DeSantis successfully walked the tightrope that has defined his campaign – avoiding direct Trump criticism while making a case for why he’d do the job better – he was brought down to Earth.

The candidates were asked whether Pence did the right thing by letting Congress certify President Joe Biden’s election on Jan. 6, 2021. DeSantis was notably quiet and had to be asked twice by the moderators for his answer. “I’ve answered this, Mike did his duty, I’ve got no beef with him,” DeSantis said, contending that Democrats wanted the GOP to talk about Jan. 6 while pivoting to the future, saying the election has to be about Jan. 20, 2025 – the day the next president is sworn in.

Bret Baier, one of the moderators, retorted, “Donald Trump is beating you by 30 to 40 points in the polls so it is an issue we have to face.”

It’s not clear whether DeSantis changed that dynamic. With roughly four months left to go until voting starts, he may not have many other big opportunities to do so.


With eight candidates on the stage, it was a challenge to stand out. But one stood out immediately – Haley – because she was the only woman there and the only person not in a dark suit and Republican-red tie.

Haley quoted Margaret Thatcher about how women get things done while men talk, stressing the importance of educating girls and arguing that keeping transgender girls out of female sports was a woman’s issue. “I am going to fight for girls all day long because strong girls become strong women and strong women become strong leaders,” Haley said.

She also explicitly referenced the general election even as she remains a longshot in primary polls. Some of her most memorable moments came when she sparred with Ramaswamy on whether the U.S. should send weapons and funding to Ukraine.


Trump has almost made it a prerequisite for people vying for his party’s nomination to claim that he won the 2020 election. In 2022, Republican candidates in several debates were quick to say they disbelieve the 2020 election results.

Not on Wednesday. Instead, candidate after candidate praised Pence – who may end up a witness in one of the federal prosecutions against Trump – for rejecting the former president’s pleas to halt Biden’s certification as the victor on Jan. 6. Only Ramaswamy declined to support Pence.

“Mike Pence stood for the constitution and he deserves not grudging credit but our thanks as Americans,” Christie said.

Pence has been attacked by Trump repeatedly and pursued by hecklers still angry that he didn’t try to keep Trump in office. While an Associated Press poll earlier this month found that 7 out of 10 Americans think Biden legitimately won the election, 57% of Republicans do not agree with that statement. That’s a reflection of both Trump’s repetition of his election lies and the way a conservative media world parrots those lies, or at least shies away from contradicting them.

Fox News recently paid $787 million to settle a libel suit from voting machine firm Dominion Systems over airing lies about the 2020 election, so it was especially striking to hear such robust statements on the network, including Pence’s final statement about Trump.

“He asked me to put him over the Constitution,” Pence said of the former president, “and I chose the Constitution.”


Things started off quietly as the candidates beat up on Biden’s economic policies. But when the participants turned against each other, Baier and fellow moderator Martha MacCallum struggled to control the action at times.

DeSantis helped set the tone early by rejecting the moderators’ request for candidates to raise their hands if they believed human behavior caused climate change.

“We’re not schoolchildren,” DeSantis charged. And the moderators abandoned their request.

At one point, Ramaswamy and Haley shouted over each other for more than 30 seconds when the conversation turned to foreign policy. The candidates waved their fingers at each other as they yelled. The moderators stayed silent.

Baier and MacCallum let the candidates drive the action for much of the night — which is typically what the audience wants, although there will be critics who would have preferred a more orderly affair.

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