In a few weeks, all eyes will be on Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as the 2024 Republican candidates take to the stage on August 23 for the first GOP primary debate.
Wisconsin, a key battleground state, has been the scene of previous debates for both the Democratic and Republican parties during the 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns. Former President Donald Trump, a GOP frontrunner, has also held numerous rallies there.
Along with the first GOP debate of the 2024 election cycle, the Republican National Committee will also host the party’s nominating convention in Wisconsin next year.
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“I’m so excited to bring the world to Milwaukee, not just for the Republican Party, but to help businesses and business owners showcase a bipartisan effort to do great things for this urban community,” committee chair Ronna McDaniel told Wisconsin Public Radio.
The debate will be moderated by Fox News, Young America’s Foundation and Rumble. The committee has yet to announce where it will be held in Milwaukee.
Here’s a look at why the debate is happening in Wisconsin:
Wisconsin: a “tipping point” state in 2024
Wisconsin is widely considered one of the most politically competitive states in the country, according to Barry Burden, director of the Center for Election Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He said that since the presidential election is decided by voter count rather than popular vote, a change in even a small number of votes in Wisconsin could help determine who gets elected.
“Several analysts are already predicting that Wisconsin will be the ‘tipping point’ state that decides when one of the tickets crosses the crucial 270 electoral vote threshold,” Burden said. “For these reasons, the major parties and candidates are focused on Badger State.”
Unlike some states such as Georgia and Minnesota that sometimes have close presidential results, Wisconsin is unique in having consistently close elections, according to Burden. He said the margin between two frontrunners was often less than 1% in four of the six elections held between 2000 and 2020, and that only two wins for former President Barack Obama stand out as “significant victories for a candidate”.
The state has also seen several close elections below the presidential level. For example, Democratic Governor of Wisconsin, Tony Evers beat his opponent, Scott Walker, by a margin of 1.1% in 2018. Similarly, US Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) beat Democratic opponent Mandela Barnes in the 2022 midterm elections by 1%.
“As the first debate of the 2024 nominating season, the Milwaukee event has the potential to alter the trajectory of the Republican contest,” Burden said. “For many viewers, this will be their first time seeing lower-tier contestants such as Tim Scott and Nikki Haley, who will have the opportunity to break out of the pack with standout performances.”
Typically, a primary debate won’t have a defining effect in a state, according to Kenneth Mayer, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. For example, he said you couldn’t quote the November 2015 debate and attribute Trump’s victory to that.
“There are a lot of moving parts, and it’s unclear how many candidates will actually qualify or whether Trump will agree to appear,” Mayer said.
Republican debate shines spotlight on Milwaukee
Choosing Milwaukee for a presidential primary debate “helps build a state party, encourages candidates to pay attention to the state, reflects the importance of suburban Milwaukee to statewide GOP prospects, and boosts the visibility of the primary,” Mayer said.
Milwaukee has a population of just under 600,000, so the debate will bring a “huge profile” to the city, according to Wisconsin Republican Party Chairman Brian Schimming.
“It’s not just a local, regional, state or national profile. It’s an international profile because this debate is covered internationally,” Schimming told USA TODAY. “So we’re going to have people literally from all over the world, not just for the ride, but for the debate. So I’m looking forward to that, for the love of Milwaukee, I think for the state party.
Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson said the debate will also help businesses on the ground raise funds and take advantage of the opportunity to inspire large numbers of people to support local tourist hospitality. By the time of the naming convention, Milwaukee will have implemented a sales tax, so visitors will also have to pay for services they received in the city.
Overall, the debate gives voters a chance to engage more politically, Johnson said.
I think the people of the state will pay attention to the events of the convention, have a better view of what the eventual nominee will say and seek to do, if elected President of the United States,” Johnson said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll win Wisconsin.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: When is the first GOP debate? Here’s why Wisconsin matters in 2024