2016 Republicans, Debates

Debate Prep: The Main Event (Part One)

August 6, 2015

The moment you’ve all been anxiously awaiting is almost here.  In mere hours, John Kasich makes his debut in the prime-time, evening debate on Fox News (9pm Eastern/6pm Pacific).  What? This isn’t why you’re tuning in?  Oh yeah, it’s The Donald’s debut too.

For the past several weeks, pundits and commentators (and the campaigns) have breathlessly tracked the polls to see which candidates would make the cut for the main tournament and which would have to settle for the political version of the NIT.  Unlike March Madness, it’s theoretically possible to eventually make the jump from the consolation competition to the Final Four, but certainly less likely.

Chris Christie and John Kasich were the last two in, Rick Perry was the last one out.  While I strongly disagree with the conventional wisdom that it’s definitely preferable to make the big lake as a little fish than the little pond as a big fish, all three candidates were probably best served by where they landed.

Perry can’t afford any debating slip-ups, faux pas, hesitations, stumbles, etc.  It’s probably better for him to open off-Broadway and work his way up over the next couple months.  Christie has fallen tremendously over the past 18 months and probably couldn’t have afforded the perception hit.  As it was, in a candidate forum in New Hampshire on Monday, he noted he hoped he wasn’t washed up.

Kasich could have survived missing the main tournament, but with home court advantage (debate takes place in Cleveland), in front of a large audience in a basketball arena (House of LeBron), he will get more attention than the normal also-ran on the far right or left of the stage.  The moderators will find him and the crowd will respond.

After all the gnashing of teeth, both debate lineups make sense and are a better solution than allowing 17 people on stage together.

Much like the NFL, presidential politics is a copycat sport.  If something works once, it becomes a standard tactic.  Some football teams pass more, some run more (though lately it’s more like pass more or pass a lot more).  Some are offense-first, some are defense-first.

The standard Republican presidential equivalents are more establishment/moderate, more grass-roots/conservative.  If you get the right people behind you, and can pull off establishment/conservative, it’s the equivalent of having a perfectly balanced offense.  This is Scott Walker’s goal.

For all but the strongest of front-runners, a candidate usually needs to choose the Iowa path or the New Hampshire trail.  In 2008, Rudy Giuliani thought he could take a pass on both and meet the field in Florida.  No nominee (since 1972) had failed to win at least one of the two.  That’s still true.

So, for each candidate, you’ll see the following:

Where they fit on the spectrum (establishment/outsider, moderate/conservative)

Where their primary season path leads

Which candidates can take their voters, which candidates they can steal from

What I think they should do in the debate

What I think they will do in the debate



Donald Trump

Spectrum: Definitely outsider.  Establishment HATES him.  Basically running as a Tea Party conservative.

Path: Will compete in both IA and NH.  Is currently ahead in both, has more than enough money for both, will have more than enough exposure in both.  Creates headaches for different sets of candidates in each.

Overlaps With: Cruz, Carson, Paul.  Based on current poll numbers, he has more of their voters than they have of his.  Think he’s also impacting Walker, Rubio, Christie, and Huckabee to a lesser extent.  Bush and Kasich are probably the only two with minimal overlap.

Should Do: What he’s been doing.

Will Do: What he’s been doing.  I don’t expect Trump to start any fights with individual candidates. Doubt that many candidates will go directly after him. However, moderators will bring up what he’s said about others or what they’ve said about him.  He will be ready to respond accordingly.  Trump won’t give specifics, he also won’t worry about answering questions with anything other than a short monologue.

Upside/Downside: More upside.  Supporters don’t care about much more than getting to see The Full Donald.  If he does well (i.e. his act translates to the debate stage), other candidates may go into panic mode.  If he only does ok, will still be the front-runner next week.  Can’t really do badly unless someone hits him over the head backstage and he starts acting like a normal candidate.


Scott Walker

Spectrum: Trying to be happy medium for establishment conservatives and Tea Party and social conservatives.  More palatable to the far right than Jeb, more establishment-friendly and generally plausible than Huckabee, Cruz, or Paul.

Path: Iowa.  As a top-tier candidate, plans to compete in NH also, but the plan is to win Iowa, where he spent part of his youth, and carry the momentum eastward.

Overlaps With: All of the governors (Bush, Kasich, Christie, Huckabee). He’s making a big case for executive experience on the state level being an important prerequisite (history agrees with him).  He’s working on convincing voters he’s been more conservative and more successful than the others.  According to polls, most Walker supporters could easily settle for Rubio.  The Trump, Carson, Cruz, Paul group are less direct competitors now, but due to putting himself directly in the middle of the field, he overlaps everyone at least some.

Should Do: Follow his script. By virtually all accounts, Walker is an excellent political strategist, likely the biggest tactical junkie on this level since Nixon.  He has a well thought out plan.  I don’t know what it is, but am going to trust the first governor in American history to survive a recall election.

Will Do: Follow his script.  I don’t enjoy listening to Walker.  He sounds pre-programmed and I’m not his target audience.  I’m not a huge fan of old Nixon clips either.  Walker and Nixon won lots of elections over people who sound more interesting to me.

Upside/Downside: More downside.  Think Walker will sound better when the field narrows and/or we get closer to actual voting and people are more seriously thinking about who they’ll vote for.  He’s not a big sound-bite guy and has more to lose by saying the wrong thing than gain by saying something memorable.


Jeb Bush

Spectrum: Though some in Florida would argue otherwise, he’s clearly on the moderate side of this field.  He’s also the most establishment of all the candidates, based on pedigree and donors.

Path: New Hampshire.  As a top tier candidate, he can’t afford to finish 8th in Iowa and will have to expend enough energy for a respectable result, but the Granite State is close to must-win.  While Walker needs Iowa and could put away the field if he wins New Hampshire, Bush needs New Hampshire and could end things early if he finishes near the top in Iowa too.

Overlaps With: Closest competitors are Kasich and Christie.  While they aren’t taking up lots of national polling space, each are focusing on New Hampshire and are now even with Bush if you combine them.  If Jeb underperforms in February, these are the most likely culprits.  Walker and Rubio are adjacent targets.  If he can convince people he’s adequately conservative, can take from either or both.

Should Do: Read a good article today comparing Jeb to Michael Dukakis.  One rule of presidential politics is to avoid getting compared to Michael Dukakis.  This is a bad rule.  The Duke was not a great nominee, but for a short technocrat with limited personality, he did pretty damn well.

Because Bill Clinton won the following election, the lesson people learned was to avoid nominating Massachusetts liberals.  Dukakis did better in 1988 than the Democratic candidate in 1972, 1980 and 1984.  Bush the Elder won most of the electoral votes, but many states were quite close, and Dukakis actually did better in a few swing states than any subsequent Democrat (Obama included).

The article worried about Jeb lacking passion and said he needed to really stand up to Trump to avoid getting portrayed as a wimp who lacks fire in a year where people are responding to aggressive outsiders.

If Trump or a moderator call him out, he does need to seem resolute at a minimum.  Trump picked on Jeb’s wife recently, and while a Twitter war is not advisable, should someone say something about his spouse on stage, he needs to defend her.  One of the many things Dukakis will never live down is his response to moderator Bernard Shaw’s question about how he would feel about the death penalty if someone raped and murdered his wife.

However, aside from basic chivalry, Jeb should stick to the semi-dorky policy wonk guy that he probably is.  There aren’t too many of those among the 17 candidates, and right now, Jeb realizes he doesn’t need to worry about grabbing 25% support.  With plenty of money and plenty of time, he needs to make sure he holds on to 10-15% to stay in the upper tier.  There are enough people looking for a semi-moderate “adult” candidate to stay where he needs by staying in his lane.

Bobby Jindal did Bush a huge favor by running as a social conservative instead of a policy expert.  Kasich is his biggest competition on that front, but his delivery is far more passionate and less disciplined.  Right now, being able to take one slice for himself is the best Jeb can hope for.

This is where pundits fundamentally misunderstand what Jeb is up to and why Jeb is right to take this course.  They are comparing him to previous front-runners or top tier candidates.  This is easy to do, after all his own father and brother fit that description and successfully got themselves elected.  He also has a ton of money and name recognition.

Because Bush is only in the low double-digits, people assume his strategy isn’t working real well.  Wrong.  Here’s why:

Math.  If there are 6-8 candidates, a top-tier candidate should have 20-25% support at a minimum.  There are 17 candidates.  While Trump does have the above amount of support, Bush and Walker are still comfortably top tier in the low teens.  You don’t need to swamp everyone in August, just stay in the top pack.

Narrowcasting is a better way to ensure this.  While Walker is going a little wider and it’s working, Rubio is struggling to stay over 5% while trying to appeal to a big audience.  The gain of being a little higher is far less than the drawback of being stuck in mid-single digits.

Bush has mentioned he’s willing to lose the primary to win the general.  Commentators do not like this statement.  They think he means he doesn’t want to tack too far right in the primary and then back to the center for the general, and thinks he can win anyway.  They think he’s being arrogant.

Instead, he’s being pragmatic.  Bush is willing to actually lose the primary, rather than win it if it means he can’t stay viable for the general.  He would rather get knocked out than lose next November.  If he can win the nomination on his terms, he thinks he will get elected.  If he can’t, somebody else will have a better chance.  He’d rather it be him, of course.

If he tries to do what people want him to do, he’ll be Mitt Romney 2.0 instead of a Republican Dukakis.  Jeb is a 6’4″ scion of a political dynasty with some conservative accomplishments, who will still most likely face Hillary Clinton.  I’ll save the state-by-state breakdown for another post, but Bush is correct and the consensus is not.  GOP Dukakis is actually a winner.

Will Do:  See above.  Only question is what he does if called out.  Think he’ll step up.  He’s not as mild underneath as he looks.

Upside/Downside: About even.  Best thing that can happen is getting called out and handling it well.  Worst thing is getting called out and handling it poorly.  Either of those will impact him by 3-5% in the polls and increase/decrease his chances of winning by 5-10% (would say he’s about 25-35% for the nomination right now).

Part Two to follow……

Hopefully won’t need a Part Three



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