August 7, 2015
So The Donald was center stage, and the world survived. On the whole, a pretty successful evening for the majority of concerned parties. Let’s take a look at who’s smiling today, who should have a frown and who might not know how to feel:
Fox News: The moderators acquitted themselves very, very well. Not only was I impressed, but a range of influential commentators and journalists, some on the right and some not, were equally so. While Fox has their share of conservative commentators, this is what they mean by Fair and Balanced.
Even better for the network, the ratings were incredibly high. The overnight numbers showed 16.0, equal to the NBA Finals, almost double the best numbers from the 2008 Democratic debates, and triple the 2012 Republican opening debate.
What could be better than having a record audience tune in to see your top talent do well. The candidates did well too and put on a good show, so general interest is up, which can’t hurt their daily ratings over the next few weeks.
Republican Party: Donald Trump is why people watched, but the other candidates were able to capitalize, with several making effective presentations. Trump did well enough to stay viable for a while longer and continue to build debate ratings, but not so well that he’s going to continue to overshadow the entire field going forward. Overall, the GOP wound up looking good.
Carly Fiorina: This piece is about the main debate, but Fiorina will participate in the next one. Not sure who’s podium she’s taking, or if CNN will find a way to allow 11 participants, but her momentum continues. Compared to Trump and Dr. Ben Carson, fellow candidates who have not held elective office, Fiorina sounded dramatically more presidential and informed.
Unusually for a candidate who has not held office, Fiorina is actually potentially acceptable to almost the entire party. She has mainstream conservative positions on all issues, isn’t too far right for the moderates or too RINOish for the serious conservatives.
More importantly, she has no legislative or governing record for ideologue outsiders to object to, but has more applicable experience than any of the other outsiders. Scott Walker now has legit Goldilocks candidate competition.
Fiorina is still an obvious underdog to win the nomination, but it is no longer out of the question. You can immediately put her ahead of Dr. Carson, Trump, Cruz, Paul, Huckabee and Christie, along with anyone who joined her in the JV debate yesterday.
More on Carly in a separate piece coming soon.
Marco Rubio: The top-tier candidate who most needed a good debate had a great one. Answers ranged from solid to excellent and he received uniformly good reviews. His whole edge on the other leading candidates is communication skill. He’s an excellent 30-90 second speaker, but loses something in a 10-15 second sound bite, so these type of debates are a perfect format.
When Rubio does well, he pulls voters from everyone. When he falls into the background, he loses those voters back. This performance will give him an immediate bump and move his polling closer to Bush and Walker, perhaps ahead in some states. Even if he begins to drop back again soon, having a debate about once a month going forward should sustain enough momentum.
It also reminds donors Rubio is as viable as he thinks. Third or fourth in Iowa, followed by a strong second or third in New Hampshire, is enough to put him in position to win South Carolina and make a serious run at the nomination. Each early caucus/primary state will have a debate in close proximity to voting day.
John Kasich: So, I didn’t think he sounded particularly good. He can do better. I’ve heard him say virtually everything he said, except better. For Tea Party voters, serious social conservatives, etc., there were things not to like and no reason to put him ahead of your favorite.
But, he also did everything I prescribed for him. Step one was building a lane for himself, and he did that. People noticed he was there, the home crowd made enough noise after his applause lines. He’s now the compassionate conservative. Not the candidate for everyone, but likely enough to cement his presence in the next big debate.
There are five tiers in the nomination contest.
The first includes the three candidates most likely to get nominated; Walker, Bush, Rubio, possibly in that order, but that part doesn’t matter. There’s at least a 75% chance the nominee comes from this group. In many previous cycles (1996, 2008, 2012 for example) each of the three would be stronger than the person who got nominated (Yes, I realize Jeb could not have run to succeed his brother, example is in a vacuum).
Second tier is Kasich and Fiorina. Absent the people above them, these two are serious contenders and might get there eventually anyway. Odds are still against them, but both are stronger than some previous Republican nominees (this is a strong field). Hillary would not enjoy running against either. You can argue Rubio is the only other candidate that would match up with Clinton as well as these two.
Trump, Huckabee, Cruz, Paul and Dr. Carson are in group three. Each have more support than the combined total poll numbers of the Happy Hour debate contestants yesterday. None have a path to the nomination right now. However, they each have a base of support that will keep them in front of voters for some time to come.
Each would have had the 15 days of fame experienced by Michelle Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum and Rick Perry in 2012. It’s possible Cruz, Huckabee or even Rand Paul could have won the nomination (again, in a vacuum where Cruz hadn’t just reached the Senate).
Tier four consists of Christie, Perry and Jindal. These governors don’t have a place yet, with Walker and Bush in the top group and Kasich ahead of them for now. Though none have great poll numbers and Christie is at risk of falling back to the kids table for the next debate, each did at least decently yesterday.
Like Fiorina, they have the chance to skip level 3 and move up to level 2 in a matter of minutes if they get the right breaks. Jindal will make another run at this in the future, Perry is a legitimately better candidate than he was in 2012, and Christie was the front-runner 18 months ago. Again, hell of a lot of options.
The basement includes Santorum, Graham, Pataki and Gilmore. These guys could drop out tomorrow without anyone noticing. Santorum was less compelling than Huckabee yesterday and you could argue the field needs neither of them, but definitely not both. Much as I thought Graham voiced a distinct view, he’s never getting a seat at the big table to voice it.
Donald Trump: By most accounts, Trump didn’t fare that well in the debate. He will probably lose a few points in the polls over the next week, perhaps more. Several competitors were more impressive. He picked a Twitter fight with Megyn Kelly after getting grouchy about her debate questions.
So why a partial winner? There was never more than the absolute slightest chance that Trump was the eventual nominee. He wasn’t absurdly over the top to the point where he ruined the debate. He didn’t back down on anything. If you went into the festivities sure that Trump was your candidate, odds are you still feel this way.
The Donald’s likely option was always to run as a third party candidate, something he wisely did not attempt to deny when asked yesterday. His ego will not allow a candidacy that winds up in the Nader-Buchanan range of 1-2% of the national vote. Decent debate performances increase his chances of at least winding up like the 1996 version of Ross Perot (v. 2.0).
Mike Huckabee: Huck was Huck, did just fine. Didn’t move the needle. Has Kasich on one side of him, Cruz on another. Lane is far more narrow than during his 2008 underdog attempt.
Ted Cruz: Sounded fine. Did nothing that would offend or depress his supporters. Some observers mentioned they were disappointed a champion debater (apparently Cruz was a legend at Princeton) didn’t command the stage more, but this is a highly public, crowded, extended group interview, not a debate.
We call these exercises debates, but they aren’t. Debates have two sides, not ten.
Chris Christie: The good news is Christie got some air time, defended his record in New Jersey well and got to talk about entitlement reform, which is his major policy angle. I’d indicated ahead of the show that he needed to pick a fight with someone, thinking he’d need to find a moderator to joust with since Trump wasn’t going to work for him.
Fortunately, he got his opportunity when moderators staged a fight with Rand Paul. Some thought Christie won, others that Paul did, but the scrap was enjoyable and let him do his thing.
The bad news is Bush wasn’t terrible, Kasich, probably his most direct competition did decently, particularly well with those who might consider Christie. Rubio was the orator who got the most post-game replays (non-Trump Division).
The very bad news is Carly Fiorina is going to take someone’s place in the next debate, and though others (see below) are at risk, Christie doesn’t have the natural constituency they do.
Dr. Ben Carson: With 15 minutes left on the clock, this was looking like a mediocre-at-best first outing, Somehow, in a Republican debate where the candidates and audience are not fans of Obamacare, nobody asked the neurosurgeon what he thought was best for American health care.
Speaking of neurosurgery, as soon as the Doctor started referencing his career, things improved. His concluding statement made everyone smile, and his previous answer on racial issues was great (that when you strip away the skin and hair to operate on someone’s brain, race isn’t an issue).
In any other year, a first-time debater would have a few more rounds to get comfortable. Last presidential season, Herman Cain took a couple debates to get his bearings and then hit his stride. Dr. Carson has a different oratory style, but most rookies improve noticeably after their first couple debates.
He needs to hope his base of support is strong enough to keep him in the next couple main events. This is much tougher competition than his predecessors had to endure.
Scott Walker: He didn’t do badly, though the no abortion to save the life of the mother answer could prove problematic later. He didn’t go after anyone, nobody went after him. Walker didn’t seem rattled. Didn’t hear anyone after the debate last night or in today’s commentary talking about him as a loser.
Usually, if a top-tier candidate, the likely Iowa front-runner (if you want to assume Trump doesn’t have enough helium or grass-roots organizing power to get enough voters to caucus for him), gets through their first debate unscathed, particularly in their first presidential run, it’s a win.
Many to most observers even thought he was stronger/better than Jeb. That’s definitely a positive. The problem is Rubio did very well. In a Bush-Walker contest, Walker is the more consistent/reliable conservative who is considered more of a fighter. In a Rubio-Walker contest, Rubio is the candidate who sounds better for the general election and is more likely to bring in swing voters.
Also, while those of us who write about these things or read what we write, Walker is well known. Outside of Wisconsin, there are plenty of Americans who are still completely unaware Scott Walker exists. Some of these folks will vote in primaries next year. He will need to make stronger impressions going forward.
Jeb Bush: I listened to the debate on the radio. Unlike the JV debate where I had to, this one was by choice. Makes it easier to concentrate on what people are saying and you get a different impression. Plus it’s much easier to watch the video later if you choose than the audio.
Much as people listening to the first debate in 1960 thought Nixon won, while those watching it thought JFK was the victor, the audio-only impression of Bush was different. Not seeing him, he sounded stronger than I was expecting, if sometimes awkward and/or halting.
Jeb’s problem is virtually all other voters and writers were watching. Those who saw him, whether they are published columnists, or just people I talk to, thought he “had a low pilot light” or “was wimpy looking.” Not what ole Jeb is looking for.
He’s definitely somewhat in the style of Mitt Romney or his dad as a debater. Both Bush the Elder and Mitt improved as they went. The same is probably true for Bush 3.0. He was by no means awful and will get better. He has plenty of funding, plenty of name recognition, etc. He didn’t get knocked out last night.
But, Kasich was better, and more importantly he looked viable to some, and those voters would have considered Jeb or are already supporting him. A stronger Kasich is of no benefit to Bush.
Perhaps even more than Walker, Bush is definitely affected by a viable Rubio. There was little chance he wouldn’t have to eventually deal with him, most pundits had Rubio in the top tier or very close to it even before the debate, even with a 5-6% poll average, but the contrast last night was not to Jeb’s advantage.
Let’s just say it’s a good thing he has $120 million in the bank to use over the next several months.
Rand Paul: This is one of the better performances ever given by a debate loser. Paul reaffirmed his outsider, libertarian credentials, and many thought he won the duel with Christie.
But. He was reactive most of the night and didn’t sound presidential. With the rise of Fiorina, Paul has a slight chance of missing out on the next main debate. He should have enough of an established base to hang in, but it’s not certain. None of his most direct competitors imploded.
When you’re a so-so communicator, with a non-standard message, it’s hard to make this format work. I keep thinking there’s a decent candidate buried somewhere in there, but not sure that we’ll see him this season. Unlike Rubio, who has indicated he is not running for re-election in Florida, regardless of how the campaign goes, Paul will be on the ballot in Kentucky.
He’ll try again in 2020 or 2024. So will Cruz.
Amazingly, in two debates, with 17 candidates, there were no true gaffes. Nobody had a true disaster performance (I’m not yielding on Graham, and somebody with 0.8% in the polls can’t disaster unless they say something bad enough to cost them their current job).
Well done guys.