September 14, 2015
Debates matter. Sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. For all non-Trump candidates, a career-ending gaffe is always just around the corner. Rick Perry’s 2016 campaign is now past-tense, a reminder to Wednesday’s participants of the pitfalls of national TV exposure.
On the other hand, a debate can make you too. Whether it’s Carly Fiorina making her debut in the big show this time due to her performance in the warm-up act last month, or John McCain giving his recovering campaign a shot of momentum with a well-timed line in late 2007, debates are often the best of times too.
Instead of trying to predict who will rise and fall this week, we’re going to take a look at the stakes for each candidate in the main event, ranking the possible impact of the debate from largest to smallest. Some need a great performance to keep from falling off a cliff, others just need to avoid mistakes, still more are unlikely to change their trajectory much one way or the other.
1. Jeb Bush
There are times where an NFL team with Super Bowl aspirations starts their season 0-2 or 1-3. That next game is a must-win. Though still early in the season, another loss will put them somewhere no previous champion ever landed.
This is where Jeb finds himself. If you told him or his advisors six months ago that he would lead Marco Rubio and Scott Walker in most polls at this stage, he would have happily taken it. However, he unimaginably trails both Donald Trump and Ben Carson by double-digits. Jeb also trails John Kasich and Carly Fiorina in New Hampshire and is a non-factor in Iowa.
Worst of all, Bush struggles to maintain a positive favorability rating among Republicans. While he’s doing decently in head-to-head match ups with Hillary Clinton, several other candidates can compete too, and he trails Joe Biden by quite a bit.
With many GOP voters strongly objecting to him, it’s hard to see how he could win enough support to get nominated. Voters seem (for now) less concerned with electability and more interested in ideology and authenticity. Absent noticeably better match up numbers, even if primary voters soften their stance, he doesn’t have much of an argument.
Publicly sparring with Trump hasn’t hurt Jeb in national polls, as not everyone loves The Donald, but it hasn’t helped either. Over the past couple weeks, Bush has leveled off, while Trump picked up a few more points. Ben Carson is now well ahead of him.
Despite all of the stumbles, the continuing search for a tone that resonates with voters, and the clear preference for outsiders, there will be at least one establishment candidate out of the final 3 or 4 left standing in early spring.
This is likely Jeb’s last solid opportunity to convince moderates and establishment conservatives he is the strongest/safest choice as their champion against the rebel hordes. While doing this, he needs to avoid angering outsider supporters to the point where they will do anything possible to block his nomination and/or protest by staying home next November.
This is a brutally difficult task. It’s not easy for someone with charisma and a comfortable speaking style, let alone Jeb. Comparing his appearance with Stephen Colbert to Joe Biden’s gives an idea of how large the pulse deficit is.
Still, not all GOP voters prefer dramatics, if Jeb is strong and clear in his responses and holds his own with Trump, he can pull his campaign prospects off life support. While the odds are against him, the upside is returning to the contender pool.
2. Scott Walker
His free-fall began before the first debate, but failing to make a mark hastened it. Narrative is a powerful thing and Walker’s is bad. He’s now the overwhelmed Midwestern governor, strong at home, marginalized on the bigger stage. Over 60-90 days, Scott Walker, front-runner and slayer of public sector unions has morphed into Tim Pawlenty 2.0.
Losing momentum is a bitch. Yesterday, Walker appeared on Jake Tapper’s Sunday show on CNN. While he sounded better than he has lately, showed good energy, and was able to respond clearly to most queries, Walker was still playing defense.
A candidate gaining in the polls gets one set of questions, one dropping gets another. Tapper, who will see Walker Wednesday as the lead debate moderator, is usually considered pretty fair. He went after Walker pretty aggressively and may have telegraphed a few of the questions he may see in the debate.
Walker does not say super clever things. He does not say anything you’ll remember where you were when you heard it. As such, his energy and tone are crucial since the words aren’t memorable and the phrases are often hackneyed.
For the most part, he sounded like he believed what he was saying, and was relatively unforced. If he sounds similar on Wednesday and at least a few TV viewers are open to reconsidering their support for a less-politically proven candidate, he still has an opening.
Walker has a long road back to contention. For the foreseeable future, he’s majoring in Iowa and doing a minor in South Carolina, ignoring everything else. Gone is the national top tier candidate. Wednesday will not change the narrative all at once, but a good showing gives him something to build on before it’s too late. Last chance though.
3. Carly Fiorina
Carly fought for her golden ticket to get in to the main event. Based on her last debate performance, favorability ratings, New Hampshire poll numbers and Iowa and national poll numbers in the week or two after the last debate, she very much deserves entry.
Unlike Bush and Walker who need to do well to keep their chances alive, Wednesday is most all about upside for Fiorina. She’s a good debater/sound bite generator. Her response to Trump’s comments about her face is brilliant. Basically, instead of getting into a pissing match with Trump, she’s running on what he said.
Addressing a group of female Republicans on Saturday, she wore her face as a badge of honor, saying her wrinkles were a mark of leadership. Today, she has a 60-second spot out with the same theme.
There was already little question she would acquit herself well on Wednesday, but this is more evidence she won’t get thrown off or pulled into a verbal gutter. If Carly winds up in an exchange with Trump, she won’t lose.
The opportunity for Carly is this. Whether in a state poll or national poll, the Outsider 4 group of Trump, Carson, Cruz and Fiorina holds between 60 and almost 70 percent support.
When the season started, it looked like outsiders (at that time Rand Paul counted as part of the group) would take up a third, more establishment types like Jeb would take up a third, and candidates like Rubio and Walker would take the middle third.
That’s not where we’re at, and though you would think more traditional candidates will eventually grab more share, the outsiders have moved from 40 to 65% over the past 6-8 weeks. There’s a limit somewhere, but no evidence they’ve reached it.
Among the 4, Fiorina is the least objectionable to the party establishment. She’s an outsider in that she’s never held elective office and only run for it once, but Fiorina has served on committees to review government agencies (including the State Department) and was a surrogate for McCain in 2008.
If someone like Rubio proves too politicianish for 2016, Carly is a possible compromise. When Weekly Standard (National Review 2.0) readers were asked to choose their three favorite candidates, Fiorina was mentioned most frequently (52%), with Rubio next.
Her favorability ratings compared to her peers are better than her average poll standing. Many voters would consider her, but still don’t think she has a great chance to win. Holding her own on the big stage will help her tremendously.
It’s unlikely that Trump can do anything (short of acting too mild) to anger his base (which is why he’s way down on the debate list), but some of his current supporters may choose Carly if she gives a strong enough performance to give them an alternative.
Ben Carson is walking in to his first debate with strong enough poll position to get scrutiny, both from moderators and other candidates. If he slips up, Fiorina will benefit. She’ll also benefit if establishment candidates trip up, as she’s more palatable to their voters than Trump.
Carly won’t exit the debate any worse off than she enters it, but may well wind up a whole lot better.
4. Ben Carson
It’ll be an important evening for the Doctor. While Carson was overlooked for long stretches in the first debate, that won’t happen this time. Expect scrutiny on issue positions from moderators as well as questions about his comments regarding Trump’s belief in God.
Csrson does not need an amazing debate performance. He was uneven at best last time until saving himself with a strong close and created quite a bit of momentum from it. Carson fans respect his intelligence and personal dignity, they don’t expect snappy one-liners.
If by some chance he hits it out of the park, you’ll see him ahead of Trump (instead of just trailing) in Iowa within the week. He would also start getting extremely close nationally. Given Trump’s reliance on being ahead everywhere, every time in order to remain the big winner, it would put serious pressure on him.
If Carson commits some sort of gaffe, it won’t paralyze his candidacy, but it will seriously halt the upward momentum and put pressure on him for the next round.
A solid workman-like performance will consolidate his gains and put Carson in strong position heading forward. This isn’t pure upside like Fiorina, but overall, Carson still has more to gain than he can likely lose. Strange as this would have sounded a few months ago, Carson is in way better position than Jeb.
This ends our first group of candidates, the ones with the most to gain or lose on Wednesday. In Part Two, we look at the next group, those who have plenty at stake, but without quite the impact of these guys.