2016 Republicans, Debates

Debate Prep: Trump v. Carson

October 24, 2015

It’s almost debate time again!  Say what you will about the RNC and DNC each deciding to pare back their offerings for this cycle, but it seems like they got it right for maximizing interest.  The large audience for the Democrats (less than GOP but more than any pre-2015 candidate fest) first performance shows this isn’t just the Trump Effect.

Still, The Donald is a huge drawing card, and his key challenger Ben Carson is doing plenty himself to create interest.  The duo, neither of whom has ever run for office before, is now regularly pulling close to or even more than 50% of total support in polls, nationally, in early voting states, and other randomly sampled ones.

They now have an effective veto over the debate format.  In an attempt to maximize fireworks and revenue, CNBC wanted to dispense with prepared opening and closing statements, along with extending the show beyond 2 hours to create more high rating content and have more ad-bearing breaks.  You can’t blame the network.  The best ratings in the history of Fox News and CNN were the first two GOP debates.  CNBC will set their record on Wednesday, even going up against the World Series.

Both Trump and Carson balked.  Each wanted opening/closing statements.  Trump in particular was adamant that 2 hours is more than enough time.  Each threatened to boycott the debate.  CNBC was in no position to call their bluff.  They absolutely would have carried out the threat.  These are the two candidates who least need debates.  Both have done better in polls the further away from debates you get.  Ratings would have suffered a bit (though probably not as much as we think).

So CNBC caved.  Two hours only.  Opening and closing statements for everyone.  All the usual suspects (sans Scott Walker) from the previous main debates are attending.  Once again, the stakes are high for many candidates, but perhaps none have the opportunity of the two polling front-runners.

We now should think of Trump and Carson together, not one guy who’s still surprisingly ahead and the other guy who voters are taking half-seriously for some reason.  In the national Real Clear Politics poll average, Trump is at 27.2%, Carson 21.4%, Marco Rubio third at 9.2%.  The gap is after Carson, not between him and Trump.

Carson leads in Iowa, finishing 8 and 9 points ahead of Trump in the last two surveys.  As you might expect, The Donald claims these polls aren’t accurate, but Quinnipiac is decently respected, and Ann Selzer, who conducted the Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll with the 9 point margin is considered the Iowa caucus gold standard.  If you ever want to weight one pollster more heavily, it’s her.

Trump is the wealthiest candidate, Carson the one who raised the most money last quarter and has (by far) the most individual contributors.  Trump is still leading everywhere outside of Iowa, Carson the candidate with best favorability ratings among Republicans and the wider electorate.  Carson does better when including second choices (usually leading Trump when you combine first and second choice), and matches up better in hypothetical contests with Hillary Clinton and Bernie  Sanders than any other Republican.

Several stories have surfaced in the past few days with a Take Trump Seriously theme.  His numbers are up from their post-debate nadir, he’s led national polling for 100 days or so now, and if you’ve heard him interviewed lately, his tone is now somewhat more presidential.  Unlike the fruit flies of 2011-12, he’s showing both staying power and the ability to adjust and grow.  Insiders are noticing he’s starting to do a lot on the ground too, especially in states voting March 1.

Politico has a large group of insiders who get surveyed on a semi-regular basis about various things; who won a debate, who is most likely to drop out next, etc.  This week’s query was about Trump winning the GOP nomination.  Apparently, their group is now considering this a real possibility, with a decent percentage of Republicans and half of Democrats polled thinking he’d get the nod.  Again, this is isn’t a Frank Luntz focus group or randomly sampled voters.  These are official insiders, several of whom I’ve actually heard of.

It’s interesting the serious talk about Trump is happening at a time where you can legitimately question if he’s even the best positioned outsider.  I’ve long assumed Carson was better situated, and said so in early September when he first got close to Trump in the polls.  While Trump gets credit for surviving 100 gaffes, Carson is proving he can get away with taking extremely controversial positions.

The first state to vote favors Carson, and though Trump can say the polls are wrong now, in 100 days, we’ll know what the voters really thought.  Trump is getting credit now from insiders because his campaign is getting closer to resembling what they are used to seeing.  With his field expansion happening while Jeb Bush is forced to choose between his Miami office and field staffing and Rubio waits for additional funding to match them on the ground, you can see why they are taking Trump more seriously.

However, Carson is the candidate with the half-million individual donors, which provides infrastructure in itself, plus the ability to pay for ads.  In a normal year, 30,000 votes is enough to win Iowa on the GOP side.  This year will likely see extra turnout, but the winner will still likely wind up well under 50,000 votes.  If Carson has 15,000-20,000 Iowa contributors by February, do you really want to bet against him?

Even if you don’t want to consider Trump and/or Carson nomination favorites, they are clearly far stronger candidates than anyone expected in July.  This is despite very uneven debate performances.  By normal standards, neither was great during round one in August.  But they had their moments, with Trumpists enjoying his verbal brawl with Megyn Kelly and Carson having a strong late answer and closing statement.

Neither well in round two and both suffered in polling taken in the immediate aftermath.  Trump was bested by Carly Fiorina and Rubio in head-to-head conflict, and even Jeb held his own with The Donald.  Meanwhile, Carson proved his communication style and a many person debate format are not natural allies.

Despite the seeming peril of outsider candidates struggling in a debate, both candidates are back on top.  It makes you wonder what their numbers would look like without a debate setback.  What if either or both are considered among the winners when the pundits give their rushed reactions?

Besides being a way to temporarily bury the regular candidates, as well as Ted Cruz and Fiorina, two more debate-adept outsider-friendly choices, it also provides a way for Carson to leap ahead of Trump or for Trump to regain an advantage on Carson.  While the two are hardly interchangeable in the minds of many voters, if one picks up some support while the other loses it (even if from/to other candidates), you still have a gap.

Trump’s style is more suited to the format, and his alterations over the past few weeks are noticeable.  You would have to favor him among the two to post a strong debate performance.  However, a big improvement from Carson, even if he isn’t considered a winner, would pack more punch.  Many GOP voters won’t consider Trump under any circumstances.  This isn’t true of Carson.  For many, they like and respect him, but poor debate performances make it hard to choose him.  As much as another 10-15% of the primary electorate would take a long look if he does pretty well.

This would propel Carson to a double-digit lead in Iowa, and push him ahead of Trump nationally.  It would also blunt any post-debate bounce for Cruz or Fiorina.  As it is, he’s both well situated and has proven he can recover from a choppy showing.  If Carson does well, watch out.  Remember, many voters at home are rooting for him.

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