2016 Republicans, Debates, State of the Race

Debate Prep: Moving Day

October 26, 2015

At the Masters, Round 3 is called Moving Day, the time where contenders separate from the upstarts who just had a couple good opening rounds.  The pressure heightens and inexperienced golfers begin to make mistakes.  While the events of the final day usually get the most attention, the die is often cast the day before.

Such is the case for three strong 2016 contenders, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Carly Fiorina as they head in to the third debate.  While Donald Trump and Ben Carson lead the polls, and Jeb Bush has his mega-PAC, there is at least an even chance the eventual nominee comes from this threesome.  The betting sites tend to agree, mostly due to Rubio, who is both the most likely choice and still less than 50/50 on his own.

We’ve all gotten in the habit of comparing the candidates as insiders and outsiders, and lumping Cruz and Fiorina with Trump and Carson is a good cheat to see where things stand.  They are the candidates most clearly branded as outsiders, and at the moment have the support of 60% to two-thirds of the primary electorate.

But Cruz isn’t like the others.  He’s spent much of his career inside of government.  Many promising law graduates take prestigious clerkships.  First Cruz did a year at the Court of Appeals, then he served an additional year with Supreme Court Chief Justice Rehnquist.  After a short stay in private practice, Cruz worked on the 2000 Bush presidential campaign and spent the following couple of years inside the Administration in the Justice Department and at the Federal Trade Commission.

In 2003, he moved back to Texas to spend several years as Solicitor General, serving through 2008.  Between his departure and being sworn in as a U.S. Senator, Cruz ostensibly was back in the private sector, working at a prestigious Houston-based law firm.  However, he spent much of 2009-10 preparing to run for Texas Attorney general, backing away when incumbent Greg Abbott decided to run for re-election.

2011 and 2012 were spent running for the Senate, upsetting the establishment favorite in the primary and winning the general election.  Approximately seven minutes after taking office, he began planning his presidential run.  Ted Cruz is not a non-politician.  However, he is an excellent attorney, having successfully appeared before the Supreme Court on many occasions.  Say what you will, but Cruz has a tremendous understanding of the Federal Judiciary.  This is a distinctly different background from the outsider group and Rubio, who is similarly a career politician, but has a legislative path.

Fiorina is similarly a pseudo-outsider, having spent time meeting with world leaders and consulting with government leaders during and after her stint at HP.  She also ran for Senate in the largest state in the Union after spending some of 2008 as a McCain surrogate.  Where she differs from Cruz and Rubio is a career in business, something each lack.  Carly also has plenty of executive background, and while she’ll have to spend time defending her record, is the only one of the three with practice running large organizations (apologies to the Texas Solicitor’s Office and Florida House of Representatives).

Rubio is pitched as the insider of the group, but his resume has less DC in it than Ted’s and he was even more of an unwanted primary guest in his run for senator.  Cruz went to Princeton and Harvard Law, Rubio was a University of Florida transfer student and received his law degree at the University of Miami (a solid choice for those of us in the non-presidential field).

He’d be the first president since Reagan and one of the few in the past 100+ years to neither attend an Ivy League school (or rough equivalent like Stanford or Duke) or service academy.

He’s now getting some unwanted (unless he spins it correctly) publicity for skipping votes and being generally disenchanted with being a senator.  While Rand Paul went through some expensive contortions to run for president and senator simultaneously in 2016 and Cruz sits in a safe red seat that isn’t up until 2018, Rubio decided to toss away his backup.  If he loses in 2016, expensive speeches are in Marco’s future.

All three candidates are more consistently conservative than Trump and have more government experience than Carson.  Expecting one of their voters to take the leap to Jeb, Christie (though he might grab some Trumpists), or Kasich is a bit of a stretch for now, but these guys are plausible.  All have strong favorability ratings among GOP voters, none are absolute no-goes like Trump and Bush are for many.

If the winner is someone who can successfully unite the party, these three would seem to have the easiest path.  Cruz is nowhere near the first choice of many establishment figures.  He’s poked them in the eye on a continual basis and is prepping a debt ceiling shitstorm as I type this.  However, this is a conservative party.  More conservative than the sainted Ronald Reagan, Cruz is no more to the right of today’s GOP than Reagan was in 1980.

If Trump is a legit nomination threat, many of Ted’s supposed enemies will change their tune quickly.  Better the devil than The Donald.  The same principle from the other side applies to Rubio, and is in the process of being proven by Paul Ryan.  As much as the 2013 immigration apostasy doesn’t help Rubio, Ryan supported it too and it’s unlikely GOP voters wouldn’t compromise the way the Freedom Caucus has if necessary.  The combination of Hillary Clinton seeming fairly strong again and Rubio being the most conservative nominee since Barry Goldwater (and most compared to the party since Reagan) should do the trick.

Nobody is talking much about Carly these days.  She’s done the post-debate fade twice now.  But she’s faded less than it looks.  In Iowa, when adding together first and second choices, Fiorina is roughly even with Cruz and Rubio (all in the 17-19% range according to Ann Selzer/DMR/Bloomberg poll), ahead of everyone else except Carson and Trump.  Approval ratings are still high.  This is very similar to where Rubio was after his first two bumps (campaign announcement and first debate).  Cruz has faded into the 5% range himself in the recent past.

So what should we expect from each?  What’s a best case plausible scenario, a worst case, and what would leave them about where they are?

Ted Cruz

Best Case: Despite a decorated Ivy League debating record, Cruz hasn’t yet impacted the GOP debates.  The format is different, and the timing hasn’t worked out.  Each of the first contests were Donald-centric, and as we know, Ted doesn’t ever say anything bad about Trump.  This debate is going to focus more on economic issues (if CNBC doesn’t steer that way, nobody will) and the debt ceiling is an issue again.

As a visible proponent of fighting against an automatic increase, Cruz will get some time on this and a chance to separate himself from the outsiders.  Though Trump and Carson are thought of as being more bold, both are in favor of raising the ceiling, arguing more about how to go about it than if it should happen.  He’s to the right of both in a rightward-tilted primary.

If Carson and/or Trump should stumble, even more room will develop.  Many possible Cruz supporters are front-runners.  Iowa evangelicals like to consolidate around a single candidate to maximize influence.  Right now, this benefits Carson, but if Cruz is a better advocate on Wednesday, this could begin to shift.

Worst Case: Carly and Marco crush it again, and neither Trump nor Carson really stumble.  Ted’s committed base is only 5% of the GOP electorate.  He can lose voters to any of the other four if they are more dynamic (Carson has a certain charisma too) on stage.  While Cruz is an excellent strategist (ask Scott Walker how easy it is to be a conservative career politician this cycle), and makes clear logical arguments, he just doesn’t resonate like the others on TV.

He still needs someone else to stumble to do well enough to use his financial and organizational advantages in March.  Odds are one of them will sooner or later, but it might not be Wednesday.  While Cruz doesn’t have to peak now, he probably can’t afford another trip to Five Percent Land.

Stasis Case:

Re-run of the first two episodes.  Carson and Trump are shaky but enough on message to keep most of their supporters around.  Rubio and Fiorina do well again (they’re awfully good at this), but since they only have 10 minutes each to create sound bites, Cruz can keep pace by pushing back on the debt ceiling increase over the next week or two.  End result, he winds up about where he is today.

Marco Rubio

Best Case:

Attacks from Jeb and Trump along with a couple tough questions from moderators give Rubio the chance to show his chops and indicate he can hold his ground with Hillary next fall.  He’s a Top Tier candidate with bettors and pundits, but not yet in the polls or with donors.  Being a target is a good way to show you really matter.

Trump isn’t as strong in this format and Jeb is a far inferior communicator, so they might serve to really elevate their young competitor.  It’s unlikely moderators hit Rubio with something he didn’t see coming.  Marco is fast on his feet and questions about missing votes and his lack of private sector experience should be expected.

Jeb has shown no ability to speak effectively under pressure.  If he bombs and Christie and Kasich fail to hit home runs, Rubio could leave the debate as the only plausible establishment option.

Worst Case:

Rubio should be able to handle the extra scrutiny.  However, yesterday on CNN’s Sunday show, he didn’t deal with the missed votes very smoothly.  They weren’t going soft on him, but neither will his opponents.  While he has another 48 hours to get it right, those shows are a pretty good proxy for how candidates will sound over the next couple weeks.

Strong debate performances are now expected for Rubio, making a stumble more of a problem for him than others.  More establishment-friendly voters could look at one of the governors, others might prefer Carly, especially with Hillary in the ascendant again.  Cruz is more of a visible presence in Congress, getting involved with the House and tweaking his fellow senators.

Like Cruz and Fiorina, he has a relatively high ceiling, but only a few core supporters.  One rough night probably won’t move the next group from him permanently, but they would definitely spend the next 4-6 weeks camped elsewhere.  That break in momentum is potentially devastating, as a combination of Cruz, Fiorina and a governor could push a supposed favorite into scramble mode, something Rubio has resolutely avoided.

Stasis Case: Rubio does well, but so do several others.  He faces a lot of risk, in that he may not be able to move up much further after the debate, but strong performances by others, combined with him being anything less than outstanding will cost him.  If none of the governors break out, Carly has another good night, and Cruz is solid, while Trump and Carson are at least decent, Rubio picks up a couple points, but doesn’t move his ceiling from the low-mid teens, where its remained since he announced a few months ago.

Carly Fiorina

Best Case: 

Carly successfully gets to focus on a hypothetical Fiorina-Clinton contest.  More of her answers focus on building a successful innovation economy than defending her HP record.  Rubio takes a few hits as Fiorina breaks the tie between the two among voters focused on who is the best debater.

Trump and or Carson stumble again, forcing some outsider-leaning voters back into her camp.  Cruz does fine, but the economic issues theme of the debate doesn’t play to his strengths.  Jeb implodes completely, while Kasich continues to sound like he’s forgotten you need to win the nomination before you can capture Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania next November.  Christie does well, making voters wish he’d run in 2012 when they would have supported him.

In this scenario, Fiorina picks up support from everywhere.  After the first debate, she spiked to 10%, after the second, she regularly reached 15%.  Under the above scenario, she would clear 20%, enough of a leap to keep her in the news longer than normal, allowing more of a consolidation of support this time.

Instead of waiting the customary six weeks, Carly only needs to stay afloat for two weeks between this debate and #4 on November 10.  The race could look extremely different by November 11.

Worst Case:

Fiorina is good, but not remarkable.  She spends more time defending her CEO tenure than effectively ripping on Hillary.  Rubio is strong (see his best case above).  Carson and Trump are visibly improved.  Jeb and the other governors sound basically competent.  Cruz is solid.

Under this scenario, there is almost no reason for any voter to favor Fiorina in post-debate polling. She picks up a little, likely due to connecting with anti-Hillary female voters, but only hits high-single digits, with her debate mojo diluted.  Instead of being a first, or even second tier contender, she struggles to stay out of the Huck Zone.

Stasis Case:

Fiorina does very well, but so do several others.  She gets less of a boost than before, but sets herself up better to sustain over the next several weeks.  Instead of looking top tier for a few days, second tier for a couple weeks and third tier on the eve of the next debate, Carly stays second tier for the duration in November, taking advantage of the tighter debate schedule.

Like Cruz for much of the past couple months, she winds up positioned to capitalize on the stumbles of others but has to wait to build her own double-digit base.  Having spent more time in early voting states than others, she remains well situated to exceed expectations when the voting begins.

Among the three, Cruz has the most upside, Rubio the most downside, while Fiorina is most dependent on improving post-debate.  Expect to see her triple down on Hillary Clinton.  Framing herself as the most qualified antagonist for the revived Dem front-runner is both a strong justification for her candidacy and a way to get consistent coverage over the next several weeks.

The current mainstream narrative is back to Inevitable Hillary, so if Carly can make her case and say a few things that require response from Clinton or one of her apostles, a path to the penthouse opens.  Combined with some specifics on the economy during the debate, Fiorina is in great position to capitalize if any of Trump, Carson, Cruz, or Rubio stumble.  If Jeb continues on his date with oblivion, there’s an opening on that side too.

Picking a winner ahead of the debate is risky, and in Fiorina’s case, we can’t be sure she really accomplished her goals until multiple weeks after, but my money is on her.  Cruz hasn’t proven he can connect in debates, Rubio will have to play more defense (Carly can answer HP questions in her sleep at this point–each retort will pivot to Hillary within 30 seconds).  She’s the one with both  the path and proven ability and isn’t currently sitting on anyone else’s voters, meaning she won’t spend as much time in the firing line.

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