2016 Republicans, Debates, State of the Race

Debate Prep: Dr. Carson Goes Under the Knife

October 27, 2015

On Saturday, we started our look at the upcoming debate with a long glance at polling front-runners Donald Trump and Ben Carson.  At the time, my argument was the two should get considered together, rather than as The Donald, followed by his challenger.  Carson had moved ahead in two Iowa polls, both by solid margins.  National polls were close, with Trump still leading.  Meanwhile CBS/YouGov showed Trump way, way, way ahead in New Hampshire, way ahead in South Carolina and tied in Iowa.

So I thought I was a little ahead and patted myself on the back.  72 hours passed.  Carson took an even bigger lead in two more Iowa polls and leads Trump 26-22 in the latest CBS/NYT national poll.  At first quizzical how he could possibly trail Carson when Iowans are flocking to The Donald’s events, and suspecting pollster bias, Trump has now turned his fire on the Doctor, realizing evidence shows he has a real competitor.

This alters the debate dynamic a bit.  After spending the past few weeks refining his message and sounding a bit more plausible (at least to those who are willing to consider him), Summer Trump is back, talking about how he’s a Presbyterian, a “down the middle” option, while Carson is a 7th Day Adventist “whatever that is.”  Today, Trump hinted at ethical questions regarding his medical career and is going after Carson on abortion, claiming he was previously pro-choice (not to be confused with Trump who was definitely previously pro-choice).

As it stood a few days ago, the debate was a big opportunity for Carson, a chance for him to improve/do well at something he’d struggled at.  I figured there was lots of upside and if he had another uneven performance, would likely recover sooner than later.  However, I didn’t realize the next debate was following two weeks after, not enough time for the normal healing process to kick in.

By itself, still worth mentioning, but add the likelihood of a full-scale Trumping, combined with extra moderator scrutiny due to his continually improving poll position, and the stakes are raised considerably.  Other candidates, some who may have otherwise focused any fire on Trump, or avoided trying to cut anyone, are showing signs of entering the fray.  Until very recently, John Kasich was following Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment, refraining from speaking ill of another Republican.

No more.  Tired of languishing in the polls despite a ton of experience and strong track record, he referenced both Trump and Carson (by deed if not name) in the past 24 hours, and very strongly stated he would no longer remain silent about the inferior qualifications of his opponents.  While Ted Cruz may carry his speak no ill of Trump policy to Carson, it’s also clear Cruz is suffering very directly from Carson’s latest surge.  We also don’t know where if anywhere Carly Fiorina may direct her fire.

So Carson is in for a busy evening.  Dealing with Trump’s claim he’s low energy is the least of his concerns.  Presidential politics is a momentum game, one reason Marco Rubio has resolutely avoided peaking too early.  Moving up the ladder is great, but after a recent jump, there’s a gap between your poll supporters and dedicated base.  Those new recruits are the first to scramble away the minute a nouveau front-runner stumbles.

The narrative gets reversed, and suddenly the candidate is free falling.  That’s what occurred every 3 minutes in late 2011.  If Iowa moved a little slower, Carson would have more consolidation time.  Instead, his leap there moved a few national respondents and we have a new dynamic.  A non-politician is extra susceptible to being whipsawed.  Trump’s multiple decades in the public eye have helped him tremendously.  Most voters had strong opinions about him well before he entered the race.  When in doubt, he plays the character we all know.

Though Carson has his loyal adherents, more than the traditional politicians possess, he’s still relatively new to much of the country.  Virtually all Republicans like him, but many are still skeptical he’s ready for the full scrutiny of being the nominee.  If he stumbles again tomorrow, it will convince many he couldn’t possibly defeat Hillary Clinton and a hostile press corps next fall.  He could recover enough to win Iowa, but would go down as the latest boutique candidate to win the caucus before fading.  The debate danger level has tripled or quadrupled since Saturday.

On the bright side, the upside has at least doubled.  Carson claims (with justification) that being a neurosurgeon is more pressure than 99.9% of us will ever face (paraphrasing here).  He has proven he can keep his cool when questioned by media.  Should he perform well tomorrow with everyone gunning for him, taking advantage of extra exposure to have his best debate result, Carson will have gone a long way to ally the fears of many who are favorably disposed, but question his skill in this exact format.

When Trump swings at the Doctor tomorrow, he better knock him out.  Already, polling is showing he isn’t winning everywhere, every time anymore.  Should Carson prove he’s the alpha in a face-off tomorrow (remember, neurosurgeons make very precise cuts), even if he falls hard later, Trump won’t benefit, having shown he’s not such a winner.  Fiorina, Cruz, or someone else would gather the spoils.

This is why politics gets covered like a sporting event.

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