2016 Republicans, Debates, State of the Race

Lady in Waiting

October 31, 2015

What happens to a debate-dependent candidate who doesn’t win the debate?  Not very much, at least in the immediate term.  After temporarily surging to 10% after her undercard debut and 15% post-Trump Smackdown, odds are her team will settle for 5-7% polling this time.  It appears the numerical hierarchy is Trump/Carson at the top, followed by Rubio/Cruz, with Carly Fiorina ensconced in the third polling tier.  We need a couple/few days data for certainty, but that’s sure how it looks.

As a result, Fiorina isn’t on anyone’s mind right now.  There’s only room for so many storylines.  Paul Ryan ascending to the speakership takes up some room.  The Donald is not the free media monopolist he was over the summer, but is still plenty visible.  Dr. Carson is more than making up for any Trump withdrawals and the two are very visibly working on an alternative to the debate structure, which should give them a great topic to keep everyone busy for a few days.

Everyone likes a car wreck, so Jeb Bush is getting plenty of attention, doing his best to prove the old saying “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” is wrong.  Marco Rubio already was having an easier time than Carly staying afloat between debates, even more true now.  Instead of Fiorina sharing the post-debate spotlight, this time Ted Cruz is the insurgent darling.

Any remaining scraps are being picked up by Chris Christie, who had a good debate night and realizes he needs absolute maximum visibility and John Kasich, who is taking a completely different tact from the rest of the field and actually said he thought the CNBC moderators were fair.  We’ll discuss that hari-kari later, but it removes any remaining oxygen for Carly this week.

She is not fighting with any other candidate, does not have any particularly controversial policy proposals, did not stumble for a second during the debate, has no polling momentum (nor much more ground to lose–Jeb is the collapse story), and her campaign is running lean so no stories about cutbacks.

There is virtually no way for Carly to get herself into the news flow before the next debate on November 10.  Any real debate reforms, whether at the behest of candidates or the RNC, will wait until December.  There simply isn’t time to make major structural changes for the Fox Business debate, especially since they are likely to go out of their way to ask more policy-oriented questions.

Viewers will track Carson’s facility in talking about his tax policy, but Carly doing her normal thing won’t register.  She’ll get a question about HP and field it easily.  Other candidates aren’t looking to get in a scrap with her, there’s no benefit at this point, and she’s not going to lose an exchange.  It’s not impossible that Fiorina will have something cooked up to make an impression, but she has a good sense of timing and is aware the opportunity may not exist yet.

None of this has much to do with Carly’s chances of grabbing the nomination.  She’s never been the most likely nominee, but is still very much in contention.  Though you won’t see this in the polls yet, Wednesday’s debate helped her too.  The overall contour of the race is very favorable.  Here’s why:

The non-Rubio establishment-approved field is now very thin

It’s now extremely clear the GOP primary voting base will not accept a Mitt Romney/Bob Dole/Bush 41-style candidate.  It was unlikely to happen anyway, but after the last debate is now an impossibility.  It reminded regular solidly conservative Republicans the media is actively opposed to what they believe in.  Accommodation, on the order of 2008 McCain is a fools errand.

Scott Walker is long gone and Jeb is Dead Candidate Walking.  While Christie sounded darn good  in the debate, voters are still very wary, and his approval (or lack therof) numbers in New Jersey are unprecedented for a nominee in their home state.  This is why Romney did not run for re-election in Massachusetts in 2006.  There was no way to make blue state constituents and GOP presidential primary voters happy at the same time.

Kasich seemed very plausible when he entered the race and quickly made progress in New Hampshire.  I thought he was a great fallback if Jeb and Walker struggled.  I get points for thinking another option was likely necessary (never imagined so soon), but Kasich isn’t that option anymore.  Even before the debate he was struggling with locating a primary-suitable tone, but siding with John Harwood is an immediate disqualifier.  It’s hard to imagine how he unites the party.

So barring a full Chrisite resurrection, if Rubio gets knocked down for any reason (he’s the favorite and held up great on Wednesday, but it’s still early), Fiorina is the National Review/Weekly Standard-approved replacement.  Unlike any other insurgent candidate, the establishment will claim her as their own if necessary.  At this point, she’s already Rubio’s backup.

Carson and Trump are stronger than anyone thought but don’t have this locked up yet

Anyone automatically dismissing Trump and/or Carson does so at their peril, but expecting either to hold up long enough to get nominated doesn’t make sense yet either.  We just don’t know if Trump will find a way to expand his base enough to triumph in winner-take-all primaries with a smaller field.  We don’t know if he implodes if Carson beats him in Iowa.

Most Republicans really like Carson.  Do those who admire him but don’t think he’s ready get more comfortable faster than those who choose him in polls now get scared away?  Dunno.  I do know there are Trump voters who find his business experience very important and would defect to Carly faster than Carson if he falters.

Similarly, there are Carson fans who would choose almost anyone before opting for The Donald.  While Fiorina is hardly soft-spoken, she’s not bombastic either.  With experience running for the Senate in California and a generally more polished approach, Carly is even a potential fallback for some Cruz partisans.  While evangelicals won’t automatically flock to her, there’s also no reason for them to object to a candidate who is such an articulate pro-life advocate.

While insurgent-side voters prefer someone else right now, she’s at least acceptable to almost all of them, something borne out in her strong favorability ratings.

Ted Cruz hasn’t proven the guy from the last debate can show up every day

Cruz has a ton going for him right now.  He’s got a few big donors and a lot of small ones.  He’s ready for March 1, not just Iowa.  Many mainstream conservatives who wouldn’t have voted for him with an 11-foot chad-puncher are thinking they could live with him if Rubio doesn’t make it.  He sure seemed house broken for a bomb-throwing ideologue.

As noted above, it’s increasingly clear even the mainstream folks want to make sure they have a real advocate.  Watching Kevin McCarthy stumble heightened the urgency to get Paul Ryan installed in the House.  As an alternative to Carson and Trump, this version of Cruz looks like someone to compromise on.

But this version did not show up in the first two debates.  Even many who are favorably disposed to Cruz were pleasantly surprised Version 2.0 showed up on Wednesday.  They’d figured he’d never get chosen because he isn’t usually this charismatic.  His prepared closing statement was noticeably flat.  Before we automatically decide he’s the insurgent mainstream conservatives can live with, let’s see him do this a few more times.

If this isn’t his default going forward, and Rubio has difficulty later, there’s only one place to turn.

Carly is a great compromise candidate

Fiorina is very well positioned if needed by either the establishment or insurgent side.  She’s not a career politician and is very able to push back against the mainstream media.  At the same time, she has executive experience, hasn’t taken any positions outside GOP orthodoxy, and is doing fine in early pseudo-polls against Hillary Clinton.  Plenty for anyone to like.  She still needs to prove she can handle front-runner-level scrutiny, but there’s only one way to find out.

Structurally, the campaign is well situated to capitalize if the opportunity presents itself.  She’s spent more time in each of the four early voting states than most of her competitors.  Fiorina is running even to a little ahead of her national numbers in Iowa, but runs well ahead in New Hampshire.

We’ve already seen that Carly does better the more attention she gets.  Whether she becomes the Great Establishment Hope in the Granite State or the Ultimate Insurgent Backup in South Carolina or Nevada, if she gets more attention, she’ll be able to leverage it.  Her campaign team appears disciplined and Carly is running ahead of underdogs like 2008 Huckabee and 2012 Santorum in funding power.  She out-raised Rubio last quarter, so it’s safe to assume she could hit the gas in February if things are looking good.

While it might seem like Carly is cryogenically frozen right now, don’t forget about her.  She’s there if/when virtually any part of the GOP coalition needs her.

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