2016 Republicans, Debates

Debate Prep: Best Undercard Ever

November 5, 2015

The announcement is out.  The Fox Business Republican Undercard Debate next Tuesday will include…

Chris Christie

Bobby Jindal

Mike Huckabee

Rick Santorum

People can say whatever they want about #GOPClownCar, but if those are the leftovers, this is still the historically deep Republican field many of us thought it was.

You have the previous two Iowa caucus winners, plus two favorites for the nomination as of 24 months ago.  Those events are all in the past, thus explaining how they landed here, but are still far more recent than the last time Jeb Bush was in office.

These guys are not polling as badly as you may think.  Consigning them to the undercard, while leaving John Kasich and Rand Paul in the main event is a function of thin differences in the case of Christie and Huckabee and focus on national instead of Iowa and New Hampshire polling in the instance of those two plus Jindal.

Only Santorum is polling poorly everywhere and he’s the most recent Iowa caucus winner, having found himself in an equally dismal spot this time four years ago.  He will not win the 2016 GOP nomination, but he’s got as much business being on a debate stage as Martin O’Malley, number three on the Democratic side.

Ok, so hopefully you’re convinced it’s worth tuning in, or at least catching the highlights. Are any of these candidates relevant?  What should we look for or expect as possible outcomes?

Christie is still the most relevant and has more of a chance than a couple main event participants.  He’s sat on the qualification precipice for each debate.  Missing out before might have harmed him.  This time it helps.

Lindsey Graham and George Pataki are absent for Round Four.  Getting rid of Pataki and adding Huckabee raises the respectability quotient.  Disappearing Graham removes one-liner competition.  Huck has the periodic solid comment, but his tone is different from Christie’s.  Think of this arrangement as the perfect backup band.

Just several days ago, Christie had his best debate performance on the main stage.  It’s obvious he belongs up there as much as Rand Paul and John Kasich do.  Because he did well, because his favorability ratings are way up, because his donors are reasonably encouraged, this feels more like dropping the mic after a good set than getting exiled.

So, with the most ideal possible circumstances for getting sent back a grade. Christie has a chance to get double the talk time he would have received and overshadow his new peers, reminding everyone he’s a decent emergency option.  It’s fairly close to the Carly Fiorina scenario from Debate One.

Like Carly, Christie will take advantage of the less combative undercard to turn his scorn toward Hillary Clinton.  Expect him to prosecute the Democratic front runner in absentia.  He’ll also have more time to talk about entitlement reform in depth.

Christie registered at 8% in a recent WBUR New Hampshire poll.  More importantly that same survey showed the highest total in months for establishment-friendly candidates, a combined 36%.

In order to have a chance, Christie has to win New Hampshire.  To win, his lane needs enough width.  If this one survey is any indication, that may now exist.  Donald Trump led with only 18%, so it’s not an insurmountable gap.  Again, one poll.

Still the two polls taken after the last debate gave Christie a 6.5% average, compared to 2.5% in the two before it.  New Hampshire voters are less likely to care which debate he’s in than national voters and for now Christie’s electoral vision is narrowly confined to the Granite State.

Bobby Jindal is an enigma.  He’s also too late to get his tone figured out.  There was a window a few weeks ago, before Ted Cruz took a few more steps forward.  On the bright side, PPP has Jindal up to 6% in Iowa, above his Real Clear Politics average of 2.8%, but not implausible.

The bad news is Cruz scored 14% in the same survey, following a 15% result in a KBUR poll.  Jindal is plagued by sounding like Cruz Lite, and his poll results follow the pitch.

There is a big difference between the two.  Jindal has extensive executive experience.  He’s actually implemented a bunch of the things they both believe in and until the last 18 months or so, was very popular in doing so (NOTE: Jindal is currently hated enough in Louisiana to give that statement a bit of an “otherwise, how was the theater Mrs. Lincoln?” feeling.)

The catch is Jindal is running in the conservative insurgent bracket, so he’s downplaying his government practice and status as a career politician.  In doing so he’s passing up his chance to run as the most conservative policy wonk in known history.  That’s probably too narrow a niche, but selfishly I want to hear what it sounds like.

Perhaps Jeb Bush starring as Mr. Fix It will inspire Jindal to play his role as a more conservative version.  Pretend Jeb had current examples and a spotless record of conservatism to go along with his new underdog angle.  That’s what Jindal punted on.  Not a guaranteed nomination, but solid VP or good start for 2020/2024 potential.

Santorum and Huckabee are effectively spoilers for others.  If either (and Huckabee draws as much as 5-6% in his most favorable Iowa polling) candidate pulls any sort of final support in Iowa, it will greatly impact the result.

Any of their voters (this goes for Jindal too) would likely otherwise support Cruz or Ben Carson, so the better they do, the more likely Trump and Marco Rubio are to smile on caucus night.

For the first time, the undercard feels more like a second tier debate than a third.  If one or two more candidates lose main stage privileges in December, even more so.  At that point, the undercard officially becomes a holding tank for decent candidates who need someone else (or several others) to falter to get their first or next chance.

No shame in that.

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