December 13, 2015
The final GOP debate of 2015 hits the airwaves on CNN Tuesday night at 8:30 Eastern (undercard is at 6pm). The main event remains crowded. Nine candidates will pack the stage, with Chris Christie returning and the others remaining.
Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum continue as undercard participants, while George Pataki and Lindsey Graham, both left completely out of the most recent debate, get their podiums back.
At this point, the undercard doesn’t merit a separate write-up, despite containing the two most recent Iowa caucus champions.
With Ted Cruz riding high in the Hawkeye State and having won the key social conservative endorsements Huckabee and Santorum previously took advantage of, their path is currently extremely blocked.
We’ll cover the front runners and a couple of others tomorrow. For those candidates, the debate is about upside, a chance to make a move or build on a previous one. Barring an unspeakable gaffe, they have little to fear and much to look forward to.
For four others, all of whom once had a path, it’s getting late early. Ben Carson needs to win Iowa but has dropped at least half of his polling support and now trails by a considerable margin.
Carly Fiorina, John Kasich, and Rand Paul are at the mercy of debate inclusion criteria. CNN was relatively generous, taking Iowa and New Hampshire polling into account, along with national.
A large amount of pollsters were factored in and they considered several weeks of data, helping the falling Fiorina. In waiting until the last minute to declare the contestants, Paul got a reprieve from a just released Iowa poll.
Let’s take a quick look at how each got undone and what each needs to do to ensure the Iowa caucus isn’t the end of their campaign:
The Doctor’s candidacy is this close to finding itself on life support. Once ahead in the majority of Iowa polls and running dead even with Donald Trump nationally, Carson is now searching for his floor.
Looking at the most recent numbers:
National (NBC/WSJ) 11% (4th)
Iowa (Fox) 10% (4th)
Iowa (Des Moines Register) 13% (3rd)
New Hampshire (WBUR) 6% (7th)
Georgia (WSB/Landmark) 7% (4th)
In case you’re wondering why Georgia is included, one month ago (different pollster) Carson led Trump 26/24. He now trails 7/43. That’s a pretty big shift.
From August through early November, Carson followed a consistent formula. Survive the debates, avoiding major gaffes and trying to at least have a couple good closing lines. Recover (if necessary) and make up ground between debates, taking advantage of a second-to-Trump ability to leverage free media.
Worked like a charm. Beyond his front-line numbers, Carson also boasted the highest favorability numbers in the GOP field. Bogus as they may be, he did very well in pseudo-matchups with Hillary Clinton too. He usually led, and virtually always did better than other Republican contenders.
His support was broad-based. Though popular with evangelicals and conservatives, mainstream secular conservatives liked him too, especially those who think The Donald is overcooked.
Then Paris happened. Trump’s fans like bluster, so he kicked it up another level and reinforced his floor, while adding a few new adherents. Carson stayed fairly calm. It’s what he does.
Unfortunately, calm combined with a lack of detail and intermittent discomfort leads to half of your supporters kicking the tires on Ted Cruz. Many took him for a test drive and are now considering taking him home from the showroom.
This makes Tuesday nearly do-or-die for Carson. A full comeback and Iowa victory gives him a chance to contend.
A partial comeback, combined with plenty of funding through his army of individual contributors allows him to win enough proportionally assigned delegates by the end of March to make Trump and Cruz beg for his support.
Neither of these things happen without a strong debate on Tuesday. He must have his first strong debate. To do this he must do one thing.
In a relatively clear manner, Carson has to explain how his approach has a greater chance of defeating ISIS and keeping America safe than Trump’s.
It’s Carly’s Time for Choosing. Is she running for president, or as some suggested months ago, actually positioning herself for VP or a cabinet post?
In August and September, there was no conflict between those options. Step 1 was introduction to the public and showing she could effectively advocate conservative positions and debate like a champ. Few doubt she’d make a strong case for the GOP next fall.
When Cruz and Marco Rubio taking steps forward in October, Fiorina got lost in the shuffle and wasn’t able to position herself as a permanent top-tier contender. She’s now scrambling for polling scraps, though still popular overall with the GOP electorate.
At the moment she lacks both a large campaign field organization (like Cruz), grassroots funding (like Cruz and Carson) and large establishment donors. Acceptable to many, she’s preferred by few.
This sounds like a great VP choice, someone to pair with either Cruz of Rubio to provide a strong, ticket balancing anti-Hillary voice. If this is acceptable to Carly, she should proceed as she has in previous debates and hope the nominee is interested in tabbing her as a running mate.
If she either doesn’t want to chance it or just isn’t interested, Carly needs to pivot rather aggressively this time. Absent strongly contrasting herself with Rubio and/or Cruz, there’s no reason for voters to pick her instead.
Though going after one or both doesn’t guarantee she can’t run with them later (future Reagan running mate George H.W. Bush referred to the Gipper’s economic plan as Voodoo Economics before being chosen), but it doesn’t help.
Bush was picked after a dalliance with ex-president Ford didn’t work out, and was viewed as necessary to unite the party. While Fiorina is liked by many voters, she doesn’t serve that purpose.
If she pushes hard enough to stand out again, she risks losing her shot at the consolation prize. A repeat of previous performances with the new car smell now gone will make the decision for her.
There was always room for a non-Jeb governor to wait on deck in case Rubio couldn’t catch fire. Polls indicate Marco has a solid chance of finishing a semi-weak fourth in Iowa, thus necessitating breaking the glass.
However, Chris Christie has surpassed Kasich due to superior tone and strong focus on terrorism. He’s ahead in New Hampshire, has higher overall favorability ratings, and some momentum.
A lot depends on Kasich’s goal. Does he still think he can get nominated or is he mostly interested in stopping Trump? His PAC is spending money tearing him down instead of building Kasich up.
Today one of the panelists on Meet the Press suggested Kasich could take advantage of the winner-take -all Ohio primary on March 15 to play kingmaker at the convention in case of deadlock.
The only problem is he first needs to survive until then and second needs to win his home state. Kasich hasn’t yet lead an Ohio poll. While he is very popular at home, some of that is with Democrats who can’t vote in the primary.
Ohio Republicans aren’t likely to waste votes on a completely lost cause. Unless…..he can adequately convince them and others he’d be a good vessel to make sure the GOP chooses wisely.
Which gets us back to where we started. Kasich’s tone is too whiny. If he wants to influence the process, he needs to sound like more of a leader. If he does this, maybe he can make a last-gasp push to become the Rubio alternative in New Hampshire.
Just like previous debates, this begins and ends with tone. Each debate, he’s lost a little ground, taking him from legit contender to also-ran. Tuesday is his remaining shot to at least have a little influence when Republicans ratify their nominee in his state.
Ben Carson is not the only casualty of Ted Cruz. Rand Paul is a victim too, as Cruz has invested a fair amount of energy in pulling libertarians away from Paul.
Instead of building on his dad’s base, he lost half of it to Cruz. He also missed out on pulling in diseffected potential voters. Trump and Bernie Sanders have that covered.
Paul isn’t going to win the nomination. His status as a top-tier candidate with double-digit poll numbers vanished months ago. They won’t return.
Much like Kasich, he has some capacity to influence a chaotic process if he can pull things together a bit. Cruz will need Paul’s supporters to get nominated, both keeping the ones he has and landing the remaining holdouts later.
Whether trying to win the nomination ahead of the convention or at the convention, Ted needs them all. Any eventual nominee will need Rand’s help to make sure these voters make it to the polls. They won’t vote for Hillary, but could stay home.
Even if this isn’t a huge block, both the nomination and general election are very possibly competitive enough to give him outsized influence. But he needs to remind the world (including his supporters) that this team still exists.
Cruz and Rubio have jousted repeatedly over data collection. Rubio is running as a hawk. Cruz is straddling, needing to seem strong to conservatives and Trump voters, while also protecting individual rights. It’s a tough balance and one Paul can exploit.
Paul doesn’t have to worry about pulling 40% in various March primaries like Cruz does. He just needs to strongly stand up for libertarian values in a way that a couple/few million voters keep their first loyalty to him.
It shouldn’t be impossible to create space between him and Cruz. If Rand has any hope of licking his wounds and trying again in the future, while having some relevance in the present, Tuesday is the time to make his case.
While all four candidates remain underdogs to extreme underdogs the stakes are still high for all concerned.
Let’s see who begins to rebuild their influence and who makes us wonder why anyone ever thought they were a contender.