December 17, 2015
Jeb Bush had his best debate. Rand Paul had his best debate. If either of these versions had appeared on the stage in early August, we would have a different contest on our hands.
Running for president is hard. I mention this sometimes, but probably not enough. Republicans almost never nominate a first-time candidate. Usually, we say it’s because the party prefers to choose the next man up, but it may also have something to do with needing practice.
Campaigns are always moving targets. What was appropriate or timely several months ago is too late now. Once upon a time, candidates got less exposure to a national audience in the year before the election. Candidates could work out the kinks in a distant Iowa farm town.
Even with the rise of pre-season debating, the first few skirmishes usually were missing a few candidates and millions of viewers. This year’s GOP field is crowded and Trumped.
Sitting senators and governors were never previously at risk of missing the cut. Lindsey Graham hasn’t sniffed the main event and failed to reach the round four undercard.
That’s a lot of pressure for any candidate, but triply so if dealing with The Donald. Jeb and Rand were both shaky in August and neither recovered.
Our expectations for Jeb were out of line. He hadn’t run for 13 years, in a close race for 17. He’s not a natural communicator. Only presidential debates have more than a few candidates on stage. It’s not like governors get to practice for this.
Check out video of Mitt Romney’s first few debates in 2007 and compare to his last few in 2012. Night and day. Awkward at first, pretty darn skilled at the end.
Rand is a freshman senator. Guess how many times he’s run for office prior to this? Once. Yes, he campaigned for his dad, but never ran on his own before the 2010 midterms. He was a practicing physician. His Senate run is it.
Both Jeb and Rand were taken more seriously but given less rope because of their legacy status. The candidates who are outperforming expectations, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio (though his numbers aren’t better than expected, his relative position is) have spent years and years refining their public persona.
For each of the successful candidates, it was a matter of more of the same, just on a larger stage. Rubio especially has adapted unusually quickly to the debate format. Check clips of candidate Obama from his second or third debate in 2007 to see how preternaturally skilled Rubio and Cruz are.
Trump and Sanders aren’t great debaters, but their outsized almost caricature-like presentations make up for it and give their adherents something to hold on to.
Jeb really isn’t a bad candidate. I’m sure I’ve said he was multiple times in the past few months, but he’s probably more effective than we should have expected, not less. He just wasn’t the right property to invest $130 million in. The odds of a run in 2020 or 2024 are low, but he’d probably do decently well.
Rand is almost certainly exceeding reasonable expectations. His task seemed relatively straightforward. Take his dad’s supporters, add some anti-interventionist mainstream conservatives and a few budget hawks, grab some suburban Independents and call it a day.
That was working well enough before the race actually started. Polling from 2014 had Rand in the mid-teens, a plenty decent place to start from.
However, as good as this looked on paper, it was still a new coalition in the Republican Party, one that did not really match the voters who elected him in Kentucky when he rode the Tea Party wave of 2010.
His dad’s national funding apparatus of thousands of individual donors was an overwhelming advantage. When a bunch of sitting senators endorsed his primary opponent, game over.
Ironically, if he’d just continued to build on this, he would have found himself in good position for 2016. Instead he did what any reasonable aspirant would have. Attempted to make himself a legit contender.
This meant taking his role in the Senate seriously and trying to locate some larger donors, particularly for his PAC. In an attempt to get the establishment to avoid directly blocking him, he endorsed Mitch McConnell in his 2014 re-election campaign.
In doing all this he left the door wide open for Ted Cruz to take the less evangelical Tea Party voters who would have defaulted to Rand. The Bernie and Trump phenomenons combined to block him among Independent voters.
Combined with his half-step towards the establishment, there was virtually no remaining ground. Worst of all, he needed to learn a new way to speak, a hybrid of what got him elected in Kentucky, what worked for his dad in the primaries and what more mainstream voters might be ok with.
The presidential pre-primary cycle is not the place to try out a new format. It’s like taking a show that should open way, way, way off Broadway and putting it in the largest theater on Broadway with giant signage visible from Times Square.
Miraculously, by the fifth debate, after showing a little improvement in the previous couple outings, Rand made a very strong case for himself. Sure, post-Paris and San Bernardino the timing isn’t great, but the pitch is, at least for what he needs to be.
For months, pundits have wondered why he was still in the race with no chance to win it. Why did he spend the money to schedule a separate primary in Kentucky so that he could run for president and re-election concurrently. Why not focus on the latter?
We saw the answer on Tuesday. He needs to keep at this for at least another several weeks to continue to refine his message. It won’t hurt his re-election campaign and it will help prepare him for his next try at this.
By the time Ron Paul made his largest splash in 2012 as the primeval, libertarian Bernie, he’d run in the 2008 primaries and as a third party general election candidate before that. He also ran many congressional races in Texas.
This takes practice. Bob Dole was on the 1976 ticket and still barely made a dent in 1980. Then he improved but lost again in 1988. Finally in 1996 he got nominated. If a long-time Senate Majority/Minority Leader, who was also a former RNC chief, needed that many at-bats to win, we really shouldn’t call Rand a loser just yet.
Odds are he never wins the nomination or the presidency, but that’s due to the degree of difficulty and limited chances, not any real inadequacy on the part of a candidate expected to quit since mid-summer.
Go easy on these guys.