2016 Republicans, Debates, Uncategorized

Debate Preview: Three Wild Cards

January 14, 2016

Debate #6 is tonight!  Debates are important.  I always get more blog traffic on the day of and usually the day after too.  Beyond that, we tend to inflate the importance a bit, though the main event/undercard thing is always good for some drama.

By the time you read this, Rand Paul may have talked his way back in to the big show.  For now, he’s planning on boycotting the opening act that he officially qualified for.  A new poll, the Bloomberg/Des Moines Register Iowa Poll by Ann Selzer, had Paul in 5th place.  This single result would have pushed him on to the main stage if it was released prior to 6pm Eastern on Monday.

Despite being taken during the same window as other surveys that made the deadline (and had Rand further down the poll), it wasn’t released until Wednesday, thus doing him no good.  As of the second I type this, he’s still on the outside looking in, as the rules had nothing to do when the poll was completed, merely when it was released.

Assuming Paul doesn’t sneak in, who is going to impact the debate?  Who should we watch out for?

Not Donald Trump.  He’s the front runner most places outside of Iowa, and has closed the gap with Ted Cruz in Iowa.  While many are anxiously awaiting their confrontation, waiting to see what happens with the Made in Canada issue and if Ted will challenge Trump to his face, it’s a second tier issue (that I’m going to separately write about anyway).

Fox Business moderator Neil Cavuto has publicly indicated he wants to stay as invisible as possible.  His cohort Maria Bartiromo is a pro.  They moderated Debate #4 and it was the calmest of the five.  Don’t expect hysterics to overpower the program.

Both Trump and Cruz will have prepared and both are excellent at saying what their followers want to hear.  They’re probably the most strategic candidates in the race.  So I’m not counting on one or the other getting tripped up.

Marco Rubio will find himself a target from the governors and possibly Cruz.  Whatever they throw at him, he will have prepared for.  His fans will love how he parries any attack, his detractors will think he’s way too programmed.

Rubio’s support has stayed in a consistent range for weeks.  If he breaks out, it’s unlikely due to his debate performance.  People already expect him to do well.

Chris Christie is going to show up as Chris Christie.  He is what he is.  Compelling enough to have outlasted several of his competitors, limited enough that he hasn’t broken out yet.  After showing some real momentum in New Hampshire, he’s at least temporarily stalled out.  At this point, his result is at least somewhat dependent on what others do.

By process of elimination, we’ve arrived at our three wild cards.  Of the seven participants, they are the least likely to win the nomination.  They’re also the most important during the debate.  They have the least to lose, if not the most to gain, and are not consistently effective like the others.  We don’t know which version of each will show up.

If this was a football game, they would be the team you can’t prepare for because you don’t know if their quarterback is going to have a good or a bad game, whether they’ll try to run more or pass, if the team will play hard or drag.  Do they fade quietly into the night, or replicate the Allstate mayhem guy?

Ben Carson isn’t likely to attack anyone or put them on the spot.  It’s not his style.  He still matters.  Especially in the first debate, he had a couple of moments where he was able to show why he’s not just another candidate.

He’s not going to win Iowa.  He needed to win Iowa to have any chance at the nomination.  His campaign raised more money than any other GOP candidate in the 4th quarter of 2015 and still managed to spend more than they took in.

His campaign manager and communications director quit.  A couple of higher-level people at his super PAC left and joined Cruz.  His favorability ratings, higher than any other Republican just a couple months ago, are now mid-pack.  The consensus is he’s not qualified by knowledge and/or temperament to handle ISIS and whatever else is out there.

But he has a few voters who really, really, really like him.  In many cases, they knew who he was before Cuba Gooding Jr. played him in a movie, before he made President Obama uncomfortable during a prayer breakfast, before he entered the race.

As such, he’s still grabbing polling support in Iowa.  Enough to keep Cruz within striking range for Trump.  Carson’s absolute caucus floor is probably 5-7%, but he’s currently at 9% in the Real Clear Politics average, and a good version of himself tonight could bring him back to 12% or so.  A couple polls already have him at 11%.

Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum are mostly invisible, but pulling 3% or so combined.  Added together, that’s 15%, or enough to make the Trump/Cruz battle 50/50ish.  At that point, it’s a matter of how well each turn out their voters.

If Carson is unable to have a couple of moments, say a couple of good lines, all but his absolute loyalists will give up.  That pushes the combined amount below 10%, at which point Cruz is a clear favorite, and Trump would need to wind up at the very, very highest range of his turnout estimates.

John Kasich has an opportunity and a problem.  The opportunity is he’s finished second or tied for second in a couple recent New Hampshire polls.  He’s third behind Trump and Rubio in the RCP average.  If he finishes second to The Donald, he definitely gets to stay in the race.  It could definitely happen.

The problem is he’s poorly positioned outside of New Hampshire, which is a risk in the Granite State (if voters abandon him for someone more long-term viable) and outside if he wants to leverage a good result.  While Jeb has resources and Christie has rehabilitated his national image, Kasich hasn’t sold Republicans and doesn’t have a 50-state infrastructure.

He’s also likely to finish last among the governors in Iowa, which isn’t going to help that viability argument.  While Jeb and Christie are spending some time in the Hawkeye State, trying to finish ahead of the other and minimize the gap with Rubio, Kasich is keeping his focus firmly on New Hampshire.

Kasich has regularly struggled with his tone in the debates.  He’s turning off plenty of disaffected conservatives, spent way too much of his time reciting statistics from his tenure in Ohio, spent a bunch of the remaining time talking about what he accomplished in the last century, and has failed to seem presidential.

Other than that, he did fine.  Democrats like him better than the other candidates.  If he could somehow get nominated, he’d have a path in a whole bunch of purple and light blue states.

In the last debate, I found him significantly less irritating.  I wasn’t wishing he would have approached questions differently, felt like he was getting closer to a message that might work.  He was also entirely unmemorable.

Which Kasich shows up tonight?  Does he go after Rubio and/or the other governors to try to consolidate mainstream conservative and moderate support in New Hampshire.  Over the past couple weeks, he’s benefitted from the other candidates in his lane mostly leaving him alone and hitting each other.

Can he stay under the radar long enough to sneak ahead of them on primary day, or are they bound to attack him sooner or later anyway.  Does he challenge Christie directly on their respective economic records as governor?  Or does he focus on his executive experience that Rubio lacks?  Or does he go after Trump?

I think he should go after Christie.  We’ll see if he does.

Jeb Bush was dead.  Then he wasn’t.  Now he probably is after all.  For a couple weeks, he was making noticeable progress in New Hampshire.  You could argue (and I did) that he had a more than decent chance of finishing as the top governor.  Unlike Christie and Kasich, who probably need to finish ahead of Rubio to continue, Jeb might be able to get away with just beating his direct peers.

The last two polls had him at 8% and then 4%, not exactly the right direction.  You don’t want to read too much into a couple of results, and in the worst of the polls, he was the second choice of another 9%, so it’s not as big of a drop as it looks.

He still seems to have leveled out again at best.  With voters outside of New Hampshire viewing him very negatively, and still even at best on favorability inside the Granite State, it would appear this just isn’t going to happen.

His PAC is carpet bombing the Iowa airwaves with anti-Rubio content.  The two things that seem to have harmed Jeb the most over the past several months were his inability to stand up to Trump and his attempt to go after Rubio.  The type of voters who will consider Jeb tend to like Rubio.

Though they may prefer someone with executive experience, if you like Jeb, you really don’t want Trump or Cruz as your nominee.  Knocking down someone your voters like and could totally live with as the nominee doesn’t go over very well.  This may even have something to do with Jeb’s stall in New Hampshire (complete speculation).

Attacking Rubio in Debate #3 was likely Jeb’s worst moment of the entire campaign.  He lost the exchange and close to Marco in polling at the time, has remained consistently behind him since.  Will he try again?

If not, will he pick a fight with Christie, to contrast their records?  I can’t think of how he could go after Kasich.  Both have supported Common Core, neither are part of the Trump wing on immigration.  I’m assuming the New Hampshire voters that like Kasich have reconciled his expansion of Medicaid to accommodate Obamacare.

Jeb probably shouldn’t base his strategy on highlighting someone else’s apostasy.  If he doesn’t go after any of the governors, can he distinguish himself in any way?  Strangely, brawling with Trump is probably safest.  Bush hung in pretty well last time, and with many establishment-friendly voters looking to stop him, that’s wiser than cutting down other candidates who his potential voters like.

Combined with his discomfort in the debating format, there just isn’t an easy answer for Jeb.  While few, if any roads lead to success for him, his choices may present opportunities or challenges for some of the others on stage.  He’s still a factor even if his campaign is on life support.

The focus tonight is on center stage, but the candidates toward the sides are the big variable.

UPDATE: Cavuto is now saying he and the other moderators plan to be more aggressive in their questioning to drive the candidates off their talking points.

 

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