2016 Republicans, Debates, South Carolina, Uncategorized

Debate Recap: Game Change?

February 14, 2016

Things took a turn for the serious a few hours before the debate with news of Justice Antonin Scalia’s passing. Republicans simultaneously mourned the conservative icon and urged President Obama to refrain from nominating a replacement.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has vowed to block the approval of a nominee, joining Ted Cruz and the other candidates in saying the voters should have their say in November first. The president made a short address in which he indicated his intention to choose a nominee.

The chances of the GOP holding together on this is another story for another day, but the importance of holding the Senate and winning the presidency to influence the future direction of the Court went from theoretical to immediate.Cruz is best suited to emphasize the issue. He clerked for Chief Justice Rehnquist, and argued several cases before the Supreme Court as Texas Solicitor General. Blocking an Obama court nomination and choosing the right Republican to make nominations will form a large part of his closing argument in South Carolina.

Prior to the debate, Ted was hopelessly buried behind Donald Trump. While The Donald sits in the mid 30s in recent polls, Cruz ranged between 12 and 20 percent. Talking about the judiciary isn’t enough to make up 20 points in a week.

It looks like Trump opened the door to a challenger. Responding to a question about previous comments that George W. Bush should be impeached for lying about WMDs to get the country into the Iraq War, he passed on the impeachment, but doubled down on the idea Bush lied.

He also blamed Jeb’s brother for the World Trade Center going down and the deaths of “hundreds” of his friends.  Holding aside the Trumpian exaggeration; as sociable as The Donald is, he probably didn’t actually know 10% plus of the people who perished that day, those were brave comments in a GOP debate.

For Trump’s hard core support, usually at least 60-70% of his poll numbers, this won’t hurt at all. It’s more evidence he’s not afraid to say what needs to be said. Going after the Bush family in South Carolina is just another of those things.

There are more than enough sharply anti-establishment voters to keep him safely in contention for a win. This is an open primary, and he has support among Independents and Democrats who think Bernie and Hillary are way too far left.  This isn’t going to drop him to 16%.

But plenty of fairly loyal Republicans were leaning or considering Trump. They are thinking twice tonight, or if they missed the debate, will when they see clips and the inevitable attack ads. He didn’t sound like a Republican or consistent conservative. He was Trump.

I don’t think the timing was ideal. South Carolina isn’t Iowa or New Hampshire. Voters will give a secular candidate more of a chance than Iowa, but expect to picture someone behind the desk more than New Hampshire. This likely put 5 to 10% of the vote back in play.

The Trump of his past two debates was more finely calibrated than this guy. Being bold and seeming out of control have a very, very thin line between them. He’s normally on the right side of the line. Not this time.

Cruz had a decent night and played to some of his strengths. He didn’t lose ground and now has an issue opening and some voters who are possibly reconsidering their lean towards Trump. We’ll see what the polls say over the next few days.

CNN is doing a town hall for the GOP candidates this Wednesday and Thursday. Half of the candidates will appear each night. They did an event for the Democratic candidates before New Hampshire, and Bernie Sanders took good advantage. Cruz may be able to do the same.

He was only the second best senator on stage. Marco Rubio had an excellent night. There was the pressure of bouncing back from last week. Perhaps he would have received a direct question about it, but Scalia’s death changed the first block of the debate.

Chris Christie was not the only person to notice Rubio debates in short, prepared speeches.  He uses them when answering voter questions at campaign events too. Know what? When he’s on, he’s damn good at it. The race for the presidency is often conducted in sound bytes.

Palmetto State voters have trained themselves to listen for what can win. This can. It’s the state that most often acts on the Buckley rule–most conservative candidate you can safely elect. Cruz had his moments, but Rubio gave the perfect strong, mainstream, but still conservative answer time and time again.

In each of the last two debates, he’s shown an ability to talk about conservative social values in a way moderate general election voters won’t choke on. This time it wasn’t overshadowed by a Rubio choke.

More Cruz voters are fully sold than Rubio voters. More voters are open to Rubio than Cruz. Marco had the stronger debate, but it was more important for him than it would be for Ted. To catch Trump, Rubio would need to knock it completely out of the park in the town hall and catch a couple breaks, but it’s time to think about it again.

Postgame commentators completely dismissed Ben Carson. He’s reached the point where the pros want him to go away so they can concentrate on candidates who can get nominated. He’s also not a good debater and hasn’t shown much improvement.

All that said, he was no worse than when he was leading many polls in October. Especially with Trump and Cruz going at it, it’s not an impossibility that Carson helped himself a bit. When the next round of polls hit, we’ll see how rigidly practical South Carolina voters are feeling.

Expect to see plenty of Jeb Bush clips over the next couple days. He had many strong moments, and W’s appearance at a rally in North Charleston on Monday will lead the coverage for the day. Bill Clinton is a constant presence in the campaigning realm. Bush 43 is not.

Each debate, Jeb does better against Trump. Last time was the first where he clearly won. This time was even more lopsided. A Donald loyalist would disagree, but Bush supporters and neutrals think he got the best of him.

It’s hard to picture a bunch of voters trying to decide between the two. They likely have less crossover than any combination of two candidates. Trump goes after Jeb because it worked for him and because he’s the very representation of the establishment.

Jeb goes after Trump in the hopes of convincing establishment-friendly voters that he’s the only guy who can save the party from The Donald. Bush is now officially under his skin. It took several months, and almost $100 million in wasted campaign/PAC spending, but Trump is now Jeb’s bitch on stage.

I have doubts this will actually do much for Jeb. Only a week ago, Christie verbally dismembered Rubio. Marco is in strong contention to finish at least second in South Carolina. Chris is enjoying a winter weekend in New Jersey.

It definitely didn’t hurt Jeb. Christie did pick up a couple/few point bounce, just not enough to change the flow of New Hampshire. Many voters are proud of him, but they won’t necessarily vote for him.

In the past couple debates, John Kasich ran as a New Hampshire Independent/3rd party candidate. People laughed, and pointed out this doesn’t work outside of New England. He was a slightly upgraded, less pompous Jon Huntsman.

Then they voted. Kasich got 1% less than Huntsman did. He declared victory and moved to South Carolina, where his act was clearly too moderate and as recently as January needed a magnifying glass to see his poll numbers.

Kasich repeated the program in the debate with a couple of modifications. He played up the “can’t we all get along” angle a bit more, and mentioned the lord repeatedly in his closing statement. This is a good strategy, it is working, and he will exceed expectations.

Next to Rubio, he had the best night. Most pundits are dismissing him, but they are forgetting South Carolina and many of the March 1 primaries are open. Kasich is running as a conservative Democrat. They elected those down South for 100 years.

A new ARG poll, released late in the day, had Kasich at the top of the non-Trump pack in second with 15%. This is higher than the others. It was taken Friday/Saturday, after he had time to get a little coverage in South Carolina.

More importantly, ARG was the pollster to first notice his final surge in New Hampshire and had his numbers about where they wound up for the final couple of weeks. They correctly projected his success in drawing non-GOP voters. Breakdowns indicate the same here.

The plan is to take a few moderate Republicans and some relatively conservative Democrats and Independents to pull together semi-respectable results until the race gets to the Midwest in three weeks. It’s his only play and it’s showing signs of life.

With this in mind, he said and did exactly what he needed to.

Trump is still the clear favorite, it’s just not quite as over as it looked from the polls. He opened the door, let’s see if any of these guys can walk through over the next few days.

 

 

 

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