2016 Republicans, Debates, South Carolina, State of the Race, Uncategorized

Closing Time

February 17, 2016

CNN has taken the liberty of scheduling a “town hall” in South Carolina for the next two evenings. Tonight, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Ben Carson take the stage. Tomorrow, we see Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and Donald Trump.

Each contestant will get 30 to 45 minutes to answer a few moderator questions from Anderson Cooper and various queries from the crowd. This sort of a thing doesn’t count as a debate because the candidates are not on stage together.

Ratings are significantly more modest than official debates. They don’t create the same wonderful attack clips. They are an excellent opportunity for a candidate to make their closing argument to the voting public.

South Carolinians will watch in higher volumes than the rest of us, and those tuning in are more likely to vote than not. Expect candidates to recycle their best lines from the trail and use new ones that score with the audience going forward.

Donald Trump is looking to win by as yuuge a margin as possible, making Iowa, not New Hampshire, the outlier. The others are jockeying for position, trying to finish second, or at least ahead of their perceived direct competition.

Here’s an idea of what the candidates should do when they get their time to close:

Night 1 (Wednesday)

Ted Cruz

Things aren’t working out for Ted in South Carolina. He set expectations too high, and if polls are anywhere near accurate, will struggle to finish second. The same polls are showing plenty of voters who aren’t fully locked in to a choice.

Two ways to play this. He can continue to follow his course from the past week, hammering away at Trump’s lack of consistent conservatism, calling him a liberal. Perhaps he just needs to say this for another couple of days and it will stick.

Or, he can give people a reason to vote for Ted Cruz. While I’m sure he’s mortally offended that many good evangelicals have gone over to the dark side, this is not due to ignorance. They don’t think The Donald has their values. They do think he can win and shake things up.

The Scalia death gives the foremost constitutionalist in the race an opportunity to show his chops. Instead of wasting his time talking about his famous opponent, he can let voters see how well he understands how the court affects America.

The format allows for longer answers, so hopefully he moves past the talking point style he’s using in interviews and really lets the voters see some depth of detail. It’s a better use of his time than claiming he’s more pure on immigration than Marco.

Wasting time in the weeds, talking about how his amendment in 2013 was really a poison pill, is a losing battle. Anyone who cares about this already prefers Cruz, or is a Trump person.

More than anything, Ted needs to look like a confident winner, somebody voters can picture winning the presidency. Finishing ahead of Trump is a long shot, but he can make sure to beat Rubio in the third straight state if he closes well.

 

Marco Rubio

Everyone wants to put Rubio in the establishment lane. While the donors and bigwigs certainly prefer him to Cruz and Trump, it’s not actually how he’s positioning himself. For at least the past couple months, his primary target is Ted, not Jeb.

Though it was somewhat lost in the furor over the Trump-Bush war and everyone calling Ted a liar, Rubio had a very good last debate. He covered the full range of important conservative talking points.

Marco sees himself as a full-spectrum Reaganite conservative who can ultimately get moderately conservative voters and Tea Party identifiers to buy off on him. In some states he’ll need to lean a little in one direction or another.

For South Carolina, he can play it right down the center of the fairway. He’s making progress connecting with voters on social issues. Polling is indicating almost as many voters say he shares their values as Cruz.

In a state where voters prefer social conservatism but also require someone who can win, this is pitch perfect. Having an unobstructed half hour plus to rattle off a bunch of short speeches on items that resonate with his targeted voters sounds like a great opportunity.

After New Hampshire, Rubio needs to make sure he doesn’t sound completely pre-packaged. A few off-the-cuff comments should suffice.

I’m not sure what the order of contestants is. Would expect Carson to wind up between them. If Cruz goes first, it will be interesting to see if Rubio responds to any comments he makes or mostly ignores him. Same goes for Ted if Marco leads off.

If Rubio comes off as almost as conservative as Cruz, but infinitely more likable, it puts him in good position to finish second. Nobody is expecting a victory now, and a decent second counts as a comeback after fifth in the Granite State.

 

Ben Carson

He’s making slow, but steady progress in polls. Anyone who has surveyed South Carolina multiple times in the past week has him higher than he started. If he’s still focused on taking down Cruz, his progress is making it harder for Ted to contend to win.

If he wants to do well enough to continue to March 1, he needs to avoid finishing last in a state that should be hospitable. Carson has finished ahead of Kasich or Bush in a couple of polls. A 10% result would probably get him 5th place, regardless of who trails him.

Debates are not the Doctor’s friend. By the time he gets rolling on an answer, time is up. Having unrestricted response time should help. He’s sharing the evening with two senators who may spend some of their time attacking each other.

Carson has a very, very different style and may benefit from the contrast. At one time, he led a South Carolina poll, so there’s plenty of residual regard for him. For the voters who want to support him, but don’t want to waste a vote, it’s his chance to convince them to help him stick around.

We should see the Full Carson.

 

Night 2 (Thursday)

Jeb Bush

Depending on which polls you believe, Jeb is either in striking distance of Rubio and Cruz, or trailing Kasich and at risk of finishing last, behind Ben Carson. The truth is likely in the middle, meaning he has very little time left.

After long resisting, he’s played the family card. It wasn’t a mistake. If he’d lost badly without trying to bring W out of cold storage, he would have always wondered. Apparently, Lindsey Graham made it a condition of his surrogacy.

If 20 to 25% of South Carolinians were inclined to vote for him just because he’s a Bush, that would have sufficed. Odds are very good it didn’t. Meanwhile, Trump has him locked down re-litigating the previous Bush administration rather than explaining how the new one would grow the economy.

He will have to address this in the town hall. No choice. Whether from moderator or audience, people will ask. As much as possible he needs to steer the conversation away from Trump and towards what a President Jeb Bush looks like.

If somebody doesn’t already think he’s a strong, ready-on-day-one, commander-in-chief, he’s not convincing them now. For those who do see him this way, they are either on board, or want to see a real vision going forward.

The format allows for longer answers, so showing wonky detail and talking about empowerment is his friend. Jeb desperately needs to finish ahead of Kasich and can take advantage of the Ohio governor’s tendency to ramble.

 

John Kasich

He’s the self-proclaimed king of town halls. Kasich did more than 100 of them in New Hampshire and is using a similar format in South Carolina, and Michigan, where he’s doing some advance campaigning ahead of the March 8 primary.

On the one hand, he’s working on building his Kasich Lane, separate from the outsiders or establishment-certified people. He wants to draw as many Democrats and Independents to cross over and vote for him as possible.

The messaging is working. Though he still has quite a ways to go in top line polling and favorability rating, voters do perceive him as far less partisan than the others and as a third option to Hillary or one of the other GOP candidates.

On the other hand, he’s still competing with Jeb Bush for the governor vote. Especially with Rubio marketing himself as more of a pure conservative, there’s a definite Bush-Kasich face off. His path to the nomination is very long and winding and has many obstacles.

The most immediate one is Jeb Bush. Finishing ahead of him in the Palmetto State finishes him off, whether the candidate realizes it or not. Jeb is likely to waste time comparing himself to Trump. If Kasich can present himself as the more effective manager, it might make the difference.

Beyond that, time for more Kasich being Kasich. It’s not everyone’s style, but you don’t win a several candidate race by fading into the background. It’s a good contrast with Jeb.

 

Donald Trump

He’s always three steps ahead of me. Maybe he continues the same dialogue as the past week, continuing to bring up 9/11 and the failure to find WMDs in Iraq. He’ll probably find a way to call Ted Cruz a liar. He’ll say something negative about Jeb Bush.

Normally you would figure don’t rock the boat any further, you’re winning and only a couple days away from the vote. But saying controversial things is how he locks down his base and proves he would shake things up the way he claims.

Nobody knows what a Trump voter is looking for more than Trump. Going to defer to The Donald on this one.

NOTE: Because he’s Trump and because he can, The Donald is appearing with Joe Scarborough on MSNBC tonight during the CNN broadcast. This is another town hall format, and could well lead to Trump getting bigger ratings than his opponents do on CNN.

 

Remember, it’s unlikely someone is going to turn their campaign around in a single town hall appearance. Bad moments are more remembered than good, but without a direct face off, they are less likely to occur.

It’s the closest these guys get to making a closing argument. The stakes in South Carolina are high. If these guys have a reason voters should pick them over anyone else, it’s time to let it out.

 

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