2016 Republicans, Debates, March 15, State of the Race, Uncategorized

Debate Prep: Final Four

March 3, 2016

And then there were four. Ben Carson will not join us this evening on Fox News at 9pm Eastern for the latest installment of GOP Debate Wars. Four is different than five, and not just because it’s less.

As we take a look at what each candidate might want to do this evening, we’ll view it though the lens of a four-person stage. If you prefer, it’s also Donald Trump and the three anti-Trumps.

The debate is in Detroit. The most important primary before March 15 is Michigan. Of all the states, this one has the four candidates on the most equal footing compared to their nationwide strength.

If someone needs to drop out before the winner-take-all March 15 primaries, Michigan voters will give us the signal on the 8th. Trump isn’t feeling much pressure right now. Ted Cruz got a stay of execution with his Oklahoma and Alaska victories.

Marco Rubio has some quick catching up to do. He’s declared Florida a must-win, and is trailing by a considerable margin. He participated in early voting today, a reminder of the ticking clock. He doesn’t actually have a full 12 days to win over his constituents.

John Kasich rang in at 8% in the most recently taken Michigan poll. Without improvement, he won’t make it to Ohio. From most urgent to least, here’s my official advice:

Kasich is trying to make this a four person race, rather than a front runner, two challengers and the GOP Martin O’Malley. He got 30% in Vermont, which does help him argue he has a purpose. His best news was the exit of Ben Carson.

Instead of Trump in the center, flanked by his two pursuers, with the two also-rans on the end, it’s a four pack. Trump and Cruz in the middle, Rubio and Kasich on the ends. Geography matters. Expect fewer exchanges centering on the three and more of a time balance between all candidates.

While his polling number is poor, 18% of voters said Kasich was their second choice, higher than anyone except Rubio. A full 25% of respondents were undecided or supported Carson. A similar opening worked to Kasich’s favor in Vermont. He only polled at 10% in the survey taken a couple weeks ahead.

Unlike other candidates who may need to appeal to voters in several upcoming primaries, he only needs to worry about Michigan and Maine. He’s going to finish fourth in most of the other March 5th, 6th and 8th contests.

His Ohio result is directly linked to how he does in Michigan. Finish a strong second and he wins Ohio. Finish fourth and he doesn’t. Kasich faced a similar situation when the candidates debated ahead of New Hampshire. Even when they were in Iowa, he was speaking to New Hampshire. It worked.

Polls have Trump with somewhere between 29 and 41 percent support. He’s trending towards the lower number. Figure a good two thirds of voters are at least strongly considering a non-Donald option.

Kasich’s trick is to get them to ask themselves senator or governor, making it appear that Cruz and Rubio are roughly interchangeable beyond their distinct tones. If it’s a third for Trump, a third for a senator, a third for a governor, he has a very good Michigan primary.

I’m a big fan of show, don’t tell. There’s no reason for him to get on his soapbox about not arguing with fellow Republicans and being foolish. This is Michigan, not New Hampshire. In New Hampshire, incomes are higher than the national average and unemployment is 3%.

Michigan faces continued hollowing of the manufacturing core, has experienced higher than average unemployment for most of the past 40+ years, and has a municipal water crisis in Flint. People want answers.

After a wasted first hour, Kasich closed well in the last debate by taking advantage of a few questions to provide far more detail and specificity than the other candidates. It doesn’t matter what he says, it matters if it has more texture than his opponents.

When he’s doing this, it cuts down on the rambling too, which as folksy as it is in a town hall, doesn’t work in this setting. Leave it to Rubio to pick on Trump’s vagueness and Cruz to point out his lack of conservatism.

Trump will do his thing, the senators will hit their talking points with precision and have their exchanges with The Donald. Kasich needs to stay focused on jobs, jobs, jobs (as he likes to say.)  Details though. Specific programs, companies he helped attract to Ohio, etc.

If he does all that and keeps his fingers crossed that at least a quarter of Michigan voters want someone who is deadly serious about finding practical solutions, perhaps gently throwing GOP Governor Rick Snyder under the bus for taking his eye off the ball in Flint, and he’s got something.

Rubio has officially declared himself an underdog. His first debate after the New Hampshire choke was a success. The pressure didn’t get to him. He needs the same here. Nothing wrong with going after Trump on issues and his past. Probably should avoid the spray tan cracks.

He and Cruz will avoid regularly directly attacking each other. In December their respective supporters found it amusing, a preview of a spring battle between the possible finalists. Now it’s seen as destructive.

Cruz won’t be able to resist talking about how he’s best positioned to defeat Trump, how he’s won more than all the anti-Trumps combined, has more delegates than they have combined, how well he did in his home state (when the others are trailing Trump.)

Rubio should mostly ignore this and focus on the economy. It’s the biggest issue for the largest amount of voters. It’s the one where Trump scores the best. Just getting past Cruz and Kasich isn’t a guarantee Marco will best The Donald one-on-one. It only gives him the opportunity.

Actually defeating Trump will require more than “unmasking a con artist.” It means laying out a semi-detailed economic vision. Trump doesn’t need to give details. Voters will either believe in him or not.

Rubio can get a few extra voters to question The Donald, but as a freshman senator with no business experience, needs to show a bit more. Education, training, certifications, helping small businesses thrive, all that sort of stuff is worth mentioning.

Cruz has a fresh opportunity. A few extra voters are questioning Rubio’s viability as the anti-Trump. The podium placement makes him a co-leader, the primary challenger while Kasich and Rubio vie for his position.

He had a fairly effective debate last time. The only major error was talking about electability, trying to make the point that he could beat Hillary Clinton, but Trump could not. The Donald wisely retorted that if Cruz couldn’t beat him, he’d have no chance against Hillary.

Ted can continue to talk about the Supreme Court. It’s his specialty. Like Rubio, he needs to concentrate more on the economy than normal. I realize debate questions don’t go there as often as they should, but these guys are masters at pivoting to whatever they think is the priority.

Rubio and Kasich will score the majority of secular, upscale, suburban voters. There are only so many evangelicals and very strong conservatives in Michigan. Cruz has a solid half libertarian, half populist economic pitch that only rarely makes it to the debate.

As I say each time, he went there in the third debate and had his best debate. It wasn’t a coincidence. More please.

Trump is Trump. Nobody on the planet knows what he should say or do better than he does. We’ll know what the right play or angle is as soon as he does it. Sometimes he “wins” the debate or at least does fairly well in the eyes of the pundits.

Usually he doesn’t. To his core supporters, those who will almost guarantee him victory in Louisiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, and possibly Maine over the next week, this makes no difference. Each time Trump wins post-debate internet polls.

Michigan is another story. His numbers have dropped over the past week. The pollsters are different, nobody was running a tracking poll yet, so we can’t rule out differences in methodology, but it looks like there’s a negative trend.

He was at 41% in two polls taken after South Carolina and before the last debate. Another partially taken before the debate and partially after, had him at 33%. The post-debate only survey registered 29%.

It’s not proof, but it is compelling. No reason for Trump to worry about this. While it appears Rubio’s attack may make a difference in more Trump-neutral states, if anything, it solidifies his support in pro-Trump places.

As long as he’s on track in the delegate chase and winning the majority of contests, why mess with it. Besides, a loss, or uncomfortably close win in Michigan is probably worth it if it means his competitors are all around taking votes from each other on March 15.

We’ll know it’s time for Trump to change his approach when Trump changes his approach.

 

 

 

 

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