The Tenth GOP Debate Scorecard
The Road to 2016: Post-Debate Scorecard X
A FEW GENERAL OBSERVATIONS
- “My candidate won the debate.” There’s a pretty good chance that, if you support one of the five men on the GOP stage last night, you thought that your guy was the big winner. The reality is a little more nuanced, I suppose, but, given that nearly 2/3 of Republicans surveyed in most recent polls are saying that they are “definitely” supporting a particular candidate, the only way it seems that you’re going to see major polling shifts will be from candidates dropping out.
- Rubio, for once, was the ringleader and that’s probably cathartic to a lot of establishment folks. Donald Trump has destroyed a few establishment candidates in this race. “Finally” someone stood up to him. The problem is, for all the catharsis of trying to stand up to Trump, can you tell me a single policy position articulated by Marco Rubio last night? Sure, we can give him the “win” in the debate, but, Marco Rubio has a significant delegate math problem that one-liners can’t solve. There’s a strong likelihood that Rubio is completely shut out on Super Tuesday when 11 states go to the polls. Rubio’s best shot comes in Virginia, so, tell me, what would have convinced an on-the-fence Virginian to support Rubio?
- Kasich and Carson are going to be written off by the GOP punditry. Carson probably should be (despite the fact that he’s getting around 10% in a few states on Super Tuesday, most of those supporters would otherwise be Cruz voters, probably) because there’s no real path forward for him. However, as we’ve pointed out here before, John Kasich stands a better chance against Trump than Rubio in that Kasich could actually win his home state on March 15. Kasich’s middle-of-the-road positions help him against Trump.
- CNN had almost no control over the debate. While letting the candidates talk was something that worked in the Democrat Debate, the cross-talk was just irritating last night. Let’s be honest, Trump isn’t an idiot. He knows that the best way to prevent a campaign from using a zinger or one-liner in a future ad is to start talking over the punchline.
- It wasn’t really that fun to watch.
- Unless Rubio has a secret plan to savage Trump then be Kasich’s Vice President, his obnoxious debate performance probably didn’t bring him any new supporters.
- Why does the conservative media (and by extension Rubio and Cruz) insist on attacking Trump from the right (insisting that he’s “not a conservative”). They’re right and their attacks are meaningless. Here’s why: Trump is dominating moderate and liberal Republicans. The more Rubio and Cruz sprint to the right of Trump, the more Trump can absorb significant voter blocs. Why do you think turnout is shattering records this year? It’s not because more conservatives are turning out, it’s because you’re drawing from a larger ideological cross-section of the Party. Trump’s answers on Planned Parenthood, taking care of the health of the poor, and Israel buck the “conservative” litmus test. Yes, it hurts Trump with “voters who were never going to vote for Trump anyway.” However, it broadens his appeal tremendously.
- This debate should have let candidates make their “closing arguments” to the eleven states voting on Super Tuesday. Beyond John Kasich, I’m not sure if any of the other men made any impact with undecided voters.
A note on how this scorecard works: the following list is in no particular order. The +/- indicates the candidate’s performance relative to him or herself on a scale of -10 (utter disaster) to +10 (securing the nomination). This will be followed by an overall grade (A-F).
It wasn’t a great night for Donald Trump. However, when have we seen a debate performance that caused Trump to lose supporters? (Maybe the second debate a few months ago?) Let’s be clear: Trump seemed unprepared for attacks from Marco Rubio (who decided this was his last, best chance to throw the opposition research book at Trump). If you assume Trump really just went into the debate with almost no preparation, he was able to hold his own well enough. “Trump was Trump and Trump supporters like Trump for being Trump.”
As we discussed, above, attacks on Trump for “not being conservative” only help him at the polls. Consequently, Cruz’s attacks were generally meaningless. Rubio’s attacks were more centered on the “Trump Ethos” of being a great builder and a guy with a “big, great plan.” Rubio’s attacks were probably more effective, but, as we sit here being armchair Presidential candidates, it was likely a bad move strategically. Rubio is down big in recent polls in Florida, Virginia, and Massachusetts (states where Rubio needs to do well in the next two weeks). Nothing we saw last night hurts Trump’s lead in those states.
Let’s be clear, though, Trump didn’t do much to help himself last night. He, willingly, got down in the mud and hurled ad hominems with Rubio and Cruz. Yes, that’s Donald’s schtick, but one of his goals should have been to at least look Presidential. We didn’t see that last night.
John Kasich remains the dark horse of the race. For some reason, the GOP establishment and the conservative media have decided that Marco Rubio should be the establishment standard bearer. Not only is this not supported by the delegate math in primary states, but it also belies a fundamental misunderstanding of how to beat Hillary Clinton in the Fall. Governor Kasich isn’t the most dynamic presence on the stage, but he is a sitting Governor of a must-win state in the Fall. Kasich’s generally moderate approach on marriage equality and religious liberty issues make him a far-less polarizing figure than Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio.
CNN generally didn’t bring Kasich in to many of the discussions last night. That’s a shame.
Marco Rubio: +3, Grade: A-
Marco Rubio gets an A- in this debate because he will get most of the headlines. He attacked Trump in a way that Trump, and your humble blogger, were not expecting. Frankly, the expectation was that Rubio would try to focus on policy positions and making himself look Presidential. Nothing was further from the truth last night. While Rubio was effective in what he set out to do, and thus, we’ll give him high marks, the downside is steep.
Can you name a single policy position of Marco Rubio’s that was clearly articulated last night? (No, don’t go search on Google). The fact is, Rubio is losing in the polls and it looks more and more possible that he will not win a single state in the primary. If this trend holds, Rubio will have no shot at the Presidency. In an election where about 2/3 of the GOP electorate are firmly committed to their candidate, 1/3 could be convinced to switch. Was there anything in Rubio’s performance that would actually have brought new voters over to his team?
The final important observation about Rubio is a completely unfair one: he seemed really obnoxious. Yes, we all know that Donald Trump can be a jerk in debates, but Rubio’s delivery of his one-liners was just as cringe-worthy.
Ted Cruz: +4, Grade: C+
Ted Cruz needs to win Texas on Super Tuesday. It’s his home state and most polls show that he is winning by several percent over Donald Trump. After Super Tuesday, the math for Cruz gets quite a bit harder, so he has to win now and win big to generate enough good press to continue his campaign. To that end, it made sense for Cruz to attack Trump last night. Certainly, as we’ve already discussed at length, attacking Trump from the right doesn’t make too much sense (despite being cathartic). However, if the win in Texas comes down to just a few percent, Cruz needs all the support he can get. Solidifying conservatives behind his campaign was the goal last night. Despite a fairly mediocre debate performance, overall, Cruz was likely more effective than Rubio at pulling away some undecided conservative voters.
Dr. Ben Carson: -8, Grade: D+
In what will likely be his final debate, Ben Carson reminded everyone why he was both eminently likable and wholly unqualified for the Presidency. Remember that Carson is polling around 10% in Southern States voting on Super Tuesday. His supporters could very easily deny Ted Cruz wins in states where he desperately needs to beat Trump. If there is a legacy for Carson, it will probably be that he stopped any Super Tuesday momentum for Ted Cruz.
Disclaimer: Matt McDaniel, the author of this piece is a candidate for the First District City Council Seat in Baltimore City. While this rankings list does not touch or concern Mr. McDaniel’s race, in the interest of disclosure, Mr. McDaniel has made no endorsements of any candidates and has received no money or funding from any of the candidates on this list. His campaign website can be found here.