The Road to 2016: Post-Debate Scorecard
Note: As with the “Road to 2016 Power Rankings” series, commentary is not an endorsement. Also, in the interest of disclosure, I am seeking the Republican nomination for the First District Seat on the Baltimore City Council. Views expressed in this commentary are editorial in nature and not affiliated with my run for office.
So, who won the First GOP Debate? Your answer is probably going to be tempered by your own feelings toward each of the candidates. To that end, trying to say that one candidate outright “won” the debate is a difficult question. Rather, the real question should be: “did the candidate do enough to help his (all of the “prime time” debaters were men) campaign?” Therefore, let’s review the debate this way: each of the candidates will be given a score from -10 to 10. -10 means that the candidate effectively torpedoed his campaign and foundered. 10 means that the candidate effectively clinched the nomination (hint: there aren’t going to be any 10’s yet).
This debate was the first real test of Donald Trump in an “adversarial” capacity. Trump certainly did not disappoint. Trump hit an early foul when he would not rule out running a third party campaign for the White House. As the polls are showing at this point in the race, a third party run by Trump would effectively hand the keys to the White House over to Hillary Clinton (or whoever the Democrat nominee will be). Trump’s embracing of his identity and image when pressed by Megyn Kelly was to be expected. When it came down to the end of the debate, despite Rand Paul’s best efforts, Trump emerged relatively unscathed. The only folks at the debate swinging at Trump were the moderators. Baier, Kelly, and Wallace certainly did a good job pressing all of the candidates, but it’s difficult to imagine any of the moderators taking the tone they took with Trump with Ronald Reagan. Then again, that would significantly elevate Mr. Trump’s political standing.
All told, Donald Trump was very effective at being Donald Trump. His comments likely struck a chord with a many Americans who are fed up with the politics of Washington, DC and are looking for a candidate who is, as Mr. Trump explained “not politically correct.” I do not anticipate seeing Trump’s poll numbers fluctuating too much after this debate.
Jeb Bush: -2
Jeb Bush was uninspiring. There was no “is our children learning” or “read my lips, no new taxes” moment, but Jeb’s answers, especially related to immigration and education required a degree in theoretical physics to follow the spin. There was no real “gotcha” moment with Jeb, but this was a chance for him to step out as a leader and bury Trump. That exchange never took place. In the mind of Bush’s team this is probably the “don’t get into the mud” style of debate. However, with Trump’s favorability climbing, Mr. Bush will have to engage or risk being marginalized.
The debate would have been the perfect opportunity for Governor Walker to take a stand and put himself in the driver’s seat. Unfortunately for the Governor, he drew far more “social issue” questions than questions about policy. To that end, Walker’s “highlight reel” includes answers about abortion, God, and racial policing but nothing concrete about taxes and foreign policy. Walker certainly was able to play to his base of support and was, thankfully, able to comment on his electability (3 times and counting in Wisconsin), but there was no “breakout moment” for the Governor.
John Kasich was the luckiest of the candidates in that it was only this week when he was moved up from the “under-card” debate to prime-time. The debate took place in Ohio where Kasich is the Governor. Playing to that home crowd, Kasich got a few more applause lines than he probably expected. As we have mentioned here before, as Jeb Bush diminishes, Kasich’s star rises. While Kasich certainly punted on a few issues in order to tout his time in Washington and the economics of Ohio, Kasich certainly had his talking points and was going to get them into the public discourse. If polling plays out as expected, expect to see a bump for Kasich in the coming weeks
It should also be noted that Kasich’s anecdote about loving and caring for a potentially lesbian daughter was a breath of fresh air on the Republican stage. While something like loving your kids shouldn’t really be a hot-button issue, Kasich made sure he went out of his way to make the point that tolerance and acceptance of gays and lesbians should be something Republicans strive to accomplish.
Marco Rubio: + 6
It’s a safe call to say that the candidate who best helped his campaign at the debate was Senator Rubio. The day that Politico ran a story asking why Rubio has seemed to diminished, Rubio proved that he was not just a fly-by-night candidate. Rather, the Senator (who is not running for his seat again in Florida), has invested all of his political capital in the race for the White House. Regardless of your feelings about Rubio, he was an extremely effective communicator and was able to get his point across in a clear and concise fashion. As we have noted here before, Rubio’s chief opponent in the primaries is Jeb Bush (only one Floridian can take Florida and be on the ballot come next November). Bush’s generally uninspired performance at the debate further helped to push Rubio as a center-conservative alternative.
Rand Paul: -3
It’s been a tough month for the Kentucky Senator. With tough fundraising numbers and general unease among Paul’s inner staff, Donald Trump’s quip “you’re having a hard time tonight” hit fairly hard. Suffice it to say that Paul had a game plan: go after Trump from the first, and be ready for Christie. I’m not sure the reason behind the Trump attacks. Perhaps it was a play for visibility, but it seemed ill-conceived. The exchanges with Christie were expected and, though fiery, were a net neutral for both men. Paul had a few opportunities to hit home on libertarian issues but provided “Sunday Morning Talk Show” answers rather than the condensed one-liners needed in a debate. One line that clearly his handlers liked “I don’t want my marriage or my guns registered in Washington” was an unfortunate dodge on the gay marriage issue. The idea to get government out of the marriage business should have been the Republican motto for decades, but, in the post-Obergefell world, that ship has since sailed.
Rand will have to step up his game in order to stay in the top tier. While Senator Paul certainly stepped outside of the pack on interventionism abroad, the fact that he received considerably less time than other candidates on stage made for difficult branding.
Ted Cruz: +0
Unfortunately for Ted Cruz, there were just too many people on stage for every person’s performance to be memorable. Formerly Solicitor General of Texas, regardless of politics, Senator Cruz is an effective speaker. When talking about personal issues, like his father’s alcoholism and his children, Cruz comes across as genuine and likeable. However, last night, many of Cruz’s responses seemed scripted at best. This is unfortunate as Cruz’s claim to fame before getting in the race for the White House was his epic filibuster over Obamacare spending. Part of Cruz’s lack of shine last night could be because he did not have any memorable exchanges with any of the other candidates of moderators. The performance didn’t help of hurt Cruz going forward.
It’s a tough day for Governor Christie when he’s not the biggest personality on stage. That happened last night. Christie, who kept jumping back to his experiences after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, seemed to be pushing the aggressive hawk agenda a bit too hard. This got snapped back at him when Rand Paul brought up the (in)famous hug with President Obama after Hurricane Sandy. In the end, though, Christie made out better than breaking even because the debate at least gave him some much-needed exposure. The FoxNews infographic that showed most interest in Christie is centered in his home state was a tough hurdle to get over. To succeed going forward, Christie needs a better answer than lack of preparation for why he did not get in the Presidential race in 2012.
Dr. Ben Carson: +0
Of the candidates in the prime-time debate, Dr. Carson had the most uneven performance. That’s not to say he failed, but it just enhances the idea that he is not a politician. A sharp foreign policy question challenging Carson’s understanding of international affairs was an almost-cheap shot, but Carson should have been ready. After generally bungling that answer, though, Carson has a few excellent quips about being a brain surgeon and a really important message on race relations in America. All-in-all, this wasn’t a bad night for Carson, but, as we have noted, the polls are showing that Trump is siphoning supporters away from Dr. Carson. It remains to be seen if Carson can start pulling support back.
Mike Huckabee: +1
Let’s be abundantly clear, Mike Huckabee’s answer about gays and transgendered people really does not jive with any of the popular sentiment in America today. That said, Huckabee needed to stand out and make himself relevant. His best line came at the end when everyone thought he was talking about Trump but made the pivot to Hillary Clinton. Huckabee certainly has a jovial demeanor when he wants to but seems to prefer embracing the angry preacher tone rather than the one that will attract people to his cause. Huckabee did his best to make himself relevant, but only time will tell if that can translate into support.
FROM THE UNDERCARD
Carly Fiorina: +7
Carly Fiorina was the outright winner of the GOP undercard “kids’ table” debate that took place earlier in the night. A strong presence on stage, Fiorina, the only woman in the GOP race, struck home on numerous issues and put herself out as a strong and decisive figure. We should predict that Fiorina, who has a relatively good amount of campaign cash, will move up in the polls for the next few weeks.