The Road to 2016: Post-Debate Scorecard V
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.
A FEW GENERAL OBSERVATIONS
– Seven people in a debate is far better than nine or fourteen. Ideally, whittling the number down even more will result in a better debate. You can already see that candidates (aside from during contentious back-and-forths) were not jockeying to be heard. The 90 second response window for answers was noticeably better than the 60 second window from previous debates.
– While the overall structure of the debate was a marked improvement over previous debates, starting a Presidential debate at 9pm EST is just not a good idea. Yes, I realize that NFL games that play on weeknights start around 8:30, so why shouldn’t a debate? Look, we want to encourage civic participation. Especially when Fox Business decided to run nearly 30 minutes longer than billed, having a Presidential debate run until nearly midnight is either poor planning or just bad design.
– I like Neil Cavuto as an anchor on FBN. Both Cavuto and Maria Bartiromo were effective debate moderators in the first FBN debate a few months back. They were particularly good because they stood as a counterpoint to the terribly mismanaged CNBC debate that left a bad taste in the mouth of the candidates and the RNC. This time around, there was no real reason for Cavuto and Bartiromo to play as impassive as they had before. It’s not that the moderators of this debate were ineffective (actually I think they got out a lot of important information); however, the debate was billed as FBN taking the gloves off and asking hard follow-up questions. This didn’t really happen. All-in-all, I’d give them a B-.
– During the debate, protesting candidate Rand Paul (who was dropped from the main stage and then declined an invitation to participate in the undercard debate) held an online forum where he answered questions from his supporters. I’ll give Rand credit, for most of the GOP Debate, the hashtag #RandRally was among the top trends on Twitter. I am unsure what the conversion rate between hashtags and actual votes is, but at least Rand’s supporters are trying to make him more relevant. I would be very happy to be proven wrong about Rand’s months-long downward spiral. I really would.
– I expected a little more heat between the candidates vying for the “establishment lane” spot at the table (Christie, Bush, Rubio and Kasich). There were some tough exchanges between Christie and Rubio, but Jeb(!) and Kasich were generally ignored through the debate. While I can almost understand ignoring Jeb(!) (Rand Paul supporters think Jeb should have been off the stage and that Rand should have been there in his place based on the recent Des Moines Register poll), Kasich is polling in a statistical dead-heat with Rubio in New Hampshire. Rubio’s going after Christie was smart (Christie is wagering everything on beating out the establishment candidates in New Hampshire), but ignoring Kasich might have been a mistake.
– There is one more debate (two weeks from yesterday) before the Iowa caucus. As I’ll discuss below, this will be the opportunity for Cruz to strike back against Rubio.
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).
As we have noted several times in our post-debate reports before, Donald Trump doesn’t have to “win” debates. Distorting the reality around himself and ignoring the laws of political physics are just what folks expect from the New York billionaire. Trump’s supporters like to see his “tell it like it is” style and lack of formality. Frankly, for many supporters, they would probably still vote for him even if he had a bad debate performance.
Thankfully for Trump, he doesn’t have to worry about having had a bad debate performance (at least last night, we’ll see what FoxNews and Megyn Kelly do two weeks from now). Donald Trump’s performance portrayed the “strength” that is the mainstay of his campaign. Despite a fairly weak opening on the “Ted Cruz birther” issue, Trump was able to show that he could be in-control. To his credit, Donald Trump has gotten much better at holding his own on this stage since the earlier debates. Trump was clearly prepared on the “New York values” question and silenced Ted Cruz’s attack. Likewise, Trump’s closing remarks that weaved together a blue collar story and a pro-military message were a new level of rhetorical complexity that Trump from the earlier debates just didn’t show.
On the Chinese tariff issue, Trump caught a significant amount of flak over the perception he was talking around the issue. While Trump, admittedly, didn’t do the best job explaining his point, the characterization of a trade war (which I had thought he was calling for based on the New York Times article) is incorrect. While we can call into question whether it would work, Trump’s strategy is to threaten the Chinese with a tariff equal to the amount they have devalued the yuan in order to get the Central Party to limit its monetary controls. Effectively, Trump is saying that we would make back our money either through a tariff (if the Central Party refuses to reduce controls) or through a parity in currency without a tariff. The 45% number is drawn from the net value lost because of the artificial market conditions of the yuan. Yes, Trump could have explained this better and left himself open to criticism, but his actual point wasn’t as extreme as it was made to look in the media.
Jeb Bush: -7, Grade: D
Jeb just isn’t very good at debating. He’s tried to be the adult in the room. He’s tried to be the guy standing up to the bully. He’s tried being incredulous. He’s tried focusing on Hillary Clinton. In the end (with a patented Bush-Brothers Shoulder Shrug), maybe it’s time to hang up the Presidential ambitions.
To be fair to Bush, there wasn’t some massive, cringe-worthy moment in last night’s debate. His going after Trump on the temporary Muslim ban earned him points from establishment folks who see Trump as having drastically hurt the GOP with his rhetoric. However, the problem for Bush is that he was just an afterthought for the debaters. Even Trump, who in prior debates had used Bush as a punching bag, seemed uninterested in poking at the former Florida governor.
The issue of irrelevancy is actually worse than having a bad night. When the other candidates just aren’t taking you seriously, that plays to the audience at home and the voters. When they just can’t see you as President, your numbers will continue to drop. Jeb’s growing irrelevance was clearly in focus during Jeb’s attempt to spar with Trump over Boeing factories. Trump just wasn’t that interested in 10 rounds with Jeb and ended the discussion with a dismissive “I’ll check for you” in response to Bush’s insistence about where Trump’s private plane was manufactured.
Look, by conventional wisdom, Bush talked about “local South Carolina business” and “soybeans in Iowa” and did all of the dancing he needed to that would, in a normal year, ingratiate himself to the right people in the right places. The problem is, this year is proving to be a lot different than either Bush (or his people) thought. They clearly have not adapted their strategy, and, yet again, the candidate puts on a weak debate performance.
This was one of John Kasich’s better debates. He didn’t come off angry or trying to force his way in on conversations that had nothing to do with him. However, the reason Kasich is getting a negative score here is because he just didn’t have the big moment that he needed to put himself ahead of the other establishment folks.
While Kasich did suffer a bit of the same irrelevance to the overall narrative of the debate as Jeb Bush, Kasich was at least able to hit all of his points without sounding disagreeable. Kasich was even able to make some degree of peace with Donald Trump. This was a better performance for Kasich than in the past.
John Kasich’s entire campaign depends on getting out ahead of the establishment pack and beating Marco Rubio in New Hampshire. If he’s able to do this, Kasich immediately becomes a force in the primary (Ohio is winner-take-all and Kasich remains solidly popular there). The problem for Kasich is that he just didn’t go on the attack against Rubio. There are still two debates before the New Hampshire vote, so we’ll see if he makes any pivots.
Marco Rubio: + 7, Grade: A-
For the first hour and fifty minutes of the debate, I was content with saying that there was no real winner of the debate. Then Rubio decided to unload everything he could against Ted Cruz and caught the Texas Senator completely off his guard. We have to start with the realization that Rubio is probably the best debater on the stage. Even in non-rehearsed answers (see his comment about Obama talking about people clinging to God and guns in response to a follow-up), Rubio appears adept at getting his point across. Likewise, there is just enough (faux?) indignation when he is defending himself to make it seem like he can win on the defensive.
What became clear last night was that Rubio is going to try to make a play for Iowa. As we noted before, there’s an outside scenario that Rubio could cut into Cruz’s lead in the first-in-the-nation caucus. Rubio’s gambit to unload on Cruz (VAT, senate votes, being a politician, defense cuts, etc.) won him the night. Unfortunately, there is still one more debate until voters caucus in Iowa. Basically, this will be a major showdown where Cruz has the ability to come full-bore at Rubio.
Ted Cruz: +3, Grade: B
Ted Cruz had two “scandals” coming into the debate last night. The first was about a million dollar loan that he failed to report on an FEC filing during his Senate campaign. He deflected this and put the issue to bed for most voters by explaining that it was actually disclosed on one form and not another and that a paperwork error was to blame. He was even able to get a dig in at the liberal media over its coverage of the issue.
On the “birther” issue, there are probably folks who are out there who are thinking that Cruz was just throwing up dust to confuse the issue. These are probably the people who think Barack Obama was born in Kenya. Cruz has done all he can on the issue short of actually following Trump’s advice and getting a declaratory judgment (if that would actually be something that the Court could grant in this situation). The “issue” isn’t going to go away, but it will probably be relegated to conspiracy theory forums on the internet.
After nearly two hours of debating, Cruz came under heavy bombardment from Marco Rubio about everything from his voting record to his proposed tax plan (yes, it is actually a modified Value Added Tax, we can talk about that more in a later post if you want to delve deeply into the economics of proposed plans that will never make it past Congress). Cruz held on the best he could, but given the time constraints of the debate and the wide-ranging assault, Cruz clearly lost out to Rubio in this round.
As we noted with Rubio, above, Rubio may have won the battle, but there is still another debate before Iowa, one more before New Hampshire, and even one more before South Carolina. Cruz will have plenty of opportunities to respond and go on the offensive in future debates.
Dr. Ben Carson: -8, Grade: D+
Ben Carson is the most likable person on stage but there’s really no reason for him to be there anymore. His jokes are good and he is straining to try to seem competent on foreign policy, but, at this point, even more than Jeb Bush, Carson is an afterthought (both of the moderators and among his fellow debaters). Given the number of high-level resignations from Carson’s campaign and his falling poll numbers, it will be difficult for Carson’s campaign to even make it to the Iowa caucuses.
Governor Christie went after Marco Rubio, his biggest opponent in Christie’s must-win New Hampshire. Christie has his message down-pat “enough with the politicians, enough with the rhetoric, here’s some straight talk, elect me.” While his “let me talk to the voter at home” thing is getting old, Christie knows the persona he wants to portray and he’s good at it.
The problem for Christie last night was that his attacks on Rubio just didn’t have the “bullet point sticking power” as Rubio’s list that he brought against Christie. This exchange notwithstanding, Christie was able to get in the requisite attacks against Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama that earned him appreciative cheers from the crowd.