General Observations: We echo the media consensus that last night’s twelfth GOP Presidential debate was a refreshingly non-sniping, substantive discussion on the issues that are facing the country. While you may not like or agree with a particular candidate (or any candidate) on the issues he was discussing, the debate finally crawled its way out of the mud and we were all better for it.
This was the last debate before the Florida and Ohio (winner-take-all) primaries on Tuesday. Both races appear to be narrowing with Trump leading Rubio in Florida and Kasich leading Trump in Ohio. These numbers are certainly still subject to fluctuation in the coming days and, as we have seen with polling before in this race, the person predicted to win may find himself running in second or third.
Both Florida and Ohio are must-wins for their respective hometown boys: Rubio in Florida and Kasich in Ohio. Given the way the GOP’s delegate math works out, if Trump successfully takes both states, he wins both a huge chunk of delegates to the convention and a public relations tidal wave that will likely wash across the “bluer” later primary contests.
From a polling perspective, the “two man race” between Trump and Cruz is deceptive. The reason why “establishment” figures have been pushing either Rubio or Kasich is because late-game primaries in states like New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, and Washington that tend to vote Democrat in the General Election. From a GOP voter perspective, these folks are generally more moderate than their early-primary friends in Texas, Alabama, or Mississippi. In a head-to-head matchup with Trump v. Cruz, Trump’s appeal to moderate-to-liberal Republicans will serve him well in these states (despite national polling showing the race between him and Cruz tightening).
So, what happened last night?
Donald Trump: It’s almost not a joke to say that “at least the national Republican frontrunner didn’t make a joke about his anatomy or threaten to punch someone on stage.” However, we had confirmation last night of Trump’s pivot towards being a “presidential” figure. It wasn’t perfect, but Trump raised his dialogue and began to talk about unity and (for him) policy specifics. Obviously, his critics are hounding him to be more specific. However, Trump has made the calculation that the “folks at home” aren’t interested in the minutiae and would much rather be told that they are going to be safer and better off than they are today. Trump was able to accomplish his goal of seeming to rise above the fray. Trump also took positions (keeping but enforcing the Iran Deal, opening Cuba, protecting Social Security, and trying to broker Middle East peace) that will benefit him greatly in the general election.
Marco Rubio: If this is Marco Rubio’s last debate, he went out nobly. If this wasn’t his last debate, he’s righted a sinking ship and set a course for forgetting that the last two weeks of the campaign happened. Rubio’s decision for nearly a month to get down and dirty with Donald Trump was likely a heavy contributing factor to his collapse in states across the map. Last night, that Rubio was gone. He was replaced with someone who was charismatic, interesting, and ready on policy. Again, you may not agree with his policy proposals, but the fact that his only jabs at Donald Trump were over Trump’s foreign policy plans shows the debate’s transition toward substance.
Ted Cruz: Cruz’s goal in the debate was to show that the nomination fight was now a “two man race.” He did this without mud slinging (though he tried to unhorse Trump a few times without any marked success) and that’s commendable. In the end, Cruz didn’t need to “win” this debate. In fact, Cruz didn’t want the air of finality to be hanging over the discussion at all. Any thought that this would be the last debate would benefit the “inevitability” argument for Trump. Cruz continued to stake radically hard-right positions that make him unpalatable to moderates and liberals, but Cruz has his political path and he is sticking to it.
CNN’s Debate Team: Of the twelve debates, CNN has hosted four. The first CNN debate was a bit of a disaster (“tell Trump why he’s wrong” was the refrain all night) but the moderation and questioning got better after that. If this is the last debate that is held in the GOP contest, it was a good ending point.
The GOP: Finally the news stories today won’t be about candidates acting like school children and throwing insults at one another without any semblance of looking “presidential.”
Ben Carson: He got a shout-out from Donald Trump on stage (does that mean he gets a chance to respond?). He’ll be endorsing Trump today. This was largely expected (he certainly wasn’t going to endorse Cruz after Cruz’s stunts in Iowa and most insiders see no viability for Kasich/Rubio). He’s making the savvy political move.
Local Baltimore Mayoral Candidates: (Disclaimer, Yes, I am running for office and you can find out more about that here. This isn’t an endorsement, just an observation.) At least two of Baltimore’s Democrats running for mayor bought local airtime during the debate. This was smart (not sure if they planned it, but let’s give them credit for it).
Protectionism: Like it or not, every candidate on stage endorsed a position that walked back the GOP’s stance on free trade. Though Cruz seemed to hit Trump for his tariff proposals, he seemed to be advocating similar positions.
Hawks: Not the birds, the people who don’t mind seeing American troops abroad. Even the usually dovish Trump endorsed an idea of sending 20,000-30,000 US ground troops to fight the Islamic State. This discussion certainly alienated libertarians but threw red meat to some of the GOP base.
John Kasich: Kasich didn’t really “lose” in the sense that he had a bad performance, but his goal needed to be standing out from the pack. In a debate where the discourse was generally civil, Kasich’s brand of “let’s play fair” didn’t have the juxtaposition with the other candidates’ poor behavior like it did before. Did Kasich hurt his chances in Ohio? No. Did he hurt his chances of being Donald Trump’s Vice President? No. But, there was no moment yesterday where Kasich really decided to step out from “I need to win Ohio” to talking to late-game primary voters.
CNN’s Production Team: Look, you had a countdown clock and a host on your network that both said the debate would begin at 8:30 EST. When 8:30 rolled around, we were told it would be another 30 minutes until the debate. It may seem like something generally mundane, but it was shameless on the part of CNN just to get boosted viewership for an extra half hour. Of course, it worked and most people probably (as I did) just muttered under their breath and watched the extra half hour of coverage. Despite that, it was just aggravating.
9PM Debates: If you’re trying to get people interested and engaged, don’t run the debates so late.
Reince Priebus: The RNC Chairman got a speaking role last night for a few minutes before the debate. He said that the Party would support the nominee. That seemed like a nice thing to say until you realized the implication: people are doubting that the RNC will support their own nominee. That’s pretty telling about the state of the Party.
Candidates’ Understanding of Islam: There are some issues where the candidates just seem to have no understanding. One of those areas is the Islamic faith. You don’t have to be a Muslim to know that the answers from most of the candidates about Islam just missed the mark.
Free Trade: See Protectionism, above.
Libertarians: See Hawks, above.
The #NeverTrump Movement: There are some (typically beltway insider, multiple graduate degree, thinktankers) establishment types who have tried to get Republicans on board with never supporting Donald Trump as the nominee. Each time Trump looks more accommodating and “presidential,” this movement will lose steam. Tonight was another blow to the attempt to derail the voters’ will.
Hillary Clinton: The GOP is showing signs of healing and coalescing. While there’s still an uphill battle, it looks like the past juvenile behavior (may be) behind it. As the Party focuses in on the general election, expect much of the energy that has, heretofore, been used for sniping at one another, be directed at the presumptive nominee of the Democrats.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
Next Tuesday (3/15) is a major day for the primary season. Voters in Florida, Missouri, Illinois, North Carolina and Ohio with cast their votes. The outcome of these states will set the stage for how we evaluate the race moving forward. If Rubio and Kasich cannot win their home states, expect deafening calls from inside the Party for them to drop out of the race. If both men win in their home states, expect the Party apparatus to begin churning and preparing for an open convention. If anything, we will get a lot of clarity about the race in less than a week.
(There is a thirteenth debate scheduled for March 21 in Salt Lake City, but details haven’t been finalized. Last night Trump seemed to indicate that if he won both Florida and Ohio that there wouldn’t be much need for another debate. He’s probably right.)