Second GOP debate might have changed the game

The Briefing, Vol. III, Issue 30-

This week:

  • Fiorina wins the big debate
  • Trump humbled
  • What Trump has contributed to this year’s race

President 2016

GOP debate: There is a great deal of skepticism about whether debates matter at all. But no matter how much this skepticism is justified for the average debate, last Wednesday’s debate was an exception. It mattered quite a bit.

Normally, it isn’t easy to get anyone to tune in to a presidential debate at this stage. On Wednesday, a record 23 million people tuned in to watch. That’s a boon for Republicans, something sure to broaden interest in the party and the candidates. And no one benefited from this as much as the debate’s clear winner, Carly Fiorina.

More on that in a second. But first…why so many viewers? You can surely attribute some part of it to public weariness with the Obama era and widespread concerns about Hillary Clinton’s fitness for office. That sort of thing motivates voters to tune in and see what the alternatives are.

But then, of course, there’s The Donald. This is Trump’s biggest contribution to the race to date. It is not true, as many say, that he has brought up issues no one else would discuss otherwise. Immigration has been an issue in every recent election since 2006. What he has done, though, is generate much more interest in the Republican primaries than anyone is used to seeing. The previous record for a CNN primary debate audience was just 8.3 million, in 2008.

A buzz-driven and widely watched nomination process is good for the Republican Party, just as the 2008 primary duel between Clinton and Barack Obama was good for Democratic Party. Even better, what those viewers saw was quite good. No one made the debate into a circus, and most of the candidates came off pretty well, even the ones that didn’t perform best.

So, how did they perform?

Donald Trump: According to Sunday’s CNN poll, a 31 percent plurality believed that Trump did the worst of anyone in the debate, and he dropped 8 points in the polls as a result (falling to 24 percent support from the CNN poll taken in early September). In reality, others had worse debate performances, but none of theirs was so consequential.

One thing unique about Wednesday’s debate was its length. In order to give some justice to the large number of candidates on stage, CNN made it three hours long — a real marathon, for viewers and debaters alike.

But such great length has an effect on the dynamic of a debate. In this case, it worked against Trump. He is accustomed to getting in a few quick insults and leaving the impression that he’s in control.

But over the course of three hours, such a debating strategy is unsustainable. Gradually, a candidate’s lack of basic knowledge becomes evident, and all that extra time on the clock gives multiple other candidates time to point that out explicitly. Given Trump’s dominance in the polls, the other candidates (except Ben Carson and Ted Cruz) really had it in for him. What’s more, his schtick started to wear thin before the first hour was even up. As other candidates discussed issues with a detailed level of knowledge, the contrast with Trump became sharper and clearer.

The most dramatic moment of the debate came when Fiorina smacked Trump over his previous remarks about her personal appearance. But the most important moment came much earlier, when Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker pointed out of Trump: Just because he says something, doesn’t mean it’s true. Trump had just said that Wisconsin’s budget is a mess (it isn’t) and that Walker had “lost” $2.2 billion, which was both wrong and incoherent.

Walker’s comeback set the tone for the rest of the debate. Up to that point, Trump had lobbed personal insults at two other candidates. From there on, Trump was everyone’s piñata. Larger-than-life persona aside, he was in over his head.

Carly Fiorina: The debate’s best performer, she delivered the sharpest jab of the night to Trump. But that wasn’t all she did. In fact, she resisted the temptation to attack the polling frontrunner right out of the gate, choosing an opportune time later in the debate. It was a smart way of handling things.

The new CNN poll shows Fiorina jumping from asterisk to 15 percent as a result of the debate, leapfrogging Ben Carson and seizing second place. She showed herself knowledgeable on several important issuses and capable of defending herself. She offered a plausible explanation for her tenure at Hewlett Packard, but it is also clear she will have more questions to answer on that topic. Perhaps a lot more.

Even so, this is progress. It is important to remember that Fiorina might well have been relegated to the kiddie-table debate, had she not fought to be included in the main event.

Ben Carson: Carson, beloved as he is, was simply soporific in this debate. He has clearly been advised not to attack other candidates, and in general this principle has worked for him, but some slow pitches just shouldn’t be passed up.

Carson had one opportunity, on the issue of vaccinations, to attack Trump for his vaccine trutherism. Had he gone ferocious here, it would have been the main highlight of the debate in the newsreels. But the accomplished surgeon simply went limp. He did at least contradict Trump’s belief that vaccines cause autism, but he did it so gently — even crediting Trump with having a point about how vaccines are delivered– that it was clear afterward he had simply dropped the ball.

Marco RubioMaybe he was a bit over-prepared. Rubio did really well, but he came off a bit too scripted — even if he completely owned, believed in, and wrote for himself the script he was performing. There wasn’t much of the gentle charm for which he is usually known, but his firm grasp of policy was on display, and that counts for something. Rubio gave the best answer on Global Warming (and Walker did well to echo him): The solutions proposed by Obama and other liberals will do almost nothing to curb it, but they will do quite a bit to harm the economy.

Rubio’s answer on his sparse attendance in the Senate during his presidential run could really cut either way. It was certainly bold — he argued that debates in the Senate hardly matter at this point because the body’s members are so out of touch with Americans. He is not, as he noted, running for re-election. Does this make him seem more like an outsider, or does it make it seem like he’s deserted his post in the Senate?

Chris Christie: From a purely figurative perspective, he punched way above his weight. Christie showed a lot of that passion he likes to talk about, and it was at least enough to make people wonder whether maybe he will be relevant again at some future date. But Christie has a lot of work to do — he is contending with very high negatives compared to other low-ranking Republican candidates.

Jeb Bush: He did well enough to remain relevant and within the top tier, but not well enough to improve his standing substantially. Bush’s best moment came when he pointed out that he’d beaten Trump on the issue of casino gambling in Florida. He also didn’t let Trump embarrass him. He could have done a lot better had he pressed harder with his demand that Trump apologize to his wife for a jab at her ethnic origin.

Scott Walker: He didn’t necessarily distinguish himself in this debate, but he actually got in some of the hardest punches against Trump. His confrontation of Trump for making up numbers set the tone for the whole rest of the debate.

But getting back to the main point: Walker is vastly underperforming his potential in this race, and nothing he did in the debate was sufficient to fix that.

John Kasich: What do you do with the Republican candidate at the Republican debate who tells the Republican voters they’re wrong? You write him off. We liked him better the first time when he was Jon Huntsman.

Ted Cruz: The Texas senator was described elsewhere before the debate as the pilot fish to Trump’s shark, and he certainly performed up to that expectation. He looked a bit strange deferring to Trump when all of the other candidates were strenuously working to take him down a peg. As with the 2013 government shutdown that he led, this campaign looks like an exercise in fundraising list-building that has little hope of accomplishing much more.

Mike Huckabee: Is the 2008 Iowa caucus winner for real in this race? Maybe not, and he didn’t attack anyone else with sufficient vigor to make the highlight reel. But he still has the preacher’s way with words at times. Like most of the candidates in this debate, he acquitted himself honorably, and it won’t be enough on its own to make him stand out.

Rand PaulHe was the first victim of a Trump insult (not just about his poll numbers, but his appearance as well). For all that, he has to look at Trump with some envy. When he announced for president, he was surely expecting that by now he would be expanding his father Ron Paul’s base in this primary by preaching the libertarian gospel to a broader conservative constituency. Instead, he’s clinging to the most libertarian elements of his father’s base — the less libertarian elements (homeless paleoconservatives and paleolibertarians) have mostly gone to Trump.

Paul isn’t completely out of it yet, but he simply cannot be in the running unless Trump utterly implodes — and soon.