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A Tale of Two “Debates”

On one level, you have to feel sorry. Not for the Republicans—they most certainly have brought this fiasco on themselves—but for the TV networks. How on earth is it possible to conduct a substantive, informative debate with ten or eleven people on stage taking part at the same time?? I am not arguing that Fox News or even, especially, CNN, could not have done a better job with their debates; they both could have, but such action would not have made much of a difference. The main problem was that there were just too many damn candidates on stage at the same time. Just before the first main debate back in August, there was a pre-main-“debate” “kids’-table” debate with the seven bottom-feeders out of the seventeen candidates. That pre-debate debate then was boring and unremarkable. Not so for the pre-“debate” debate this time around: while eleven people made it into the main “debate” this time, in terms of the pre-“debate” debate, the hapless Jim Gilmore, at 0% in the polls, was not included, plus Rick Perry had dropped out. So that only left four candidates—George Pataki, Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal, and Lindsey Graham—in the pre-main “debate” kids-table bottom- feeder “debate” extravaganza.

That smaller debate was everything the main “debate” should have been: informative, entertaining, substantive, deep, with some candidates willing to speak harsh truths to their base and an exchange of views in which candidates clearly differentiated themselves on politics and governing philosophy. Absolutely none of these qualities were present to any significant degree in the three-hour show that was labeled the main “debate” but that can hardly be characterized as such. Even when it came to the entertainment factor, the main debate only had exceptions to what was in general a boring slog that only gave candidates on the crowded stage enough time to spew talking points, slogans, and one-liners that generally were not able to stand up factually to scrutiny. Some candidates in the main “debate”—especially the much overhyped Carly Fiorina (more on her in a soon-to-be-published piece by yours truly) did a good job delivering their hackneyed and rehearsed lines. Yet unless this is an audition for a slightly colorful infomercial, that should hardly be a metric as to whether a person should be considered for the office of President of the United States of America (Sorry, Fiorina).  In contrast, in the pre-“debate” debate, everyone was sharp, everyone crisp, everyone articulate, everyone had moments to shine, and everyone was able to withstand vigorous challenges from their fellow candidates but were also able to issue strong challenges themselves.

I might have been having more beers during the main “debate,” but I honestly can remember very little from it and the alcohol is not the reason why. The main “debate” and its candidates were duds, unremarkable from beginning to end. We can give Rubio credit for having fire and also seeming “competent” (relative to a lot more obvious and blatant nonsense) and Christie was able to eke out some maturity and substance as well, but the format simply did not give them or the others enough time to shine or candidates like Trump, Cruz, and Carson enough rope to hang themselves. At the same time, I will also note that many people—including one of my best friends who is a very intelligent conservative Republican and successful attorney—aren’t looking for substance or well-crafted policy solutions from experienced politicians; they are looking for a style that is pleasing to them and ideology that meshes with theirs (a bizarre mix of an exclusionary sense of self-entitlement, thoroughly unoriginal nativism, hatred of government and politicians, intense anti-intellectualism, an embrace of evangelical fundamentalist Christianity, and other troubling ideas) a phenomenon that I must admit confuses me at times, though not entirely. This is the reason why the political pundit class has been so off with its predictions and why this Republican presidential race in particular is so unpredictable (going into October, who before would have had Trump and Carson as #1 and #2/#3, respectively, way ahead of pretty much everyone else both nationally and in the key early-contest states?), and I must regrettably, at least to a degree, include myself in this class: while I thought that Trump had a legitimate shot, I did not see the race playing out like this overall, and I had thought that Carson was done after what I thought was a terrible performance in the first debate, with me predicting his exit sooner rather than later.

Part of what makes this race so confusing is the steady position of Trump at the top, and the volcanic magma mess of the middle. Only Fiorina has made it out of the pack of bottom-feeders to the main stage, but I and others find it hard to believe that she will actually rise to the top. A real part of the problem and confusion is that as one candidate rises, it is hard to predict at whose expense this occurs. Ben Carson may have taken a nibble at best out of Trump so far, but Trump’s support is relatively strong and steady and the rise of anyone other than Trump seems to take support away from anyone other than Trump. As I wrote earlier, if such a dynamic continues, Trump could very well continue to stay on top in a crowded field and win the nomination, or, at the very least, have the most delegates of any single candidate going into the convention.

As for the specifics of the main “debate,” in many ways it was the true kids’-table-debate. Some of this is because of the candidates themselves, some of it the moderation and questions, but most of it has to do with the fact that with eleven candidates on single stage, hoping for substantive exchanges is like hoping for ISIS to set up academic exchanges with Israeli universities.

Still, let’s talk about the candidates.

The Republicans Contenders Going Forward…

CNN released a poll conducted just after the “debate.” Nationally, Trump is still on top by nine points (24%), but dropped slightly compared with recent polls. Ben Carson fell quite a bit and is now third (14%), but is practically tied with Fiorina (15%), who saw a huge bump and is now technically in second place. Rubio saw a big boost that nearly doubled his support (11%) and is now in fourth place, with Bush relatively holding steady or gaining just a bit (9%) and in fifth place. Cruz and Huckabee are hanging in there, both tied for sixth place (6% each). Fitting with (and probably because of) his dismal “debate” performance (although for the sake of the American republic I wish it was because of his weak record), Walker—once a great hope of the Republican faithful—is now polling at o%, behind even Santorum, who was not even part of the main “debate.” If he doesn’t finish near the top in Iowa, which is as likely as Mitt Romney throwing his hat into the ring and winning the nomination, expect Walker to drop out soon (UPDATE: 9/22: Walker has, unsurprisingly, dropped out). Christie, Kasich, and Paul are floating in the bottom, but are each within striking distance of the middle. Christie can rely on his strong debate performances and record of substance as a governor, along with his ability to skillfully and quickly convey that record. Kasich is loved by the media as the conservative with a heart; he also has a strong record as a governor and a U.S. Congressman and is in the top tier in New Hampshire, the second contest of the primaries. Paul is, well, a Paul; he may yet be able to tap into more of his father’s die-hard supporters and be the libertarian and youth-voter banner-carrier of these primaries. The bottom four in the other debate? They all performed well; for the questions that matter, was anyone paying attention, and does anyone care? That remains to be seen. For the sake of argument, let’s say 3-5 candidates (including Gilmore) drop out in the coming few months; does that leave room at the adult table for anyone from the pre-“debate” debate who stays in race? It would be a tough battle, especially with the media seeming so keen (consciously or unconsciously) on seeing a Republican woman be elevated, but not impossible (if anyone breaks out, my money is on Santorum;nhis message is in some ways unique, he is passionate, and he has a potential army of volunteers who campaigned for him in 2012 that he can call upon in the eleven primary states he won when he came in second to Mitt Romney in 2012), which is much more recent and therefor more relevant than Huckabee’s 2008 second-place finish).

Trump was… well, still Trump, if just a bit off from his performance of the first debate. That is to say, he was unapologetic and a bully, but this is what his supporters love the most about him. What others see as weaknesses, his supporters inhale like laughing gas. No matter what inane things come out of his mouth, Trump has stayed strong: for three months, he has been the only candidate consistently polling nationally above 20%, and the only one to poll above 30% at all. Only Ben Carson has also been above 20%, but only recently and if the latest CNN poll is the harbinger of what is to come, Carson may have already peaked and his 20+% support may be over, though officially count me as wait-and-see as to whether Carson has peaked, but it’s a possibility (see below). Trump has also dominated the key early-contest states. And, obviously, he has very effectively dominated the media coverage of the Republican field. So those thinking that somehow this debate was a game changer for him are almost certainly wrong, just as they have been before. Also, don’t forget about how much money he has; if he chooses, he can flood any market he wants with ads. Maybe he even pulls a Ross Perot and buys large chunks of prime-time TV slots that he turns into infomercials. All I can say is that any Trump television anything will be dramatically higher quality (“THE BEST!” “THE CLASSIEST!”) in terms of production values compared to his competitors, and certainly far more entertaining and therefore captivating. Basically, those writing Trump off seem to be missing the big picture.

Fiorina, as in past performances, didn’t stumble. She continued to make the most of her (weak) resume (denying that her performances as a CEO were not awful, which they certainly at least seem to be and which I will discuss in my next piece) and make a big deal out of the fact that she’s met “Bibi” Netanyahu (always referring to him by his nickname as if we are supposed to believe that they are BFFs or perhaps even past lovers; contrast this with Hillary Clinton’s more substantive discussion of her actual relationship with him) and met Putin, King Abdullah of Jordan, and others before as if a few meetings with world leaders as the CEO of a major tech company means the UN should roll out the red-carpet for her to be Secretary-General (this reminds me a bit of Sarah Palin saying Russia was near Alaska and that that made her qualified on foreign policy issues, although to be fair to Fiorina her global experience was much more substantive than Palin’s and the fact that she can say she’s met these people is something most of her rivals cannot claim, so one can’t blame her for milking those meetings for everything she can get from them). Fiorina delivered her lines well, but that’s all they were: rehearsed lines, and they were often impractical or factually incorrect (e.g., claiming she can get the world to reimpose sanctions on Iran when world powers clearly do not want to, her shameful exaggerations of the planned parenthood video, etc.), but in this she was in good company on that stage. As a performance artist, she was good: making the most out of a weak record, sounding strong, not stumbling over her words, having a (brief) answer to everything. She performed her role on stage as well as anyone and better than most of the people who shared that stage with her. Never mind that her answers, statements, and characterizations won’t hold up to scrutiny: a debate with eleven people on stage has time for almost nothing, let alone scrutiny. Fiorina understands the game, used both debates as a way make herself “viable” in this incredibly weak field, and played the game well. The media would do well do recognize and discuss the difference between debate performance and being a serious candidate for high office. If she stays in the top three or four spots in the polls between now and the next debate, expect moderators and candidates to go after her many glaring weaknesses, not least of all her record as a CEO. She is also weak in fundraising (though she has a respectable amount of personal wealth—some $59 million—upon which to draw). Consider this one overhyped, but don’t dismiss her.

Carson very likely failed to capitalize on his solidly #2 position entering the debate; he declined to go after the only candidate—Trump—who was ahead of him. He was his usual rambling and incoherent self, a self that is also charming and affable, and this self, who seems like a terrible candidate to most of us, is beloved by evangelicals, over one-quarter of America’s population and a huge portion of the Republican base. This helps to explain his unpredictable rise. The first post-“debate” poll just released saw his support drop considerably, but it is still in the middle-teens and though he is technically third, he is virtually tied with Fiorina for second. I do not think anyone should be predicting a collapse of Carson anytime soon, and though his days of nipping at trump’s heels may (I’m only saying MAY) be over, it is quite possible for him to stay in the top tier for the foreseeable future and even beyond. The truth about him and Trump is that they appeal to the fearful, the irrational, and the emotional, and few words besides those three could better describe today’s Republican base. The pundit class would do well to remember this, and factor in the fact that their popularity does not make sense and should not make sense, but that this support is real and needs to be recognized. The fact that a candidate like Fiorina is being taken seriously by the “serious” wing of the Republican Party now, more so than Bush, is a joke in and of itself.

The most intelligent, realistic, and substantive Republicans are probably torn between Rubio and Bush. This, too, is sad in some ways, though not as much as is the case of the candidates discussed above. To me, Rubio is a better performer and more exciting and fiery than Bush, but Bush is more measured with his foreign policy statements and in general, especially on the signature issue of our times, the Iran nuclear deal, an issue on which Rubio is simply ridiculous. Bush, much older than Rubio, also carries more gravitas. Both have moderate streaks, especially on immigration, but Rubio is a bit more radical and rose to power with support from the Tea Party movement. Bush-Rubio could be a formidable ticket (possibly even in reverse order). Rubio seems to have more potential to gain from debates, outperforming Bush in both debates so far, but offsetting this people also need to remember that Bush has raised $114 million, and though his polling numbers do not suggest this, he has barely begun to utilize those resources. For either to rise to the top, both still have a lot of work to do; neither of them lead in any polls, even in their home state of Florida, where in the latest poll Bush and Rubio are a distant third (13%) and fourth (10%), respectively, to Trump’s 28% and Carson’s 17% and where the last three polls have in them in the same ranking.

Cruz and Huckabee didn’t do any damage to themselves, but didn’t do anything to help themselves rise from where they are—the top of the middle—either.  As I already noted above, Paul, Kasich, and Christie are all within striking distance of breaking out, at least to Cruz-Huckabee levels; if the elections gods (and media) deem it so, any one of them could be another Fiorina, though as white males lacking vaginas, they don’t do much to address the dire diversity problem the Republican Party faces and the uphill, lopsided demographics battles it will face in the 2016 general election. The Kids’-Table four, unlike Scott Walker, seemed very eager for a chance to prove their mettle and relished the spotlight; they seem to have to drive and motivation to continue fighting for a long time. And in a long, volatile, race, they are not that far away from Paul, Kasich, and Christie and, therefore, are not far away from being within striking distance of being relevant. Bobby Jindal, himself an Indian-American, maybe very well become more appreciated by Republican voters and elites as well as conservative media if any of them start thinking with their heads, although he never talks about his Indian heritage. In this way, he is not that different from Ben Carson, and do not underestimate the power to appeal to conservatives of person in a minority group totally downplaying their identity as part of that minority (Republicans love that sort of thing).

All in all, the race is far from over and promises to be a long, hard, interesting slog.

Brian E. Frydenborg (LinkedInFacebookTwitter @bfry1981) September 22nd, 2015

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