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On to tonight. We’ve finally arrived at CNN’s second Republican debate. The first one was extremely consequential. Consider that due to that debate, Jeb Bush and Scott Walker collapsed as co-favorites, Trump solidified his lead in the polls to supplant them as the favorite in many people’s minds, and Ben Carson began his ascent to be Trump’s only rival at the top of the polls. We also can’t forget Carly Fiorina’s tremendous matinee performance that catalyzed growth in her polling, landing her in tonight’s prime time debate.
If you trust CNN’s Jake Tapper, chief moderator for the debate, we could be in for a treat; Tapper vows to pit candidates against each other on the issues that divide them. Fellow moderator Dana Bash agrees: “Let the debate be a debate.” This tactic almost assuredly means at least one of them will call CNN out for “trying to divide Republicans” when the candidates’ real task will be to “defeat the Democrats in November.” Since the candidates have been forewarned of CNN’s strategy, they’re probably working on that ten-word sound byte as you read this. (My take: ALL debates should be like that, or else it’s not much of a “debate,” is it? But CNN better do the same thing to the Democrats next month.)
Unlike last debate, which was limited to ten participants, tonight’s debate has eleven candidates. The handful of candidates who did not qualify for the main debate are (with their Real Clear Politics averages next in parentheses):
Rick Santorum (1.0)
Bobby Jindal (0.3)
Lindsey Graham (0.2)
George Pataki (–)
James Gilmore did not qualify. Rick Perry (averaging at 0.8) would have joined them, but rather than suffer the ignominy of yet again debating with the dwarves of the field, he dropped out last week. Will any of the four who are debating earn a Fiorinic pop to join the main group? I doubt it. If you’re looking for a long-shot bet, though, I still think it’s Jindal.
As for the main event, here are my thoughts on each of the eleven candidates heading into the debate. I’ll go in reverse order of national RCP average.
11. Chris Christie (RCP Average–2.0): Aside from the bombastic Trump, Christie is the most likely debater to set off fireworks tonight. It’ll be the second straight debate where he’s relegated to an outside podium. He has fallen to a measely 2.0 nationally and is at risk for not qualifying for future debates. Surely this floundering has hurt his fundraising. He must get something going soon, or else this “straight-talker” will not be able to justify taking his eye off governing New Jersey to run a hopeless campaign. For those reasons, expect a loud Chris Christie tonight. His long term goal will be to position himself as the guy Trump’s supporters go to if Trump ever collapses or withdraws. If they want another straight-shooting loudmouth, Christie is their man, but he needs to stay viable long enough for that to happen.
10. Rand Paul (2.7): It’s become clear that the Republican Party doesn’t trust him to be a commander-in-chief. They’d rather roll the dice with Trump and Carson, two candidates with no foreign policy experience, than Paul, owner of a foreign policy they know they don’t like. Paul should give up trying to win over hawkish Republicans, even if they make up a large chunk of the party. As a result, I expect Paul to play hard to his libertarian base. He’ll define his libertarianism as the most consistent, true conservativism in the field. His imminent objective is not to win the nomination, but to regain respectability.
9. John Kasich (3.5): I thought he won the first debate, as did most moderates. Of course, winning over moderates is not too helpful in a Republican Primary. It helps in New Hampshire, where he’s been in the top three, including double-digit results, in each of the six polls dating back to July. However, he hasn’t gotten too much going nationally. Still, since his strategy is banking on a New Hampshire bump, expect him to continue beating the moderate drum. Even his in your face Christianity has a decidedly liberal bent.
8. Scott Walker (3.8): How the mighty have fallen! Scott Walker, once a part of the “Big Three” with Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, is now polling at a woeful 3.8 nationally, including at just two points in each of the last two polls. In Iowa, meanwhile, where he once towered over the field as recently as this summer, he averages just 5.7, tied for fourth and 22 points behind Trump. Just like his national polling, it’s worse the more recently we check; a Quinnipiac Iowa poll from last week had him down to three points. Relevantly for tonight, you can chart this free-fall back to the first debate. He came into that debate still polling in the top three nationally, but then he was the most boring candidate on stage. Before the debate, nine of the previous eleven national polls had him at double digit; after the debate, he hasn’t accomplished that feat once. He has followed that debate by being equally weak on the campaign trail. Conservatives love his record, but a solid record is not enough to win a presidential campaign. Walker has yet to show he has what it takes to go change the minds of people across the country. For that reason, he vows to be more “aggressive” tonight.
7. Mike Huckabee (4.3): Huckabee continues to be evangelicals’ greatest champion. His defense of Kim Davis has drawn a lot of publicity, as has his defense of his own controversial, pro-life comments. He continues to attack same sex marriage on the grounds of judicial tyranny, saying it still should not be seen as the law of the land. The man has conviction. Politically speaking, he had already clawed out a niche with the far right Christian base, and in the last two weeks he has doubled down on it. In his quest to leap back into the Iowa top three, expect more of the same tonight. We’ll see big time preaching from the pastor tonight as he tries to replicate his impressive run from eight years ago. However, it won’t be enough. In 2008, he had little competition for evangelical voters, who were skeptical of McCain, Giuliani, and Romney’s social conservatism. Huckabee rode evangelical support to an Iowa win and a second place overall finish. But now? Carson, Cruz, Jindal, Santorum, and even Trump are pulling from that base. His strategy should be to broaden his appeal, not narrow it, but he’s chosen his path.
6. Carly Fiorina (4.3): So she should showed she could slap around the kiddie table, but can she handle the bright lights of the prime time debate stage? That’s certainly one of the more important questions tonight. She might either impress yet again, which would bolster her climb up the polls into the top five. Or she could struggle, all her momentum would be stunted, and she would wallow in the bottom part of the main field with Christie and Paul for the foreseeable future. Second surges are rare, so that is not a position in which she wants to be. High stakes for the field’s only woman. Interestingly, she’s been the latest to challenge Trump, so I highly anticipate their “showdown.” Although such aggressiveness toward our loud leader hasn’t worked out for Perry or Paul, might her double X chromosome protect her the undefeated Trump machine? It’s not nice to pick on a girl. Trust me.
5. Marco Rubio (5.8): He continues to be a likable candidate in the party, with favorability numbers second only to Ben Carson. He was excellent in the last debate, earning almost universal praise. While Carson probably did himself the most favors that night, I felt Rubio offered a lot more substance. He might be the best candidate to match up against Hillary Clinton, which he’ll probably mention tonight, and I again expect him to be among the winners and get a minor debate bump. I still see him as one of the three favorites to win the nomination.
4. Ted Cruz (6.7): I’ve addressed Cruz’s impressive educational background and debate skills on multiple occasions, including pointing out how classic debate skills are not necessarily transferable to a political debate stage. However, will Tapper and Bash’s encouragement of back-and-forth exchanges play right into Cruz’s debate background? He can hope. Expect another smooth, patient Cruz performance that boasts his conservative record and willingness to go after the establishment. Cruz is trying to position himself as the heir to Trump and Carson’s supporters upon their collapse. In the meantime, he won’t want to rankle those voters, so we’ll see his patience continue. Cruz is at once anti-establishment and a member of the U.S. Senate. That’s a hard marriage to pull off successfully, but Cruz’s reputation has done it. He’s hoping that once Republicans realize they’d be sending Trump or Carson into the totally alien arena of foreign policy, they might give it a second thought and look elsewhere for a candidate that can both stick it to the establishment but also do the job required of the president. I actually think Cruz is in a great spot, and he’s a top four candidate for the nomination. This will probably be the topic of a future post.
3. Jeb Bush (7.8): Listen, he’s still the favorite. I know, I know–that sounds crazy. But all of the advantages he had when I listed him as the most likely nominee are still in play. Money isn’t everything, but it helps. (Is Trump really ready to spend the eight figures that Team Bush already raised before August? I doubt it.) Endorsements aren’t everything, but it helps even more. Bush took big, early leads in both of those categories. We’re still four-and-a-half months from Iowa and New Hampshire, but as we get closer, those advantages will be unleashed. We’ve seen 22 public official endorsements of Bush; we have still yet to see one of Ben Carson or Donald Trump. Not one. The establishment has proven time and again that it picks the nominee; Romney, McCain, Bush II, Dole, Bush I, Reagan, Ford, Nixon–the last eight nominees, dating back 50 years–were picked and supported by a plurality (or outright majority) of the party early in the election cycle. That being said, Bush was pretty bad in the last debate and has since tumbled down the polling percentages. Another bad debate and he’ll lose the cashflow, party leaders will get nervous, and his favorite status will be in jeopardy. (Rubio supporters are nodding their heads right now.) High stakes here as well.
2. Ben Carson (17.8): For the first time in two months, we can say there is a new hottest candidate in the race. Yes, Trump still leads all the national, Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina polls, but Carson is rapidly gaining everywhere. Just yesterday, a CBS/NY Times national poll had Carson four points back of Trump, 27 to 23. It was Trump’s smallest margin since July. Trump’s 27 was also his lowest total in a month. With Carson’s ascent fueled by his Trumpesque, anti-establishment, non-politician appeal, we can deduce that the cause of Trump’s recent dip is due to the good doctor’s rise. Tonight, Carson will try to repeat his performance from the August 6 debate–be cool, be calm, say little of substance but in endearing ways, and ride the conservative love.
1. Donald Trump (29.8): Yes, he’s dipped just a bit in recent polling. Still, it’s only Carson gaining on him. All other candidates pale in comparison to their numbers. (For comparison, Christie in 11th trails Bush in 3rd by 5.8, while Bush in 3rd trails Trump in 1st by nearly four times that much.) Carson better bring some armor, because Trump loves attacking rivals. He seemed to really enjoy attacking former leader of the polls Bush, and he tried to counter Carly Fiorina’s climb by, classy as always, being critical of her face. It stands to reason that Ben Carson will be in Trump’s sights tonight. However, I’m not sure exactly how he goes about it. Carson is not antagonistic, so Trump, always cagey when attacked himself, will never have the opportunity to throw a counter-punch. If Trump wants to be the aggressor, meanwhile, Carson’s biggest weakness in this campaign–that of having zero political experience–is Trump’s weakness as well. What’s left–Carson’s lack of energy? I’ll tell you what’s left: Trump just being Trump and throwing uppercuts because Trump loves throwing uppercuts. Yet, Carson’s calm demeanor will remain unchanged, he won’t take the bait, and in a week’s time we will see Carson above Trump in a poll.
Big picture categories:
- Highest stakes: 1) Christie; 2) Bush; 3) Fiorina
- Who I expect to do well: 1) Cruz; 2) Rubio; 3) Fiorina
- Who I expect to do poorly: 1) Trump; 2) Christie; 3) Huckabee
- Post-debate predictions:
1) Carson catches Trump in at least one poll;
2) Walker comes to play and has a mini-rally back into the top five nationally;
3) Eleven candidates claim victory.
Tonight, CNN, 8:00 PM. Be there.