CNN GOP Debate Preview (Part 2)

Yesterday: introduction to the fifth GOP debate. Today, a look at each candidate.

Before we get to the main field, let’s quickly address the 6:00 EST matinee debate. Here are its candidates (with RCP national polling averages in parentheses):

  • George Pataki (0.2)
  • Rick Santorum (0.2)
  • Lindsey Graham (0.3)
  • Mike Huckabee (2.0)

(Not qualifying, yet again, is Jim Gilmore, because he did not reach at least 1%percent in four separate national, Iowa or New Hampshire polls. Worse yet, he only parenthetically qualified for PPFA’s debate preview.)

These candidates are probably getting used to debating each other. Santorum and Graham have been in all five of the undercard debates. Pataki has been in four, while Huckabee joined them last time and his campaign has shown no signs of life since. Tonight, I expect that Graham will again deliver the most highlights. I’ve really enjoyed Lindsey Graham’s debate performances and campaign trail comments. So much snark.

As for the nine-candidate field in the main debate (8:30 EST):

Rand Paul (2.1)–He just baaarely made it. It took him earning 5 points in Fox News poll on Sunday, the final day of the polling window, to get up to 3.8 in Iowa and qualify, which was rounded up to 4. (Rules stated that a candidate needed to average at least 3.5 nationally or 4 in either Iowa or New Hampshire. He’s only 2.1 nationally and 2.7 in New Hampshire.) This campaign is on life support, but maybe his progress in Iowa is enough to keep him going and get his father’s tremendous Iowa organization to start buying in. (Doubtful.)

John Kasich (2.3)–I’ll dust off this meme from two weeks ago to preview Kasich tonight:


Carly Fiorina (2.3)“FINALLY, another debate!” -Fiorina HQ. The debater-in-chief will sound sharp and strong again. And again she’ll get a bump. And again it won’t matter as everyone’s short-term memories fade.

Chris Christie (2.9)–While Ted Cruz is unquestionably the candidate of December, Christie is positioned to become the candidate of January. Consider Christie’s upside: he can pull from Trump’s “Tough talk” supporters, he can pull from Cruz and Carson’s “Down with Washington!” base, he can pull from Bush and Kasich’s “Experienced governor” crowd, and he can pull from Rubio’s “Upside in a general election” strength. He has a little bit of everything. Tonight and in the coming six weeks, as Cruz and Rubio crystallize their frontrunners-who-aren’t-Trump status, expect Christie to play up the “Do you really want to vote in another first term senator?” card. Tonight, he’ll again look into the camera more consistently than any candidate; he’ll look the most comfortable leaning on the podium and schmoozing the moderator; he’ll again brag about his prosecutorial skills that will help him in debates against Hillary Clinton, who was left skating away from the Benghazi hearings; but his main message will be as a conservative governor of a blue state who can actually get things done, unlike the politicians in Washington. I think people are finally giving him a serious look, and if they see what I’ve seen in his first four debates, the slow surge will continue.

Jeb Bush (4.0)–For Bush, the word of the day is “flat.” In fact, it’s been his word of the day for a long time. He’s been in fifth place for months, and his polling numbers nationally and in Iowa just meander between 3 and 7, with a random pop to 8 if he’s lucky. It’s just single digits for the man with the most money who was once considered the favorite, and he has to be hearing the considerable pounding of Christie’s footsteps behind him. Tonight, he’ll try to “shake things up,” as the media swears to us he needs to do. Of course, he’s been trying to “shake things up” for a while. It’s said he needs to show anger or, really, any emotion. But it’s just not something he does well. He’s too gregarious, and he doesn’t have the fight in him.

Ben Carson (12.0)–The shift to foreign policy doomed the neurosurgeon’s campaign. People want to feel safe, and Republicans, on top of that, want toughness. Dr. Carson hasn’t projected the ability to speak to either. As a result, since Paris, his national and Iowa poll numbers have plummeted from the mid-20s to the mid-teens, while his New Hampshire numbers have collapsed into the mid-single digits. For tonight, he and his staff have surely put together a game plan that will include mentioning lots of numbers and proper nouns about the Middle East.

Marco Rubio (12.6)–Cruz is rising fastest, but Rubio has been rising for just as long. There are still six weeks to go before voting, and Rubio isn’t changing a thing. His debates have been excellent; he’s the most experienced guy of the main field on foreign policy — a big help with tonight’s inevitable emphasis on it — and he’s the best match-up against Hillary Clinton, a quality that Republican voters will increasingly value as voting draws nearer. Most importantly, he’s #1 in the Power Rankings of the inimitable Presidential Politics for America‘s for three months running, so why mess with what works?

Ted Cruz (16.1)I tried to tell you. On October 7, I noted how “The most common odds for Cruz is 25/1, making him the seventh most likely nominee. Even Mike Huckabee — who, trust me, has almost NO shot — sometimes has odds equal to Cruz.” But now? He’s 3 or 4/1 to win the nomination (and Huckabee is having his second helping at the kiddie table). And then I told you again before the Thanksgiving break. Maybe now you’ll listen. (Seriously, could you start listening? And maybe start telling your friends? The blog’s viewership is flatter than Jeb Bush’s polling.) Tonight, expect his biggest competitors — Trump, Rubio, and Christie — to come at him hard on his national security voting record, including on defense budgets and the NSA.

Donald Trump (33.0)–It must be said that I thought Trump’s first two debates were abysmal, but they didn’t really hurt him.  His last two debates were not abysmal (nor were they impressive), but his lack of bombast actually resulted in some stagnant post-debate polls. Remember this graph from Friday?


Trump’s polling, shown in maroon, experienced a lull that lasted from the third through the fourth debate, which were held only two weeks apart. The large amount of time in between the last debate and this one allowed him to rise again. This pattern, though a small sample size, might explain why the GOP just scheduled a new debate for halfway through January. Tonight, the moderators will likely press him and Carson on their threats to bolt the party if Republican leaders don’t do anything “under the covers” (a horrifying image, to be sure). Trump has succeeded in positioning himself as either the winner or a loser who will blame the refs, so I’m sure he won’t reverse this stance.

Perhaps what most people are looking forward to will be not only Trump’s defense of his many controversial, anti-Muslim positions — where we’ll get a Master’s class in either obfuscation or general election grave digging — but how the Republican field will position itself relative to those positions. The last two national polls — the only two to be surveyed totally after his “ban Muslim immigration” comments — show him at 41 and 38 points, his highest numbers of the primary. His message is clearly resonating with many Republican voters. So, the question is, will the other Republican candidates still pile on and tell viewers how misguided Trump is, or will they steadily move toward Trump on the issue? Tonight we’ll probably get an answer.

Should be fun!


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