Who won and who lost the CNN GOP debate
Presidential Primary debates are a lot like hot dog eating contests; it’s never clear if anyone actually walks or waddles away as a winner. Since the advent of television, primary debates have been a staple of the nominating process. These ‘debates’ hardly qualify as debates in the truest sense of the word; if anything, they’re nothing more than unified press conferences. However, debates do present a chance for the candidates to clash, to explain themselves, to sell their case to the people, and to engage in a direct comparison with some of their rivals.
Wednesday night’s GOP debate was rather heated, with candidates routinely engaging in a fierce back and forth, and the moderators were more than willing to allow themselves to be interrupted or dismissed. Since there were eleven candidates on the stage, many of whom were trying to appeal to different sets of voters, it’s hard to claim that anyone ‘won’ the debate. Just take the last GOP debate in August; Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and Chris Christie gave well informed answers, while Ben Carson and Donald Trump’s answers lacked serious policy specifics. Nevertheless, it was Trump and Carson who rose in the polls in the weeks that followed.
With the limitations of political analysis in mind, here’s a brief ranking of the winners and losers of the GOP primary debate, from first to eleventh.
- Carly Fiorina
It wasn’t so much that Fiorina’s policy answers were better than her rivals-simply naming leaders or saying words like ‘comprehensive,’ ‘Shia,’ and ‘tactical’ together in a sentence does not mean you have any experience beyond watching Homeland or West Wing-but it was enough for voters to be convinced that she has the policy knowledge to lead the country. Furthermore, her attacks on Trump landed the hardest, and knocked Trump off of his game for the second half of the night, particularly with her response against the ‘face’ comment. Why Fiorina’s performance matters is that, currently, she has low name ID; this means that her performance expanded her ceiling of possible support, giving her new voters to persuade who otherwise would have not even known who she is. Unlike Trump or Clinton, who are universally known, Fiorina has plenty of room to rise.
- Chris Christie
As I’ve said, Chris Christie is one of the most naturally talented politicians in the race, and he reminded us of that tonight. His answers on 9/11, regarding the Fiorina-Trump feud, entitlements, and drug policy all earned applause from the crowd, and showed an optimistic but tough candidate. Christie is more than likely still crowded out of the race, but he certainly helped his cause tonight, and might begin to experience a McCain like resurrection in New Hampshire if he keeps this up. The question is this: can Christie get a second chance as a frontrunner, or will voters decide he’s just not as flawed as they once thought?
- Jeb Bush
Bush’s performance was assuredly mixed: though he sounded like the smartest guy the room, he also veered into boring politician answers at times, and suffered some verbal miscues. However, during most of his tussles with Trump-over speaking Spanish, his wife, Trump’s casino designs, Iraq, and Trump’s support of Democrats-Bush definitely came out on top, looking like the President of the chess club taking on the playground bully. His smoking weed confession made him appear much more human, and his “sorry, Mom” comment may have been the best joke of the night. None of this assures a Bush resurgence. Bush’s fate depends on what part voters remember; the boring candidate with the last name Bush, or the guy who was willing to fight Trump and win?
- Marco Rubio
Rubio was largely ignored throughout the first half of the debate, and while he didn’t clash with other candidates, when he did answer, his answers were easily the most eloquent of any on that stage. Rubio certainly didn’t lose anything tonight, and continues to impress pundits, but his campaign’s chief problem still persists; despite his immense talents, he still has yet to make himself relevant to the race.
- Ted Cruz
Cruz is continuing his under the radar strategy, and it’s working. His answers on Iran, Kim Davis, and abortion all appeal to the GOP base, and while he may sound a tad too polished, hard-right Trump and Carson voters have to be thinking ‘maybe this guy will be my second choice; he seems like the most conservative one there.’ That is exactly where Cruz wants to be; well positioned to scoop up Trump and Carson voters if they falter.
- John Kasich
No longer the hometown kid, Kasich’s performance was less stellar than his last one, though he still turned in a solid performance. He clearly seemed reasonable, and he staked out his position as a maverick and defended himself well, though GOP voters outside of moderate New Hampshire may not care for his centrist streak. Also, I think everyone has his spiel about his record just about memorized. We get it. Ohio is doing really well.
- Scott Walker
I’d wager Walker had a better night than the first debate; his ‘Apprentice’ line got a good reaction, though it was obviously scripted. However, as the night went on, his answers seemed nothing better than standard issue right-wing pandering, without the panache of Trump, eloquence of Cruz, or depth of Rubio. Mired with low polling numbers, Walker is quickly becoming irrelevant, and seems more and more out of his depth.
- Ben Carson
Difficult to assess. I thought Carson’s performance was mediocre in the last debate, yet he has risen to 2nd nationally in the polls. This time, however, I think he failed to deliver any truly great lines, or present himself as a better candidate than his rivals. I could be wrong, however: even though Carson answers every question as if he’s answering a phone call at 4AM, that still hasn’t stopped him from being popular with evangelicals craving a candidate with no government experience whose name is not Donald Trump.
- Donald Trump
Always the hardest candidate to rank. Trump, as he proved in the first debate, can defy political rules, cross lines and still see his poll numbers go up. I’d wager this debate was different; the trouble wasn’t that Trump gave incoherent policy answers or said rude things (like calling Paul ugly or making fun of candidate’s low polling numbers), it’s that he seemed like a bully who picked fights and lost them. Fiorina and Bush particularly got the better of Trump, questioning his temperament, his honesty, and his conservative bona fides, garnering applause in the process while the room was silent for Trump (though 500 people barely show the attitude of the country). Perhaps none of this will effect Trump and he’ll continue to rise, but I believe that with other candidate’s visibility increasing, and with his lackluster performance, other candidates may begin to close the gap.
- Rand Paul
Rand Paul had a bad first debate, and a fairly bad second debate. Trump’s putdowns clearly unnerve him, and by the second half of the debate, Paul was left whining ‘I’d like to address that’ only to be ignored by moderators, candidates, and audience alike. For a man who was once the frontrunner, his campaign is now on death’s door: he will need to turn in better performances than that if he wants to win.
- Mike Huckabee
On the way to the Reagan Library, there is a Soup Plantation buffet. Everyone, including Huck himself, would have either preferred if he spent his evening there, or wouldn’t have noticed if he did.
Altogether, these past two debates have been fantastic political theatre. Proof enough are the 23 million Americans who tuned in to watch. The next debate will be for the Democrats next month, which, given the small field, will be drastically less entertaining. That could be altered instantly, however, if one man finally decides to join the race: Joe Biden.
Who did you think won?
And who do you think lost?