The Republican debate in Las Vegas on Tuesday night had the feeling of a soccer match that ended in a nil-nil draw. It was a tactical and defensively minded affair, full of technically competent but predictable performances. The only candidates who broke form were those who didn’t have much to lose.
This is interesting considering that no Republican candidate should feel all that secure about his or her position in the race. Donald Trump is leading in the polls — but no similar candidate has won a party nomination before, and there remain many reasons to wonder whether those polls will translate to sustained success in winning states and delegates. Ted Cruz can feel happy about his improved position in Iowa — but he trails Trump nationally and is almost as detested by the party establishment. Marco Rubio is moving upward in the polls and the endorsement count — but the pace of his growth in these categories has been slow, and his mediocre ground game could prevent him from gaining more support as voting in the early states approaches.
For those of us who watched the debate at FiveThirtyEight, nothing in Las Vegas changed anything much. As in the past, we anonymously submitted grades scoring each candidate’s performance from A to F on the basis of how much we thought they improved their chances of winning the nomination. But the grades came out as a big muddle, with none of the major candidates averaging higher than a B or lower than a C. There also wasn’t much internal agreement about how the candidates did: Rubio, for instance, was graded everywhere from an A- to a D+ among the 14 staffers who voted.
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Nonetheless, here are a few spare thoughts about the candidates:
If you hadn’t known what polls said ahead of time, you probably would have assumed that Marco Rubio, not Trump, was the polling front-runner. Rubio was the most-attacked candidate among those on stage, negatively mentioned or directly attacked by the other candidates 22 times, compared with 16 times for Trump, 10 times for Cruz and eight times for Jeb Bush.
There seemed to be an asymmetry between Rubio and Ted Cruz, with Cruz more eager to attack Rubio than the other way around. That makes a lot of sense: Rubio would benefit from a universe in which Cruz and Trump ate into each other’s vote and neither was able to achieve critical mass. Cruz, however, would love to force the establishment’s hand by making himself the establishment’s least-worst option in a one-on-one race with Trump.
For my money personally, Chris Christie had the best night of anyone on stage — largely because he benefited from other candidates’ tactical choices. Christie still has a path to the nomination — it runs through New Hampshire — but he’s not quite threatening enough to receive the same scrutiny that Rubio, Cruz or Trump is getting or to be attacked by the other candidates. This is somewhat the same position that John Kerry was in during the 2004 Democratic primary, lying back as candidates such as Howard Dean and Joe Lieberman attacked each other.
I declared (along with lots of other folks) that Jeb Bush was “probably toast” six weeks ago — and that judgment holds even after what was perhaps his most effective debate of the cycle. The problem for Bush — in addition to his near-asterisk-level of support in polls — is that he seems to have fallen behind Rubio in the “invisible primary,” with Rubio having received far more endorsements lately. Furthermore, he’s fallen behind Christie in New Hampshire polls, so if Rubio falters, Christie could get a look before Bush does again. Even if Bush’s campaign has the money to play out the string, that’s quite a long-shot parlay: hope Rubio falters, hope you emerge as the establishment’s backup option instead of Christie, and then hope you beat Cruz and Trump in a year where voters seem to be looking in a different direction.
I’ve written so much about Donald Trump lately that I don’t have much more to say. In the near term, the swings in his polls probably mostly reflect the degree to which he’s monopolizing media coverage. If the debate didn’t disrupt the news cycle much, that could be good news for Trump, since he has dominated news coverage lately. And yet, the conventional wisdom has become so scared of prematurely declaring the “end of Trump” that it sometimes seems to grade him on a curve for answers that would be considered game-changers if uttered by other candidates. Trump hasn’t fared especially well in the polls after previous debates, and it’s at least theoretically possible that voters judge him differently when he’s just one of nine candidates on stage instead of immersed in his own environment.
The other four candidates probably won’t have much of a say in who becomes the Republican nominee. Rand Paul has gradually gotten better as debate season has worn on, but his positions aren’t well-calibrated for a Republican base whose focus is increasingly on national security rather than economic affairs. Ben Carson has slowly but steadily been losing ground in the polls; like Paul, he probably does not benefit from the campaign’s increasing focus on foreign policy. John Kasich has played too much to the pundit class and not enough to his solidly conservative credentials, and it may be too late to reverse that. Carly Fiorina has never found a second act after her good debate performances, and since she doesn’t have much campaign infrastructure or media visibility, there’s no reason to expect this time to reverse the pattern.