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11:35 PM
Debate Grades And Final Thoughts

It was an appropriately lively debate for a Saturday night. The Republican candidates were vicious to one another, the crowd was riled up, and the most important story of the evening — the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia — was largely drowned out in the noise.

As we’ve done after every debate, the FiveThirtyEight staff anonymously submitted grades based on how much we think the candidates helped or hurt themselves in the quest for the nomination. The highest marks went to Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, who each got a B+. Donald Trump averaged a C+ instead.

Jeb Bush B+ A C
Marco Rubio B+ A B-
Ted Cruz B B+ C
Donald Trump C+ B+ C-
John Kasich C+ A- D
Ben Carson C- C D
FiveThirtyEight’s Republican debate grades

But as I’ve said after every recent debate, it’s hard to assess what the viewers at home will think — perhaps especially after a brawl as wild and wooly as this one. For that matter, there wasn’t that much agreement among our staff about how well the candidates did. Two of our voters gave Bush an A, for instance, while another gave him a C. Trump’s grades ranged from B+ to C-. So we’re a little ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ on this one. That doesn’t mean the debate won’t matter — it might matter a lot — but we’d like to see how the reaction plays out over the next couple of days, and how it interacts with the news about Scalia.

It’s worth remembering, however, that a lot of positions Trump was espousing in the debate, including his harsh critiques of George W. Bush and the Iraq War, and his defenses of Planned Parenthood and eminent domain, are not very popular with Republicans (although some would be smart positions to take during the general election). George W. Bush’s favorability rating among Republicans is 67 percent, for example, while just 8 percent of Republicans take an unfavorable view of him.

Trump’s performance tonight may help him with his base, but it won’t necessarily help him to expand his coalition, and perhaps the whole question the nomination turns upon is whether Trump can go from having 25 percent to 35 percent support to 50 percent-plus as other candidates drop out of the running.

11:19 PM

We’re going to have our debate grades and some final thoughts from Nate in a moment, but in the meantime: Sign-up for our weekly 2016 newsletter.

11:12 PM

11:04 PM

If you watched the GOP debate tonight, you missed this:

10:57 PM

Tonight we saw Trump not only get personal with charges against his opponents, but also respond to the charges that he is vulgar (for repeating the words of a supporter who called Cruz a misogynist term). Marco Rubio has made hay out of the issue, saying he couldn’t even discuss the word with his sons. But Trump’s closing statement stuck very much to his talking points about making America great — and was much calmer than the rest of his debate performance. I still believe the person who could most effectively take down Trump is Trump himself.

10:54 PM

Apparently this is going to be the tone of the rest of the debates. They’ve already been through all the major issues in the previous hundreds of forums — how many times have we heard the same immigration tape loop, the same refrain on eminent domain and postcard tax returns? — but there are an infinite number of ways to insult each other and their families, an endless path to feigned anger over the latest ad or stray remark. To keep voters watching, and to stand out from the white noise, most of the candidates apparently feel they have to boil over on camera. Eventually, of course, that will become tiresome, too.

10:53 PM

My final thought is — how is Ben Carson still in the race? His low-single-digits poll number compatriots Carly Fiorina and Chris Christie have dropped out post-New Hampshire, his campaign seems from all accounts to be massively dysfunctional, and I guess I just find it striking, looking at this winnowed field on the debate stage, that Carson has remained.

10:52 PM

This was the nastiest debate in a while. Clearly, the candidates know the field will winnow and time is running out. I don’t know if this debate will upend Trump’s lead, but it’s not from a lack of trying from the other candidates.

10:52 PM

The debate is wrapping up here. Final thoughts?

10:49 PM

Strategy, Micah? This is about as pre-planned as an improv comedy night. Bringing up eminent domain on his own, without even being challenged on it? Choosing to ignore the mood of the crowd by taking a lefty view of the Iraq War and the Bushes’ role in it? He believes in running on instinct and gutting it out.

10:48 PM

This Trump performance has been … Trumpian. Was this his strategy?

10:47 PM

One more thing on Trump. People seem to think he’s invincible and … um, well, maybe they have a point? But he was punished a bit by voters for his angry and somewhat uneven performances during the first two Republican debates, each of which slightly (although temporarily) lowered his numbers in national polls.

10:47 PM

An analysis by the Tampa Bay Tribune’s political director went point by point through Jeb Bush’s legacy as governor of Florida. Among the points it explores: how impressive Bush’s job creation numbers were (no better than the four preceding Florida governors’) and a rise in debt during his tenure from $15 billion to $23 billion.

10:46 PM

Everyone has his or her own view of who wins or loses a debate. We’ll have our final debate grades later on, but to me Bush has greatly improved in his one-on-ones with Trump. He clearly has gotten under Trump’s skin a number of times, and he even got a chance to talk about what at least in a 30-second sound-bite is a successful record as governor of Florida.

10:45 PM

Donald Trump has said several times in the last couple of minutes that he has not gone bankrupt. It’s hard to determine upon what razor’s edge of semantics Trump is treading, but he has filed for bankruptcy on four separate occasions; they were all Chapter 11 reorganizations, which he has spun to the service of his deal-making message — he was just bending the law of the land to his best business interest, he says.

10:45 PM

Commercial break diversion! Check out our interactive map of where the candidates are earning Facebook likes:

Facebook likes
10:44 PM

I’m seeing mixed reactions to Donald Trump’s performance from pundits, who are variously suggesting that tonight’s debate is a meltdown for Trump and claiming it could help him instead. My personal view, for whatever it’s worth, is fairly close to that of Philip Klein of the Washington Examiner. Trump’s attacks on the Iraq War and George W. Bush and his defense of Planned Parenthood and eminent domain may help him with his base. But these are unpopular positions among the broader Republican electorate and they may simultaneously lower Trump’s ceiling.

10:42 PM

Bush is touting his economic record as governor of Florida. We have a handy guide for evaluating the economic records of governors who want to be president.

10:38 PM

10:37 PM

Ben Carson just spent some of his minutes on the national debt. He’s one of the few candidates to raise the issue this cycle; as my colleague Andrew Flowers wrote last month, no one seems to be talking about the deficit any more.

10:34 PM

10:33 PM

Donald Trump felt the need to defend himself after his opponents hit him numerous times on the issue of eminent domain. While eminent domain may not sound like a sexy topic, the final Des Moines Register poll in Iowa found that of all the issues tested, Trump’s eminent domain policy was the thing that bothered voters most.

10:31 PM

Well, Trump has gotten a lot of fire from Jeb Bush. And yeah, Cruz is finally getting into it with Trump now. But it still amazes me that Rubio has almost never had a bad word to say about the Republican front-runner, especially at a time when he needs to win back the confidence of the “establishment.”

10:31 PM

So that Cruz attack on Trump was one of the first times someone has really gone after Trump, right?

10:29 PM

Well, Ted Cruz just got Donald Trump to give a good attack ad soundbite — Trump said that Planned Parenthood does a lot of good. In an election where it’s a basic refrain from candidates that Planned Parenthood should be defunded, that’s not nothing.

10:28 PM

10:27 PM

Gloves off. Trump calls Cruz the “single biggest liar.” Worth noting: Cruz hit Trump hard in an ad on the issue of eminent domain, also discussed in the debate. But that attack ad has been deemed partly false.

10:23 PM

The political ad wars are heating up in South Carolina. Residents are seeing ads from Ted Cruz touting his legal record, from Marco Rubio attacking Hillary Clinton, and from Donald Trump — whose campaign has largely relied on media coverage as opposed to ads — attacking Cruz on immigration. A tool called the Political TV Ad Archive allows you to see the ads — here’s the Trump attack ad — plus how often they’ve aired and in which markets.

10:20 PM

Cruz chose to make job creation the centerpiece of his response to a question on how to lift people out of poverty. U.S. workers have been hit by a one-two punch. Globalization means U.S. jobs are directly affected by offshoring, which Trump took on in his answer, and secondarily when our markets are responsive to other global financial indices, like China’s. Second, disruptive innovation by tech companies often includes automation, with some companies creating wealth rather than jobs and leading some analysts to posit there will be a “jobless future.” (Others vehemently disagree with that thesis.)

10:16 PM

Bush did make a reference to mooning in an interview!

“I could drop my pants. Moon the whole crowd. Everybody would be aghast, except the press guys would never notice.”

10:15 PM

Someone — maybe us! — needs to do some further reporting on how these debate crowds are chosen. Tonight’s audience in South Carolina seems to be unabashedly pro-“establishment.” But remember that the state’s two senators, and by extension much of its political machine, are behind Bush and Rubio.

10:14 PM

Trump is still leading in South Carolina. But the state has a strong cohort of evangelical voters, and I’ve spoken to some who find Trump’s language and ad-hominem attacks offensive. The polls will show whether Trump’s numbers go down, and the exit polls from the South Carolina primary will also let us know if evangelical voters broadly reject or embrace Trump.

10:12 PM

10:10 PM

The candidates are discussing immigration through the lens of who should be deported. But there’s another issue on the table — H-1B visas for skilled workers. And there, the differences between candidates are possibly more profound. Rubio and Cruz both favor expanding the number of H-1B visas, while Trump wants to raise the wages for these workers, bringing their salaries more in line with domestic skilled workers, such as computer coders, and presumably pushing companies to hire more domestic workers.

10:06 PM

Bush — because unlike Rubio he hasn’t abandoned his original comprehensive immigration reform position. Trump is what he is. Cruz is further right than Rubio. Kasich? I don’t know … maybe. Carson is never becoming president, so there’s that.

10:06 PM

What Republican left in this race is most likely to sign comprehensive immigration reform legislation?

10:01 PM

I miss the Rand Paul that never actually materialized: principled, fiery and willing to take on Trump.

10:01 PM

Chris Christie for his crackling humanity (and by that I mean doing stuff like calling out Marco Rubio for repeating his stump speech over and over).

10:01 PM

Commercial break lightning round! We now have just six candidates on this stage — which departed candidate do you miss most?

10:00 PM

Yes, I would think that expanding Medicaid may hurt Kasich in this primary. A 2014 YouGov poll found that just 35 percent of Republicans were for expanding Medicaid. On the other hand, 55 percent of Republicans were opposed.

9:59 PM

John Kasich, who ran explicitly as a moderate in New Hampshire and who is defending his expansion of Medicaid tonight, is not a terribly natural fit for South Carolina. But with an open primary, the state’s electorate isn’t quite as conservative as you might think. In 2012, 32 percent of Republican voters in South Carolina identified as moderate or liberal, placing it exactly halfway in between Iowa (17 percent) and New Hampshire (47 percent).

CORRECTION (10:14 p.m.): An earlier version of this post incorrectly said that Kasich defended his expansion of Medicare in Ohio. He expanded Medicaid, not Medicare.

9:58 PM

I’m stuck comparing two very different men: Herman Cain, the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza who led the GOP pack in October 2011, and Ben Carson, who also once led the Republican race, but whose poll numbers fell quickly after he fumbled a response to a debate question about the terrorist attacks in Paris. Carson’s poll numbers are now languishing in the single digits; he’s had a series of staff shake-ups; he was rumored to be dropping out but has not yet.

So in two election cycles, black Republican candidates have peaked early and then fallen far. The question is why? Is there a desire in the GOP electorate for a more diverse field? I don’t have the answer, but you can’t avoid the question.

9:58 PM

I’ve noticed that the conservative Republicans in my Twitter feed seem to think that Rubio has been doing reasonably well, while the liberals are still making Rubio robot jokes. The truth is I don’t think he’s stood out that much in the first 45 minutes — Trump vs. Bush has been the lead story instead. So the question becomes whether Rubio needs a big moment tonight or whether passing through with an average debate would be helpful enough to him.

9:57 PM

I would agree with Harry that it’s a lot easier to fall flat on your face in a debate — which is pretty much what Rubio did the other night. We were all so shocked by it because we seem to expect that they’ll all be so rehearsed and polished by the time they take the debate stage. When the practiced moments are punctured, like they were last week by Chis Christie, we are all reminded that this is on some level very much theater, and we find it a bit unsettling.

9:56 PM

Rubio has plenty of opportunity to make up ground if Trump falls after this seemingly troubled debate performance. But I think Cruz may also gain ground.

9:56 PM

It’s much easier to have a blunder than a great moment in a debate, in my opinion. We remember the blunders more than the strong moments. That said, my answer is always the same: Wait for the polls.

9:56 PM

Rubio has seemed pretty solid so far. Does a good debate performance get him back to where he was before his pre-New Hampshire debate debacle? Or is it only a first step?

9:54 PM

John Kasich talking about homelessness and prisons and the working poor not getting health care is doing what I believe our fearless leader, Nate, called compassionate conservatism 2.0. Kasich has been a pretty popular governor in swing-state Ohio, winning 86 of 88 counties, partly by working this very look.

9:53 PM

9:44 PM

9:42 PM

According to an CBS News poll released in October, George W. Bush had a 67 percent favorable rating among Republicans. His unfavorable rating was just 8 percent.

9:41 PM

Harry, Nate mentioned that a majority of Republicans still support the decision to invade Iraq. Trump was also going after George W. Bush — I take it he’s remembered pretty fondly by Republicans, too?

9:41 PM

It’s interesting that the debate tonight has turned into a referendum on the Bush years, with Trump going hard against Jeb Bush and his family — and being thoroughly booed when he said “the World Trade Center came down” because President George W. Bush “didn’t listen to the advice of the CIA.” In many ways, the Democratic race has become a referendum on the Bill Clinton years. For very different reasons, both presidencies (Bush’s and Clinton’s) are being dissected, and I expect this to carry through the remaining debates and the race.

9:38 PM

Trump’s increasingly vocal opposition to the Iraq War is not in line with the position of Republican voters. According to a May 2015 Quinnipiac poll, 62 percent of Republicans said going to war in Iraq in 2003 was the right thing to do, while 28 percent said it was the wrong thing.

9:37 PM

“It took him five days before his people told him what to say.”

In his attack on Jeb Bush and his position on the Iraq War, Trump is picking up on the strategy of Chris Christie (may his campaign rest in peace), calling out fellow candidates for scripted remarks. This campaign has become more and more involved in the narrative of the outsider pricking the bubble of what Ted Cruz calls “the Washington cartel” — the stump speech/scripted remarks call-outs are just the latest 2016 craze.

9:35 PM

Americans’ view of the biggest threat they face changes all the time. Last April, 68 percent of respondents to a CNN/ORC poll said ISIS is a very serious threat, much higher than Iran (39 percent), Russia (32 percent) and North Korea (32 percent). In a Gallup poll the year before, 20 percent said China is the country that is the greatest enemy of the U.S., more than the 16 percent who named North Korea (or Korea) and the same percentage who named Iran.

9:35 PM

Do we have a ranking of which countries Americans are most afraid of?

9:34 PM

9:34 PM

It seems to me like Trump’s beef with Bush is personal rather than strategic, at least at this point. In fact, Trump should probably be rooting for Bush to do relatively well in South Carolina to keep the “establishment lane” muddled for some time.

9:33 PM

Nate, why is Trump going after Jeb!?

9:33 PM

I mean, sure. There is the libertarian wing, but it’s quite small right now. According to a December 2015 Quinnipiac poll, 75 percent of Republicans support sending group troops to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Just 17 percent were opposed.

9:32 PM

Harry, is there any constituency among GOP primary voters for a more restrained foreign policy?

9:31 PM

9:23 PM

In a race that’s lacking a candidate who seems inevitable, I think the question of Supreme Court nominations is useful in affecting a statesman’s pose. It could be a boon for someone like Marco Rubio if he comes across as thoughtful or knowledgeable about the process.

9:22 PM

I’m of the view that it will be a major issue in both the general election and the primary. Unlike some one-off events, it’s not a one-and-done story, at least until Scalia’s replacement is chosen. And that may not happen until the next president is elected.

9:22 PM

I mean, this only matters in the primary if there is a thought that one of the candidates is somehow different from the others when it comes to Supreme Court nominations. I tend to think that all the guys on the stage tonight (perhaps with the exception of Trump) would nominate a rock-solid conservative.

9:21 PM

Seems like more of a general election issue than a primary issue — for the presidential race, and for contested Senate seats. If, that is, no one is confirmed by then.

9:20 PM

So this open Supreme Court seat is going to be a big story of the next several days, but how big of an issue will it be for Republican voters in South Carolina? How about beyond?

9:15 PM

The Republican candidates are talking about how to handle a potential replacement on the Supreme Court for Antonin Scalia. I just wrote about what type of nominee President Obama could get through the Republican-controlled Senate. My research indicates that only a moderate or perhaps a very well-qualified mainstream Democrat could get confirmed given the current partisan climate, while a nominee like Elena Kagan or Sonia Sotomayor would have a very difficult time. But as Donald Trump indicated in his remarks, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is likely to try to stop any nominee from coming up for a vote.

9:08 PM

A: I would think Ted Cruz or Donald Trump. Cruz is very conservative ideologically, and history suggests that would cost him a few votes. Trump isn’t as extreme in the traditional left-right ideological sense, but he is extreme in his style. I’m not sure that would matter, but it could.

9:04 PM

Q: Who has the most to gain from attacking Donald Trump tonight? — Björn Holm

A: Trump is the front-runner, and everyone would benefit from attacking him. Any candidate still operating under the assumption that a stronger Trump will somehow help his own chances ought to fire his strategist.

9:03 PM
Another Test For Trump

Up until now, the most important breaking news stories to affect the presidential campaign were probably the terrorist attacks in Paris and in San Bernardino, California. Those events potentially boosted support for Donald Trump, since he had been more focused than the other Republican candidates on ISIS and national security. Indeed, Trump rose from around 27 percent in national polls before those attacks to about 32 percent afterward.

The latest breaking news of the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, however, poses more risks for Trump because it could turn Republican voters’ focus to “values” issues: social and Constitutional questions on which Trump does not have a reliably conservative record. The open seat to be filled on the court could also make “electability” more important for the presidential candidates, especially with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republicans saying that Scalia’s seat should sit vacant until the next president is picked.

The entrance poll in Iowa and the exit poll in New Hampshire asked Republican voters which qualities they think are most important in a candidate. The exit poll question isn’t a perfect one — voters may decide upon their candidate before they decide on his preferred qualities, rather than the other way around. But it provides at least a little bit of insight. In Iowa, Ted Cruz won 38 percent among voters who said they cared most about a candidate who “shared their values,” while Trump took just 5 percent. Cruz also beat Trump in the “values” category in New Hampshire despite his poor performance overall.

Shares my values 5 38 21
Can win in November 24 22 44
Other attributes 46 19 12
How Iowa Republicans who cared most about a given candidate quality voted

Source: Edison Research entrance poll

Shares my values 12 21 13
Can win in November 33 6 29
Other attributes 50 7 5
How New Hampshire Republicans who cared most about a given candidate quality voted

Source: Edison Research entrance poll

Electability is a somewhat more complicated case. Voters who said they care most about a candidate who can win in November have tended to look favorably upon Marco Rubio. But this isn’t a bad category for Trump, necessarily. True, he has the worst favorability ratings among the Republican candidates and usually fares worse than Rubio or Cruz in hypothetical matchups against Hillary Clinton. But some Republican voters will see a candidate who’s leading in the polls and who just won New Hampshire as a winner instead.

8:58 PM
Trump Is Still Leading In South Carolina

With all the fighting between Marco Rubio and both Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush, it’s sometimes difficult to remember that none of these candidates is leading in South Carolina. According to the FiveThirtyEight forecasts, Donald Trump is the clear favorite for next Saturday’s primary. Our polls-only forecast gives him a 79 percent chance to win, while our polls-plus forecast gives him a 67 percent chance.

Predictions for the South Carolina Republican primary

These percentages may seem low considering that Trump holds a very large lead in the polls. The FiveThirtyEight average has him up 17 percentage points over Cruz, his nearest competitor. Remember, though, that in 2012 Newt Gingrich, the eventual winner, was polling in the low 20s only five days before the primary. He ended up with 40 percent of the vote. There is enough time for one Trump’s opponents to catch him.

Gingrich considered the turning point in the 2012 primary to be a debate confrontation he had with moderator Juan Williams. That’s why tonight is so important — this is the final chance for other members of the GOP field to go after Trump in a debate before the voting takes place next Saturday.

If they don’t make an impression, Trump will be on his way to winning two primaries in a row. And given the delegate allocation rules of the South Carolina primary, he’ll also win a majority — if not all — of the delegates coming out of the state.

8:55 PM
2016 Iowa Republican caucus results
2016 New Hampshire Republican primary results
8:50 PM
The Endorsement Primary
8:47 PM
Trump continues to dominate both news coverage and Google searches
8:40 PM
How popular are the Republican contenders?
8:35 PM
The Republicans' Five-Ring Circus
8:32 PM
The Most Important Debate Yet

It had already seemed as though tonight’s Republican debate might be the most important one of the election cycle. The drama hinged on two main questions. First, would the other Republican candidates finally turn up the heat on Donald Trump, who has come under relatively little direct criticism so far from other campaigns despite being the front-runner? And second, could Marco Rubio rebound after a poor performance in the last debate that sent the media into a tizzy and may have sent late-deciders in New Hampshire scurrying to other candidates?

But unpredictable news events have a way of making even the biggest political “game changers” seem small by comparison. The death this morning of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, which leaves the court in a 4-4 deadlock and which will touch off a ferocious battle between President Obama and the Republican-led Senate about a potential replacement, will be the first thing on voters’ minds tonight and for the next several weeks.

At first glance, Ted Cruz might seem to have the most to gain from an increased focus on social and Constitutional issues. Trump might have the most at risk, almost by default because he was leading before Scalia’s death. We’ll be covering all of that and more on our live blog tonight; the debate starts at 9 p.m. on CBS News. if you have a question or comment, leave it here or tweet us @FiveThirtyEight.

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