Not every debate is a “game changer.” In fact, given how overzealous the press can be in declaring events to be turning points when they prove to have little effect on the campaign, it’s probably best to assume that most debates don’t matter.
So I can’t begrudge Bloomberg’s Mark Halperin, for instance, for giving every Republican candidate a B+ to a B- for their performance in Milwaukee on Tuesday night. Our staff grades at FiveThirtyEight1 were pretty similar. We had six of the eight main-stage candidates bunched together between a B- and a C+, and we had Marco Rubio as the “winner” despite averaging just a B+.
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Personally, I thought that Rubio did fine but that Ben Carson and Ted Cruz did as much to advance their causes. Carson received more Google search traffic than any other candidate during the debate,2 a factor that has sometimes been a better leading indicator of polling movement than pundits’ takes on who did well, and his performance was composed after a couple of weeks of intense media scrutiny.
I’m not sure, conversely, that Jeb Bush did much to steady himself amidst a campaign that has gone badly. After promising to assert himself, Bush ranked near the bottom in speaking time and last in Google search volume.
But these are minor quibbles. Let’s instead talk about a candidate who, in addition to having a poor debate, has shown few signs of life lately: Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
We get the theoretical case for Kasich. He’s fairly moderate, but no more moderate than Bush. He’s a fresher face than Bush. And his campaigning muscles are more in shape, since he was elected and re-elected easily in Ohio in 2010 and 2014 (Bush has not run a campaign in more than a decade).
You might expect, given how much Bush is struggling, that Kasich would be surging, at least with a certain type of Republican voter.
But after a few premature pronouncements over the summer that Kasich’s campaign had “momentum,” there are few signs of it now. He moved up in the polls in New Hampshire in July and August after running a blitz of advertisements there, but his standing has topped out at about 8 or 9 percent, and has perhaps even declined slightly from his late-summer peak:
Meanwhile, Kasich’s favorability ratings are getting worse in New Hampshire: He had a net favorability rating of just +5 percentage points in a recent WBUR poll, down from +24 in September. Kasich’s favorability ratings are a little better in the Monmouth poll of New Hampshire, but the trajectory is still well down from September.
The reason may be that Kasich, like Jon Huntsman four years ago, is spending too much time in the media bubble. The predominately center-left political press may like the substance of what Kasich is saying — his positions on gay marriage and Medicaid, for instance — and then forget how little they have in common with Republican primary voters.
I’d thought that Kasich might be engaged in an elaborate tactical bank shot. First, get on the radar screen by any means necessary. Run a ton of ads in New Hampshire six months before anyone votes there? Sure! Cozy up to the center-left media? Some coverage is better than none! Deliberately emphasize your moderate positions on the debate stage, so as to at least stand out from the other 16 candidates? Well, why not!
But part two of the strategy, I’d assumed, would be a pivot — once he had found his footing, he would move back to the right. Kasich was conspicuously not doing that in Milwaukee, however. Instead, he was going out of his way to pick fights with other Republicans, usually to prove how moderate he was.
Maybe that pivot is still coming — there’s still time in New Hampshire, especially if someone like Carson wins in Iowa. But Kasich’s declining numbers in the state are a sign that he may already have worn out his welcome.
Check out our live coverage of the Republican debate.