We here at FiveThirtyEight endorse the conventional wisdom, for a change. Like most other people covering the event, we thought that Marco Rubio had a really bad night in Saturday’s Republican debate, that the three Republican governors (Chris Christie, Jeb Bush and John Kasich) had a pretty good night, and that Donald Trump and Ted Cruz were somewhere in between.
Rubio, who received a C- in our anonymous staff grading,1 came into the night with a lot on the line. He began the evening at 16 percent in our New Hampshire polling average, with Trump at 30 percent. Believe it or not, that 14-point gap is not too much to overcome in New Hampshire; in the past, there have been last-minute swings and election-day polling misfires of about that magnitude in the state. By the same token, however, Rubio’s second-place position in the polls is not at all safe. Kasich and Cruz, both at 12 percent, and Bush, at 9 percent, could easily catch him; perhaps even Christie at 5 percent could also with a really strong finish.
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Rubio’s debate is likely to be remembered for his repeating the same line about President Obama almost verbatim four times (example: “Let’s dispel with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing; he knows exactly what he’s doing”). Three of them came in an exchange with Christie, and two of them after Christie had already mocked Rubio for repeating the same sound bite answers. It was an embarrassing moment for Rubio, particularly given that the line of questioning that started the exchange was about his lack of accomplishments in office, a critique Rubio should have been better prepared for. He was not only repetitive but also nonresponsive.
But a lot of caution is also in order. Pundits haven’t misgauged the impact of a debate since … well, since only about a week ago, when the “smart take” was that Trump had won the final Iowa debate by not having shown up for it, and that Ted Cruz had a poor evening. Instead, Cruz won the Iowa caucuses a few days later, with Trump in second with a vote share well below where polls had projected him.
As I wrote after the previous debate, political reporters are in the “fog of war” phase of the campaign where our reactions aren’t necessarily good matches for those of voters at home. Some of the reason we reporters thought Rubio’s answer was so awful is because it confirmed some of our gossip about Rubio, namely that he tends to give pat, repetitive answers. But we tend to be more sensitive about that stuff, because we watch every debate from start to finish, and then we see lots of the candidates’ stump speeches and town halls on top of it. There’s a fine line between a candidate who seems stilted and repetitive and one who seems “on message” instead.
Is there any evidence that home viewers saw Rubio’s performance differently? Well, maybe. On Google Trends, there was a huge spike in searches for Rubio during the debate — but it came not during his glitchy moments but instead after an effective answer he delivered on abortion about two hours into the debate. Meanwhile, a Google Consumer Surveys poll conducted midway through the debate found respondents thought that Trump, Rubio and Cruz (in that order) were winning the debate. Undoubtedly, this mostly just reflects the fact that Trump, Rubio and Cruz are the most popular Republican candidates to begin with, but it’s also a reminder that one bad answer, or one bad evening, may not weigh all that much on voters’ minds.
The other good news for Rubio is that most all of this will be forgotten about if he performs well in Tuesday’s primary. Nonetheless, even a little bit of slippage for Rubio could produce a big difference in the result. Not only Christie but also Bush and Kasich had strong evenings, in our view, and those are the very candidates Rubio would like to have out of the Republican race.
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