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Updated 8:00 PM |

How The CNN Republican Debate Played Out

Filed under 2016 Election


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Harry Enten 11:56 PM Rubio And Kasich Played It Safe. That Doesn’t Make Sense.
That’s a wrap, folks. If you didn’t watch the debate, and you’re curious what happened, it was all a bit perplexing. There are 367 delegates at stake on Tuesday, or about 30 percent of the 1,237 necessary to clinch the Republican nomination. But you wouldn’t have had a clue watching tonight’s CNN debate. While previous debates had devolved into sharp disagreements and personal attacks, it took nearly 30 minutes for even a minor disagreement over policy to surface tonight. Ted Cruz made a few tepid attempts to test Donald Trump’s armor, but it was mostly a sedate affair unlikely to alter the status quo. And if your name isn’t Donald Trump, that’s bad.

Our debate grades bore all this out. When asked to grade each candidate’s debate performance on how much they helped or hurt their chances of winning the nomination, my colleagues and I gave all the candidates an average grade of either a B+ or B. (I gave them all a B+.)

Donald Trump B A- B-
Marco Rubio B A- C
Ted Cruz B A- C
John Kasich B- B+ C
FiveThirtyEight’s GOP debate grades

The front-runner for the nomination, Trump, seemed so at ease during parts of the debate that he even mentioned how calm and civil everything seemed. Indeed, he rarely had to play defense. That doesn’t mean it was all golden for Trump. He took some shots on Cuba from Marco Rubio, his liberal positions on policy from Cruz and his statements on the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square from John Kasich. It’s just that given that Kasich and Rubio need wins next week to stay in the race, one would think Trump wouldn’t have been able to glide as much as he did.

Cruz, for his part, seemed perfectly satisfied with the direction of the campaign. Cruz knows that he is potentially just a few days away from Kasich and Rubio dropping out of the race. It stands to reason that he saw no reason to upset the applecart, lest it increase the chance that either Kasich or Rubio stick around and ruin his one-on-one against Trump.

Kasich, on the other hand, may have put together his most lively performance tonight. Of course, Kasich has traditionally been so calm that this isn’t really saying much. Still, he played for support from more moderate Republicans when talking about climate change and Islam. Kasich’s strategy of staying mostly positive may pay off next Tuesday, if the Ohio polls are to be believed. Maybe that’s why the other candidates decided to follow it?

One of those candidates was Rubio, who had been going quite negative the last two debates and lost ground in the polls. Gone was the squabbling with Trump. It may be too late for Rubio to score a victory in Florida, but he clearly didn’t want his final debate to be defined by personal attacks. The problem is that in failing to even levy much policy-based criticism, Rubio may have simply allowed Trump to coast to victory in the Sunshine State.

Then again, who really knows with these debates anymore? If people like myself really knew how people were going to interpret these debates, then Trump wouldn’t be where he is right now. Maybe, this debate was a big win for one of these candidates. We’ll find out next Tuesday.

Leah Libresco 11:10 PM

The moderators distributed questions fairly evenly, but Trump got to speak about one and a half times as often as anyone else because he was the most often attacked by his rivals. He tended to brush off opportunities to criticize other candidates, giving them no chance to stand up to him or sass him back.

Questions and opportunities to reply to attacks at the GOP debate
Leah Libresco 11:09 PM

With fewer interruptions and [unintelligible yelling], tonight’s moderators got the chance to address a wide range of topics, from domestic issues such as entitlement reform and education policy to foreign policy concerns in Israel and Cuba.

Question topics during the GOP debate

But Trump still has a lot of power to set the agenda. It’s hard to imagine that violence at rallies, Islam and hatred, or the merits of authoritarianism would have come up without him on the stage.

Ben Casselman 10:57 PM

Kasich said he has cut the size of Ohio’s government. But he’s been criticized by the libertarian Cato Institute, among others, for increasing spending in Ohio, largely by becoming one of relatively few Republican governors to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Kasich points to other numbers that show a smaller spending increase.

Julia Azari 10:54 PM

I’m not sure whether I can attribute this to Trump’s presence in the race, or to the fact that we’ve had a million debates, or to the fact that this is where we are in a larger political cycle. But the big theme of the night has been how things will get done — making deals, acknowledging (or not) climate change. This flexibility question is kind of the culmination, but really it’s been the theme of the evening.

Twitter 10:52 PM

Twitter 10:50 PM

Nate Silver 10:49 PM

Prediction markets put the odds of there being two or more ballots at the convention at about one-in-three. But note how that question is phrased: It asks whether we’d actually go to a second round of balloting in Cleveland. There’s a pretty big universe in which Trump or Cruz (but probably not Rubio or Kasich) is technically short of the 1,237 delegates he needs to clinch, but things are somehow resolved between when California votes on June 7 and the convention.

Micah Cohen 10:48 PM

Nate, what are the chances of a contested convention?

Aaron Bycoffe 10:47 PM

Trump says he’s mostly self-funding his campaign. Here’s the contribution landscape for the GOP candidates:

Individual campaign contributions to GOP candidates
Twitter 10:44 PM

Clare Malone 10:43 PM

The topic of violence at Trump rallies has come up tonight and spun out into a larger conversation about the anger percolating in the GOP primary electorate. Trump answered that his supporters are angry over trade deals. This, from a recent Wall Street Journal article, explores Trump’s success with white, male voters who are hopping mad:

In Mississippi, 41% of Republicans described their feelings toward the federal government as “angry”—and Mr. Trump won a whopping 57% of them. Meanwhile in Michigan, 32% of Republican voters said they were angry at the federal government, and Mr. Trump won 48% of them, compared with 24% for Mr. Cruz.

Nate Silver 10:41 PM

Full disclosure: I had a commitment earlier tonight and missed the first part of the debate. It’s really disorienting to tune in halfway through! But a quick thought about the more subdued tone we’re obviously seeing tonight:

One of the underrated consequences of the other Republicans candidates having taken so long to begin attacking Trump is a lack of experience from trial-and-error. Do personal attacks work against Trump? Can you beat him by trying to appear more “presidential”? Should you critique him for not being an orthodox conservative?

Well, it’s hard to know. Trump is an unusual candidate, and attacks that work against a typical candidate might backfire against him, and vice versa. Some lines of attack that initially seem fruitful could grow tiresome after repeated exposure. Other attacks might produce disappointing early returns but could leave a mark after repetition and refinement.

But the time to have learned this was in July and August, where there wasn’t as much going on and the cost of a misfire would be smaller. It’s striking that five days before what is perhaps the most important day of voting in the campaign, Trump’s opponents have retreated to playing very little offense and simply hoping for the best.

Ben Casselman 10:29 PM

Rubio pivoted away from denying that humans contribute to climate change to focus on arguing that none of the policies being proposed would make a difference anyway. In December, my colleague Christie Aschwanden wrote about the impact that the Paris climate accords would have on the climate, if fully implemented. Many scientists and climate activists criticized the deal as being too timid to do much good. But a big part of the reason the accord didn’t include any binding requirements is that negotiators knew they would never get through the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress.

Harry Enten 10:26 PM

Micah, Republicans are split on climate change, depending on their ideology. According to Gallup’s aggregate 2010-2015 polling, only 27 percent of conservative Republicans (Rubio is quite conservative) said the Earth is warming mostly because of humans. Moderate and liberal Republicans differ: 49 percent of them believe in man-made climate change.

Micah Cohen 10:25 PM

How much of an outlier is Tomás Pedro Regalado, the Republican mayor of Miami who apparently supports addressing climate change (and obviously thinks it’s real)?

Ritchie King 10:24 PM

Almost three-quarters of Americans support better U.S.-Cuba relations, according to a Pew survey from last fall.

Twitter 10:20 PM

Ritchie King 10:14 PM

According to a Department of Veterans Affairs report from 2013, an average of 22 veterans committed suicide every day between 1999 and 2010. That’s one suicide every hour and five minutes.

Ben Casselman 10:13 PM

Kasich mentioned the need to help veterans find jobs when they leave the military. The unemployment rate among Iraq and Afghanistan-era veterans was 7.2 percent in 2014, above the rate for non-veterans of the same age.

Twitter 10:11 PM

Leah Libresco 10:10 PM

It’s been a much quieter debate, despite the high stakes of Tuesday’s coming primaries. Candidates are attacking each other less than usual, but Trump is still drawing most of the fire. He has gotten to respond to criticism six times, more than twice as often as everyone else put together. (Cruz: twice, Rubio: once, Kasich: who?).

Harry Enten 10:09 PM

I’m seeing a lot stuff in my Twitter feed about how this is one of Trump’s best debates. Maybe it is. Or maybe, just maybe, journalists and pundits have no clue what a good debate performance is. If we did, then Trump should be back in New York and out of this campaign.

Twitter 10:06 PM

Clare Malone 9:58 PM

A couple of the candidates on the stage have said things on the order of “a substantial number of the world’s Muslims are radicalized.”

Numbers don’t bear that out. There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, and according to one RAND analyst, Western European intelligence agencies estimate that 1 percent of Muslims living within their borders are likely to be radicalized. That means about 325,000 people are at risk of being radicalized in the region, which has been at the center of discussion on radical Islam in recent months.

Harry Enten 9:55 PM

The discussion of Islam in this debate has been the most contentious so far. Republicans definitely are not the biggest fans of Muslims. Just 45 percent of Republicans said they would be willing to vote for a Muslim president in a June Gallup poll, while 73 percent of Democrats said they would. Over 90 percent of both Democrats and Republicans would be willing to vote for a Catholic or Jewish candidate.

Twitter 9:53 PM

landonsimone 9:50 PM

Rubio also drops a simple and subversive truth: The president can’t just say whatever he wants. It has consequences. First time I’ve seen a candidate come out — sensibly — against authenticity.

Trump’s candidacy has forced the other candidates to be honest about uncomfortable political realities.


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