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Updated 8:30 PM |

What Went Down At The GOP Debate (A Lot)

Filed under 2016 Election


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Nate Silver 12:04 AM Republicans Behave Tactically; Will Voters Play Along?

Inevitably, this will be the debate remembered for Trump bragging about his anatomy. But we also thought it was a good debate for Cruz. Our FiveThirtyEight staff grades, which are submitted anonymously and intended to reflect how much the candidates helped or hurt themselves in the quest for the nomination, gave Cruz an A-minus. Kasich and Marco Rubio both got a B, and Trump a C+.

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

Cruz, coming off a pretty good Super Tuesday, delivered the sharpest attacks on Trump without really being scathed himself. And reminding voters of his conservatism was a good idea given that the calendar will turn to more conservative states this weekend. The Kansas caucuses offer Cruz a good shot at a win and Kentucky could also be in play; Louisiana is a longer shot for Cruz given that he entered the night way behind Trump in the polls there, although not totally out of the question.

Throughout the election cycle, our staff has been more skeptical of Kasich’s debate skills than the media consensus, but we thought he had one of his better evenings. Still, it’s worth remembering that his folksy, meandering style has not been all that effective at actually capturing votes; Kasich is still sitting at only about 7 percent in national polls. He does have his concentrated pockets of support, however: New England and more importantly, his home state of Ohio, a winner-take-all state which happens to be incredibly important for anyone hoping to deny Trump a delegate majority. Right now, Ohio looks like a toss-up between Kasich and Trump in our polls-only forecast, so any movement there would be big news.

As I’ve written before, I think the media tends to overreact to all things Rubio. If he’s perceived to have had momentum going into the debate, he’ll be judged to have had a good night — New Hampshire being the obvious exception — and if he’s seen to be slumping, he’ll get poorer reviews. Personally, I thought Rubio started out pretty well and moved fairly deftly between attacking Trump and articulating his own policy vision. But Rubio was clearly tired and, given that he’s embraced the #NeverTrump hashtag, needed a better response when asked in the closing segment whether he’d support Trump as the nominee. (He said he would.)

As for Trump … well, the conventional wisdom, like a snake eating its own tail, is that Trump is always judged to have done poorly in debates but winds up being steady or moving up in polls instead. That’s actually not true, though. His numbers wobbled a bit after the first debate in Cleveland; he faded by several points after clashing with Jeb Bush in South Carolina; and he finished toward the lower end of his polling range on Super Tuesday, although he still had a good night overall.

My thinking going in was that Trump would benefit from a calm, “presidential” and relatively newsless performance. That isn’t what he delivered, although he was more combative in the first 30 minutes of the debate than over the rest of the evening. One thing I’m not really sure of, however, is how voters will react to one candidate being so much at the center of attention and dominating talk time even more than usual. The other candidates were fairly effective on the attack and gave voters a lot of reasons to be concerned about Trump.

But even if voters are thinking twice about Trump, where exactly might his support go? Rubio, Kasich and Cruz — and Mitt Romney — are increasingly encouraging voters to behave tactically and throw their support to anyone but Trump. Tactical voting isn’t as big a part of American political culture as it is in the United Kingdom, for example. Will voters really play along? Could Cruz, often the second choice of Trump supporters, pick up a couple of points before the caucuses this weekend? Will it all seem like a big nothingburger because Trump does something crazy to interfere with the news cycle tomorrow?

To be continued, and thanks for following us tonight.

Trump not only dominated the topic of the debate, he also had at least twice as many chances to speak as anyone else. He was favored (or rather grilled) by the moderators (five to seven more questions than other candidates received) and also repeatedly got chances to reply to other candidate’s attacks on him.  He replied to attacks twice as often as the rest of the field put together.


Tonight was a debate on the merits of Trump: questions about his character and his associated scandals made up more than a quarter of all questions asked by the moderators. His signature issue, immigration (six questions), came just behind foreign policy (eight questions).

Nate Silver 11:00 PM

Have we reached the point of the evening where we’re running out of things to say and cite Google Trends data? Why yes, yes we have! Trump, who has gotten far more questions than any other candidate, is also dominating on Google Trends, with about 56 percent of the overall search traffic during the past hour. Cruz is narrowly in second, with 17 percent.

Carl Bialik 10:57 PM

Trump, always so conscious of polls, might want to read up on Vladimir Putin’s polling numbers in the U.S. before advocating for a friendly relationship with Russia’s president. Last year the Pew Research Center found that 75 percent of Americans had no confidence in Putin doing the right thing on world affairs. The year before, Gallup found that Putin had a net favorability of -44 percentage points. I’m surprised Kasich didn’t take the opportunity, after his own ad was aired, to take on Trump about Putin.

Harry Enten 10:55 PM

I have to agree with Nate, and let me just add something: Even if his current voters don’t care, he’s gotten only 34 percent of the vote so far. In theory, many of the other 66 percent may care. If they do, it’s important for the other candidates to keep them in line if they want to ensure that Trump does not reach a majority of delegates.

fstone538 10:53 PM

I’ve seen a lot people claim that voters don’t care about Trump’s ideology, such as:

But there isn’t necessarily a lot of evidence behind it. It’s probably right in a big-picture sense, in that this election has demonstrated there’s a lot to politics apart from left-right ideology. But some voters do care about it, particularly the ones who are new to Trump’s coalition. Other voters may not have heard all that much about Trump’s apostasies, given how much dirt he kicks up with his news-cycle-stealing stunts. Finally, there’s nothing that says you can’t attack Trump on multiple fronts. Perhaps Cruz attacking him on ideology, Rubio on the personal stuff, and Kasich on temperament could prove to be an effective tag-team.

Leah Libresco 10:46 PM

Kasich danced around the question of whether businesses could refuse to serve gay people or to provide services for a gay wedding. In general, he thinks people should sell goods, but when it comes to being part of the wedding itself, he’d like gay couples to accept a photographer’s refusal and move on.

In Reuters’ most recent poll on this topic (April 12, 2015), a majority of Republican respondents said they believed businesses should be able to deny service to individuals or groups based on the owner’s religious beliefs (56 percent favor, 30 percent oppose). But  Americans as a whole take the opposite position (55 percent oppose, 27 percent favor).

When you filter Reuters’ numbers to look at the most religious Americans  (folks who go to church once a week or more), it’s only a plurality, not a majority, who think businesses should be free to refuse service based on their religious beliefs (47 percent agree, 39 percent disagree). But if you look at Republicans who attend church weekly or more, 66 percent feel businesses should be able to refuse service.

Clare Malone 10:41 PM

It’s fascinating to me how much guns have replaced abortion and gay marriage as the main social issue of the Republican race. I think it has a lot to do with the high-profile police controversies and events like San Bernardino and Paris, but this is such a hot-button thing in America these days. More so, I think, than in other elections.

Carl Bialik 10:41 PM

Though all the candidates are trying to establish their bona fides as Second Amendment supporters who won’t bend on gun control, the vast majority of Americans — including most Republicans — support expanding background checks for gun buyers.

Anne Li 10:40 PM
100401ANNE_LIAnne Li

The topic of same-sex marriage has become less of a hot topic for the GOP, especially after the Supreme Court ruling that legalized gay marriage. But this year, “religious liberty” has come up again and again in debates. Rather than focusing on whether gay people should be able to get married, the candidates have been discussing whether small-business owners have the right to refuse service to gay customers.

Harry Enten 10:38 PM

What I can say, Micah, is that being against same-sex marriage is still a popular position within the Republican party. According to an August Quinnipiac University poll, 63 percent of Republicans would support a constitutional amendment that would allow states to ban same-sex marriage.

Micah Cohen 10:38 PM

Since the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage, have Republicans’ views on the issue changed?

Carl Bialik 10:37 PM

Trump said he agreed that gay marriage should be left to the states. “This American Life” aired a remarkable episode two weeks ago in which a young gay Trump supporter comes to terms with the realization that his favorite candidate isn’t really taking a position any more favorable to gay marriage than that of his opponents.

Ben Casselman 10:35 PM

It isn’t clear that tax policy – or any policy – could do much to boost manufacturing employment in any meaningful way. Factory jobs have rebounded since the recession, but they’re far below their late-1970s peak. But that long-term decline is driven by trends like automation and offshoring that aren’t likely to reverse under any president. Politicians love to talk about bringing back manufacturing jobs, but they might be better off trying to find ways to help service-sector jobs pay more.

Nate Silver 10:34 PM

One other thing to keep in mind: I believe that Trump has a fairly high floor — for the millionth time, that’s not to be confused with his “ceiling” — of about 30 percent of the vote. The reason I say that is because exit polls have consistently shown Trump doing really well with voters who decided on the race months ago, confirming national polls that showed him at 30 to 35 percent late last year.

However, if and when Trump gets higher than about 30 or 35 percent in the polls, the additional voters will not be part of the Trump core. Instead, they’ll be relatively new to him, perhaps having come from a candidate like Carson who recently dropped out, or having been swayed by Trump’s victories in other states. The rule-of-thumb in polling is LIFO — last in, first out — meaning that the newest voters to join your coalition are the easiest to peel off. Rubio has experienced this problem several times, gyrating between about 15 and 25 percent support. But it will become more of a problem for Trump as he seeks to expand beyond his 30 to 35 percent base.

Harry Enten 10:31 PM

I know a lot of folks on Twitter mock Kasich and his non-negative shtick. I also know many mainstream Republicans want him to leave the race to allow for a cleaner path to take on Trump. But I should point out that 5 percent of the delegates Trump needs to win the nomination run through winner-take-all Ohio. Kasich only faces a slight deficit in that state, and a win there could go a long way to keep Trump from receiving a majority of delegates.

Anne Li 10:29 PM
100401ANNE_LIAnne Li

A few minutes ago, Rubio and Megyn Kelly both went after Trump for Trump University, a for-profit learning course that is being sued for fraud. But for-profit colleges generally have been fraught with controversy and accusations of failed promises. In general, they target “non-traditional” students – those who are older and employed. Ultimately, this means that the students are less-educated, poorer and are vulnerable to a lot of student debt. The Department of Education agreed to forgive the debts of qualifying Corinthian College students. And Brookings found that much of the student loan debt crisis was concentrated among students of for-profit colleges.

Carl Bialik 10:26 PM

What went wrong in Flint? Our colleague Anna Maria Barry-Jester has reported extensively on how the people of Flint documented the problems with their water, which, as Rubio said, was a failure on multiple government levels. Now residents might not ever trust their water will be safe again.

Twitter 10:23 PM

Harry Enten 10:22 PM

I have to say that this is probably Cruz’s best debate of the season. He’s hitting Trump on everything and even bested Trump on what a recent CNN/ORC poll said. But more than that, he isn’t getting personal. His attacks have been substantive, which allows him to take down Trump and be an adult. Whether voters will actually reward it is a whole other question, however.

Leah Libresco 10:20 PM

“Want to weigh in?” Megyn Kelly just asked Kasich. It makes sense she’s just inviting him to the free-for-all, rather than asking a specific question. Ten of the last 15 times candidates spoke it was in reply to another candidate’s attack, rather than a question from the moderators.

Twitter 10:20 PM

Nate Silver 10:20 PM

There’s no way Trump is really getting 49 percent of the vote nationally, the level where a CNN poll had him last week, when he only got 34 percent of the vote on Super Tuesday. Our national polling average has Trump at 37 percent instead, which is more reasonable.

Clare Malone 10:19 PM

That exchange between Megyn Kelly, Trump, Rubio, and now Cruz is astounding for the the level of, I’m not sure, inside baseball pettiness combined with good old fashioned vitriol? It’s almost become incoherent in its thread, given the amount of interrupting and back and forth. This is going off the rails.

Nate Silver 10:18 PM

At this point maybe yes, just because none of the other non-Trump candidates would seem to have much of a shot at winning Ohio — and depriving Trump of those winner-take-all delegates would considerably increase the chance of a contested convention. If Kasich had withdrawn before Super Tuesday, however, Marco Rubio would perhaps have won Virginia and beaten  delegate thresholds elsewhere, putting him in a better position mathematically and momentum-wise. It’s also not clear to me why Republican party elites are so eager for a contested convention, which might be a better outcome for them than nominating Trump but is considerably worse than one of the other candidates winning outright.

Micah Cohen 10:18 PM

Kasich feels a bit like the odd-man out in this debate, and he’s been getting a lot of criticism for staying in the race. His argument, though, is that the only way to stop Trump now isn’t to beat him, but to keep him from winning enough delegates to secure the nomination and then fight him at the convention. To do that, Kasich says, he needs to stay in to win Ohio and keep its delegates from Trump. Do you buy that?

Twitter 10:16 PM

Clare Malone 10:10 PM

Megyn Kelly is bringing it for Trump tonight with these video clips of his flip-flops — they mention his stances on the war in Iraq and Syrian migrants — but Trump is responding in a subdued way, much differently than he did a few months ago. “You have to have a certain degree of flexibility,” he said in response. To me, that exchange shows that Trump really does have a deft sense of politics; he knows he needs to be on his best behavior with her. There’s a line that he’s walking — I think most of us aren’t entirely clear where that line is — but he seems to know when and where to nudge his toe up to it.


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