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Friday, August 07, 2015

Debate Grades

Aside from general election night and perhaps Super Tuesday, you will never hear more noise from the political corners of the internet then you will on the night of a debate. It's a cacophonous mess of bias, spin, rancor, and applause. Everyone has opinions on who won and who lost, and you'll find every name in each of those categories across the blogosphere. For example, the candidate I think did most poorly--Donald Trump--has earned nearly half the winner vote on the Drudge Report and Time, for example, which I'm guessing must be mostly from those trying to game the system. In sum, if you search google or the news sites, you'll see all sorts of clashing opinions on who did well and who did poorly.

That's why I'm here.

No, not really. I'll just be one more voice in the noise. If, however, you've come to trust this voice, perhaps you'll trust the thoughts below, mere opinions that they are. I'm most interested to see what lines up with my predictions from yesterday because I'm a blogger with an ego to feed.

There are four tiers of performances here: The Losers, The Unimpressives (not a word, so says the red squiggly underline), The Solids, and The Winners. I also think it's an internet mandate to assign grades to each candidate, so you'll find those as well. (Transcript from the debate)

The Losers
Donald Trump, AKA "The Biggest Loser"
PPFA prediction: "Look for him to confidently hammer home his outsider status, while also having some impressive facts he memorized on the limo ride to the arena."

I was only half right. Outsider status? Check. Facts? Yeesh. Did he even have one? I don't care what those online polls say, he was a disaster behind the podium last night.  He had a poor debate from the very first question, which, despite ostensibly being asked of the entire field, was surely designed for him: "Is there anyone on stage, and can I see hands, who is unwilling tonight to pledge your support to the eventual nominee of the Republican party and pledge to not run an independent campaign against that person." (The very wording of the question was forced to root out Trump; the far simpler question, "Which candidates pledge to support the nominee?" would have made Trump's dissension less obvious and dramatic.) Up goes his hand. Then, when he was challenged on his misogynistic background, he not only accepted it, he embraced it with his Rosie O'Donnell comment. And as if we didn't leave the debate with our jaws open wide enough, he then went on a Twitter rant against Megyn Kelly, the moderator who asked him the question, including calling her a bimbo. Performances like that are why "F"s were invented. (Of course, he has blamed unfair questions.) Debate grade: F (But will it affect the polls? If the McCain comments didn't bring him down...)

Ben Carson
PPFA prediction: "Expect his soft-spoken nature to continue tonight, but I'm eager to see if he can think on his feet in regards to foreign policy, a place where he's blundered badly in the past."

Soft-spoken indeed, and his tithing idea is surely popular with his evangelical base (because "God is a pretty fair guy"?), but he did not stand out on any kind of policy, foreign or otherwise. Incredibly, he almost salvaged a bad night with a great finisher ("I'm the only candidate to separate Siamese twins..."). He was the candidate of memorable lines ("Thank you, Megyn, I wasn't sure I was going to get to talk again"; "If Hillary is the candidate, which I doubt, that would be a dream come true.") but he lacked substance. His was a night of stringing together memorized facts which never seemed to come out comfortably. His defense of his lack of experience was that he had a brain and "experience" comes from a wide variety of places, which is true, but it's also the answer a student can give after struggling on a test. ("Sorry, Mr. Smith, but at least I have a brain and know other stuff, so I still pass, right?") He's a fish out of water, and his performance reflected that, despite his calm demeanor and surely popular soundbites.  Debate grade: C-

The Unimpressives
Jeb Bush
PPFA prediction: "I expect him to get hit on immigration, and he will respond with an empathetic response that includes how necessary it is for the GOP to reach out to new demographics if they want to win a national election." Also, earlier in the week I said, "If he looks confident, competent, and hammers home his conservatism in most areas, that will play really well."

He was at his best talking about his conservative record in Florida, but confident and competent-sounding he was not. He was a lot more George W. than I expected, fumbling with wording and tone. He still doesn't have a good answer to the Iraq War question, but he did a good job defending his moderate stances on immigration (no citizenship; the U.S. must stop illegal immigrants even if they want to come here out of love) and Common Core (states can do their own thing as long the standards are high). He was hoping to be the adult in the debate, but at times he had his brother's childish look. Not a good job from the front-runner and I expect him to take a slight hit in the polls. Debate grade: C

Scott Walker
PPFA prediction: "Expect a boring performance tonight where he just talks about 'himself' and 'his record.' Whatever."

That was pretty much exactly what happened, and we got an underwhelming performance as a result. That's probably what he was going for, but with so much color from other candidates--I really think all others had memorable moments--Walker's bland pallet did not attract attention. I don't think he gets helped from it. Also, his belief that his abortion position, which rules it out in all circumstances, is "in line with everyday America" is flat wrong. This position will still play great with conservatives, but he became a slightly less viable general election candidate. Debate grade: C+

The Solids
Rand Paul
PPFA prediction: "Except for the incomparable Trump, no candidate on this stage has a more exceptional platform. Expect Dr. Paul to remind us of that tonight. He doesn't have to win over the entire party, which his campaign advisers have foolishly advised him to do. He just needs to recapture that libertarian streak which made him so beloved by a strong minority of Republicans."

Nailed it. He even said, "I’m a different kind of Republican." His "The Fourth Amendment was what we fought the Revolution over!" was one of the best lines of the night. That being said, I thought Christie got the better of their tête-à-tête when one considers where mainstream Republicans fall on the NSA issue. When Christie mentioned 9/11, Paul's smirk was as disrespectful as Christie's attempt was cheap. Paul just never got going; he had these isolated moments where he tried to inject himself into other people's questions--indeed, to show how he was different--but that made him seem petty and rude. One can understand why he did that, though. He got the least amount of speaking time last night, in fact getting doubled up by Trump:
image (1)
Debate grade: B-

Mike Huckabee
PPFA prediction: "He's pretty likable on stage. Expect that affability to continue tonight. I don't see him attacking anyone."

Nailed it again! Full of jokes (including his closing line getting people to think he was about to take a swipe at Trump but then throwing in Clinton instead), one-liners (the military is not a social experiment, it's meant to kill people and break things), and evangelical outreach (fifth and fourteenth amendments should apply to unborn babies). But he also suggested pimps, prostitutes, and drug-dealers are the reasons social security and Medicaid are going bankrupt. I thought Christie won that entitlement exchange as well. Still, he was affable from bell to bell, and only had the moment with Christie because the moderators forced it. Debate grade: B

Chris Christie
PPFA prediction: "He is also a candidate that can convey a lot of sincerity through his ostensible "Tell It Like It Is" approach. It appears he's connecting with New Hampshire voters, as seen in his steady climb up that state's polls. I think both Kasich and Christie will gain on the main pack due to this debate."

Speaking of Christie. I stand by that prediction. Tackling entitlements is a bold and controversial. It's an unpopular strategy, even with Republicans, especially those over the age of 50, a demo that really like to vote. Christie has to mean it if he's not saying it for political purposes. Going after Rand Paul on security--a guy many hawkish Republicans want to strangle--probably played really well at home. Since his polling average was only 3.4 heading into the debate, it'll be easy for him to get a bump, and I think he'll do so. One concern: did blaming the previous governor of New Jersey for all of the state's problems that he's steadily fixed sound a little like President Obama's "blame Bush" strategy? I wonder if voters picked up on that. Debate grade: B+

Ted Cruz
PPFA prediction: "Expect a calm performance tonight where he articulates the merits of conservative winners (Bush, Reagan) over moderate losers (Dole, McCain, Romney)."

He didn't mention the names, but he did promote unapologetic conservatism all night. ("If we’re going to win in 2016, we need a consistent conservative, someone who has been a fiscal conservative, a social conservative, a national security conservative.") He was challenged on being too divisive, and he embraced the idea. He said he'd be someone who goes to Washington not to make friends, but to push the conservative agenda. His debating experience was also evident with his slow, deliberate, confident deliveries. He never talked over anyone and even responded with total silence when he asked to speak to a point and was denied by the moderators. Even though Walker's similar strategy was similar, Cruz came across as a more charismatic and vocal champion of conservatism. Walker was counting on his record to do the talking, which wasn't enough. Debate grade: B+

The Winners
Marco Rubio
PPFA prediction: "His argument will be it's a dangerous world with Putin, ISIS, and Iran, and it's important to put someone in office who on Day One who is grounded in national security."

I swung and missed here, which surprises me because it was one of my most confident predictions of the night. Maybe he's saving it for closer to the primaries? That being said, he shined across the board. I didn't even pick up on it in the first hour, but I gradually realized he was giving solid, confident answers across the board. Seeing that come from someone so young was impressive. He was also among the best at setting himself up for a potential Clinton showdown. Directly, he referenced his own impoverished background and asked “How is she going to lecture me about living paycheck to paycheck?” channeling the problems Mitt Romney had in 2012. Indirectly, he said this election was about the future, not who had the biggest résumé, because if it were, "Hillary Clinton is going to be the next president." What better candidate to look to the future than the youngest guy on stage? My biggest concern for him is moving to a Walkeresque conservatism on illegal abortion with no exceptions. That could hurt in the general if he makes it that far. Debate grade: A-

John Kasich
PPFA prediction: "As all these candidates will do, he'll boast about his record, which in this case is as a popular governor of major swing state Ohio. . . . An interesting X-factor here is the Cleveland crowd. Will they be allowed to get behind their governor? If he gets the right atmosphere, that will play very well at home and reinvigorate the Kasich charge."

The crowd was into it! Every answer he gave was met with raucous applause, only some of it undeserved. A nervous first response evolved into confident responses the rest of the way, including an empathetic response on gay marriage. ("I just went to a wedding of a friend of mine who happens to be gay. Because somebody doesn’t think the way I do, doesn’t mean that I can’t care about them or can’t love them. So if one of my daughters happened to be that, of course I would love them and I would accept them. Because you know what? That’s what we’re taught when we have strong faith.") The positive support from the audience with that response--just four years away from booing a gay soldier--not only helped inoculate him from conservative criticism, but it might even have changed some minds at home. For better or worse, he just became the candidate Republicans see as the most electable. Debate grade: A


Billy Sullivan said...

I'd have to disagree with you on the Trump grade. I thought what he did was play to his supporters really well. He isn't going to be picking up any voters, but I think he did enough to solidify mid-teens in the next few polls, which probably keeps him out front for the next few weeks.

Bush's performance wasn't memorable, but could he be taking a Romney strategy for the first few debates? Romney was the front runner, like Bush, and skipped the first debate and tried to keep a low spotlight until Iowa was in sight. Bush probably is doing the same. He is going to be around for Iowa, alls he has to do is not lose the election. Let Trump take the jabs for a while and he can stay under the radar at about 10% and still be in the good spot for the stretch.

I thought Rand Paul was not good at all. He did play his Libertarian part well, so I don't think he will lose much in the polling, but I will be surprised if he gains ground.

My predictions for the first post debate national poll
1. Trump(Though less than 20%)
2. Bush
3. Rubio
4. Walker
5. Cruz
6. Huckabee
7. Carson
8. Kasich
9. Paul
10. Christie
11. Fiorina (though I think she is on her way to the top 10)
12.+ All Marginal, making no ground up

An interesting point will be to see if Trump loses 5+ points, if the difference between 10th and 11th becomes significantly bigger than the 1 point it is now on RCP.

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