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Thursday, August 06, 2015

PPFA Official Republican Debate Preview

It's here! It's finally here. The first debate of the 2016 campaign cycle. The venue is set:

The candidates are chosen:

And, at 9:00 tonight, the contest begins.

Before taking a dive into the delicious piece of programming that is ten Republicans pointing out everything wrong with Hillary Clinton, we should not forget about the 5:00 kiddie table forum with the candidates who did not qualify to sit with the adults. There, we'll see Bobby Jindal, Carly Fiorina, Lindsey Graham, George Pataki, James Gilmore, and Ricks Perry and Santorum complain about how unfair life is and how democracy isn't supposed to work like this. Rick Santorum will note how Bill Clinton was out of the top 10 at this point before the 1992 election that ultimately crowned him president. Perry will intensely lock eyes on the audience through his dark rimmed glasses and confidently deliver his rehearsed soundbite. Graham will pivot to Iran on every issue, including "favorite color." Pataki will struggle to stay awake, as will anyone listening to him. Will any of them find a way to use the forum to leap into the top ten? That's not a bad reason to watch.

But enough of the appetizer. Let's get to the main course: the 9:00 debate. (What's for dessert you ask? The post-debate spin off, of course. Where every campaign tries to convince us their candidate just won. Yummy!)

First, big picture: Often, presidential debates aren't actually debates, especially in a primary. They are mostly exchanges of canned responses that more resemble stump speeches than genuine debate. Moreover, generally speaking, the candidates that are most likely to attempt big right hooks are those who are near the bottom of the pack in polling, but the debate rules have thinned out that herd. What remains are ten candidates that are all alive and well in the 2016 Republican Primary. Most years, rather than swinging big and risking a miss, we'd normally expect comfortable candidates to throw light jabs all night.


But tonight... tonight!... we get Donald John Trump, the man who treats anyone in his way like they're the sanitation fixture that his middle name represents. We know he's a loose cannon, but if he were the only one pocketing gunpowder, he'd be an isolated sideshow. What Trump has shown, however, is that people really seem to like his finger-pointing rhetoric, delivered as the very embodiment of confidence he has so ungracefully become. He has soared to the top of every national poll with double-digit leads, despite proposing little in the form of reasonable policy. Will other candidates take notice and follow suit tonight? Can they be seduced to that side of politics? Is it that far of a reach to picture Chris Christie, barely in the top ten, talk hyperbolically tough tonight, or Marco Rubio, who has been tumbling down the polls, aggressively go after the polling favorites on their lack of foreign policy experience? We can hope.

Now for their close-ups. Here's what I expect to see out of each of the ten candidates tonight. We'll go in reverse order of poll rank. Let me remind any new readers that I did a deep profile on each of the Republican Candidates last month. I'll link you to teach of them.

#10. John Kasich--2.8 Real Clear Politics average
The candidate of momentum! Yesterday's Gravis poll in New Hampshire had him second to Trump with 15 points. Expect Kasich to point out that he was the last candidate not named James Gilmore to enter the Republican Primary, and he's already in the top ten in national polls and making a run in the first primary state. 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, a state that has voted for the winner in every election since Eisenhower left the White House. 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.

#9. Chris Christie--3.4
The other candidate of momentum? In that same New Hampshire Gravis poll, Christie ran third, ahead of the likes of Scott Walker, Ben Carson, and Jeb Bush. His entry was also relatively late into the race (he was 14th) yet he's also worked himself into the top ten nationally. (Remember, it's not easy: Perry, Santorum, Jindal, and Fiorina are huge Republican names and they can't get anything going.) The debate should be a strength of his, especially in the Trump Era. Republican voters have responded to the confident brashness of the billionaire, and Christie is nothing if not confidently brash. He's as capable as any candidate of saying something provocative that draws headlines and followers. At the same time, 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.

#8. Rand Paul--4.8
If Kasich and Christie are the candidates of momentum, Rand Paul is the candidate of whatever the opposite of momentum is. There was a time in 2013 and 2014 where he was considered among the front-runners for the nomination, regularly polling double digits nationally and earning lots of headlines and free attention through his dramatic Senate strategies. Even after Jeb Bush and Scott Walker ascended the polls to bump him out of the top tier, he and Marco Rubio were still there as solid 3rd or 4th options. But over the last month, his national polling average has fallen to 4.8, putting him in just eighth place. In fact, he's closer to Christie (averaging 3.4) in ninth than he to getting back into the top five (Carson at 6.6). I discussed reasons why he has fallen apart in my candidate profile on him, but remember, I also still had him at #5 overall in likelihood to win the nomination. That's because he can differentiate himself from the other candidates on tonight's stage. 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.

#7. Marco Rubio--5.2
Rubio's fall from grace has mirrored that of Paul's. He, too, was once considered a favorite--and by many the favorite--for the 2016 nomination over the last four years. But he, too, has collapsed in recent polling. He's down to 7th place in the RCP average at just 5.2 percent support nationally. He also has nothing going in the first three states, ranking 8th, 8th, and 7th in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, respectively. Tonight, I expect him to go after the leaders on foreign policy. The top five candidates in the polls--Trump, Bush, Walker, Huckabee, Carson--don't have a lick of foreign policy experience. Rubio has made it a point to inject himself into foreign affairs during his Senate tenure. 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.

#6. Ted Cruz--6.2
In his candidate profile, I gave serious props to his educational background (cum laude Princeton, magna cum laude Harvard Law), including his debate chops (he won the national and North American debating championships). It stands to reason that he should therefore dominate the debates, right? Wellll, not exactly. As I discussed on Monday, these debates aren't really debates. In primaries, the candidates rarely go back and forth while seriously challenging each other's positions. Instead, these candidates will mostly try to pivot from answering questions to spitting out their stump speeches by attacking President Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Planned Parenthood. This monolithic pattern neutralizes Cruz's debate experience, but he won't mind. I think Cruz loves his position right now. He was in eighth for much of the last month before showing a bump in the last week that has him up to sixth. He's also raising money better than anyone not named Bush or Clinton. Expect a calm performance tonight where he articulates the merits of conservative winners (Bush, Reagan) over moderate losers (Dole, McCain, Romney).

#5. Ben Carson--6.6
Charles Krauthammer recently called Carson "the tortoise" of the race. "He's slow, he's steady, he's quiet, but he's staying there, and he's got staying power." Indeed, to think that he's basically been somewhere between three and six in the polls since last year, it's a pretty impressive run from the neurosurgeon with no political experience. I have not backed off my assertion that the party won't take him seriously enough to actually nominate him, but he has impressive grassroots support (only he and Bernie Sanders have raised 80 percent of their money from donations of $200 or less) and enormous popularity from church goers. 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.

#4. Mike Huckabee--6.6
Was I too unkind when I ranked him the 12th most likely Republican nominee? He is the top "second tier" candidate in the polls, and at a 6.6 average, he's closer to the first tier than he is the third. Meanwhile, he's also top five in Iowa and South Carolina, the first and third contest in the primary. But I have yet to see him grow something more than his evangelical base. He came in with high name recognition after his Iowa win and overall second place finish eight years ago. So why can he never crack double digits this time around? As for tonight, let's remember that in 2008, he rode debates to an Iowa victory. He's pretty likable on stage. Expect that affability to continue tonight. I don't see him attacking anyone. He's not interested in catching the leaders quite yet.

#3. Scott Walker--10.6
Walker has already made his debate strategy clear--he won't engage with any candidate. He wants to stay above the fray. Boooooooo. But you can't blame him. He's top tier nationally and still the obvious anti-Bush candidate once Trump finally gets around to the inevitable collapse that people are nervously starting to doubt will never happen. He still has a big RCP lead in Iowa. No one is asking, "What's wrong with the Walker Campaign?" like they are Paul, Rubio, and Bush. Expect a boring performance tonight where he just talks about "himself" and "his record." Whatever.

#2. Jeb Bush--12.8
The prohibitive favorite for the Republican nomination is trailing Donald Trump by double-digits. That is a sentence I never expected to write. He's also trailing Trump in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. Human sacrifices, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria. But we mustn't forget, especially after imitable presidential politics blog Presidential Politics for America pointed out last Friday, Bush dwarfs the field in money and endorsements. He's playing the long game here. Tonight, 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.

#1. Donald Trump--23.2
Did I mention the dogs and cats living together? Trump is way, way up on the field nationally; he's doubled up second place Bush in the last two New Hampshire polls; and he sported a jaw-dropping 34 points in the only July South Carolina poll, trouncing second place by 23 points (Bush and Carson clocked in at 11). The whole thing is rather surreal. Not only does he dominate the entire field in the polls, but he also will dominate our attention tonight. There's a reason this is such a highly anticipated debate, and that reason is Donald Latrine Trump. 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.

Let's do this thing!


Stevie K said...

Did you create that amazing graphic?

IC said...

Ha! Yep, that was me. My graphic arts education topped out at Microsoft Paint.

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