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Monday, August 03, 2015

Seeding the Republican Debate

Whenever I get asked by people in my make believe world where I'm an influential blogger if polls matter so many months before February's Iowa caucuses, I always say yes!. Thanks to this Thursday's highly anticipated Fox News debate, I've never had a better supporting argument. Only ten candidates qualify for this primetime debate, while all other candidates, barring a tie for the 10th spot, get relegated to an earlier 5:00 forum. (The deadline for national polls to be considered is tomorrow at 5:00 pm EDT.) Last Sunday, I determined that of the seventeen candidates, eight could book their tickets to Cleveland, four danced on the bubble (inside of which I put John Kasich and Chris Christie, outside of which languished Rick Perry and Carly Fiorina), and five had no chance.

Since then, however, we've had four national polls. Should I amend my prediction? Here are the updated standings from the Real Clear Politics' average of the polls. I'm putting the updated polling averages second and sorting the list by that number. Last Sunday's polling averages are listed first.

1. Donald Trump--------18.2--->20.8 (+2.6; stayed #1)
2. Scott Walker----------12.0--->13.3 (+1.3; rose from 3 to 2)

3. Jeb Bush---------------13.4--->12.5 (-0.9; fell from 2 to 3)
4. Ben Carson-------------6.4--->6.2 (-0.2; rose from 5 to 4, despite drop in average)
5. Ted Cruz----------------5.4--->6.0 (+0.6; rose from 8th to tie for 5th)
5. Mike Huckabee--------6.2--->6.0 (-0.2; rose from 6th to tie for 5th, despite drop in average)
5. Marco Rubio-----------7.0--->6.0 (-1.0; fell from 4th to tie for 5th)
8. Rand Paul---------------5.6--->5.8 (-0.2; fell from 7th to 8th, despite rise in average)
9. John Kasich-------------1.8--->3.5 (+1.7; rose from 10th to 9th)
10. Chris Christie---------2.8--->3.0 (+0.2; fell from 9th to 10th, despite rise in average)
11. Rick Perry-------------1.8---->2.5 (+0.7; stayed #11)
12. Rick Santorum--------1.4--->1.5 (+0.1; stayed tied for 12th)
12. Bobby Jindal----------1.2--->1.5 (+0.3; rose from 14th to tie for 12th)
14. Carly Fiorina----------1.4--->0.7 (-0.7; fell from tie for 12th to 14th)
15. Lindsey Graham------0.0--->0.5 (+0.5; stayed in 15th)
T16: George Pataki and James Gilmore: Still not registering


  • We still have eight candidates who are clearly in. They did a lot of shuffling--most dramatically Rubio's drop and Cruz's rise--but even that scrambling has more to do with razor tight standings from than actual tectonic shifts in the race. The difference between fourth place and eighth place is just 0.4 points. One released poll today or tomorrow could totally shuffle them again.
  • Interestingly, that second tier--those from fourth to eighth place--is a relevant race ahead of Thursday's debate. These debates always have those polling highest in the center of the stage, giving them a prime podium position. For example, if it were a seven-candidate debate, the candidate polling highest stands in the center, and then the next two are on either side of him, and out we go from there, until those polling the lowest slouch forlornly on the margins. With ten candidates, we'll have two sharing the center, and then two candidates directly next to them on each side, giving us four prominent positions. We know who will occupy three of those four, but the remaining polls between now and tomorrow's polling deadline will determine who will be the fourth.
  • Our bubble has shrunk from four to two. Kasich rose to ninth with a lot of momentum, so he's almost certainly our ninth debater. Fiorina is eliminated; her four polls since last Sunday sported three 1s and then a goose egg in yesterday's NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, so her RCP average has fallen below Santorum and Jindal's to an almost Patakiesque 0.7.
  • That leaves Christie and Perry vying for the last spot, barring a massive polling surprise this week. Here's a closer look, with their last six polls next to their averages (most recent poll first):
    • -----10. Christie, 3.0---3, 3, 2, 4, 3, 3
    • -----11. Perry, 2.5:-----3, 2, 2, 3, 4, 1
  • That's close! Christie is still inside of the bubble and Perry outside of it, but with two more days of polling to move things, it's far from certain. Our next poll bumps out the oldest of those six, which Christie led by 2. If Perry leads that new poll by one, he matches Christie. If Perry leads a new poll by two, he surpasses Christie. And there will probably be more than one poll released between today and tomorrow at 5, so that spot is really uncertain. Forget Trump, Walker, and Bush; this Christie-Perry race is THE thing to watch over the next 34 hours of polls. Plus, they still might tie and both get in, remember.


I've decided to seed these eleven candidates heading into this debate. I am not ranking their likelihood of winning the nomination--I dedicated an entire month to that. Instead, I'm seeding them on likelihood of doing well in the debate and coming away with more people seriously considering them for their primary vote. I'll count it down from the candidate most likely to do poorly to the candidate most likely to do well.

Group 1: A lot to lose
11. Ben Carson: He has no experience doing this sort of thing, and he has no political record to reference. "I'm really good at separating conjoined twins" does not double as a good political platform. I expect most things he says to sound hollow and a little Monday Morning Quarterbacky, and there's a chance his foreign policy answers will embarrass him.

10. Scott Walker: Walkerholics will hate this ranking, but I find him wooden and too deliberate. His supporters will spin that he just means business, but post-debate polls won't recognize that. That doesn't mean he's not a top contender for the nomination, though.

Group 2: The Wildcards
9. Donald Trump: As if he could belong in any other category. Most expect him to fall on his face, but it seems like 50 percent of a debate performance is confidence, and he has confidence oozing out of his scalp. He's certainly not afraid of the spotlight. Can he talk substantively on the issues, though? (And will supporters care if he can't?)

8. Rick Perry: He swears he's been preparing this time, and he'd benefit from the low expectations. From everything I've seen about Perry 2016, it seems he's perfected short, confident answers. If he does a decent job on stage, it'll look great. But if all his preparing hasn't actually helped, he'll again make a fool of himself and probably won't be taken seriously for the rest of the campaign. A true wild card. (Maybe he'd prefer cutting his teeth on the afternoon forum first?)

Group 3: They'll do well
7. Marco Rubio: The last couple weeks have been hardest on Bush and Rubio. People have seemingly forgotten about Rubio as the handsome young Latino Floridian savior of the party, and he's fallen in the polls. I expect him to hit foreign policy hard and call out others on stage for not having his foreign policy chops.

6. Mike Huckabee: Eight years ago, he rode debates to an Iowa victory. He's pretty likable up there. I do wonder, however, if he might look too vanilla compared to some of the louder voices on stage.

5. Chris Christie: Speaking of louder voices. It's time for the party to start falling in love again with Christopher Christie. It might not happen on Thursday, but it'll happen. Oh, it'll happen. (Or maybe not.)

4. Rand Paul: Like his father, he has a way of sounding like a sane man surrounded by insanity. He's level headed, engaging, and sports a more creative platform than anyone on stage, which can help him stand out. But he might also say some unpopular things. His choice.

Group 4: High upside
3. Ted Cruz: He has the best debating chops in the field, but are these debates really debates? Rather than go back and forth while challenging each other's positions, these candidates will mostly try to pivot from answering questions to spitting out their stump speeches and attacking Hillary Clinton. That nullifies Cruz's intellectual advantage. That being said, he's cool, articulated, and glows with conservative conviction, which is a great way to win a Republican Primary debate.

2. Jeb Bush: No one has bled more polling points than him over the last month. I expect him to bring his A game, and he has a good record to boast. I also think he has low expectations because he's a Bush and so many conservatives remain skeptical. If he looks confident, competent, and hammers home his conservatism in most areas, that will play really well. Look for him to have an empathetic response to the immigration question.

1. John Kasich: A popular, confident, no-nonsense Ohio governor famous for memorable one-liners with the Cleveland home field advantage? If the crowd can affect this thing, watch out! That will look great on TV.

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