Sabato's Crystal Ball

The Reagan Rumble

Larry J. Sabato, Kyle Kondik, and Geoffrey Skelley, U.Va. Center for Politics September 17th, 2015

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With a Wednesday night debate, we would have been remiss to send you a Crystal Ball on Thursday morning without a reaction. Here are some quick thoughts from the three of us on what we’re calling “The Reagan Rumble.” We’ll have a lot more to say on the state of the GOP race next week.

The Editors

 

Larry J. Sabato: Fiorina steals the show on a crowded stage

It was a debate with winners (certainly Carly Fiorina) and losers (sorry, Scott Walker). Mainly, though, the Reagan Rumble reinforced the strengths and weaknesses that voters already associate with each of the candidates. Already, millions tuned in mainly to cheer for their current choice.

Few who are committed to Donald Trump will be dissuaded by anything they saw. He didn’t add many supporters, though; his song sounded very familiar. Ben Carson was his usual self — soft-spoken, thoughtful, often unpolitical. His backers are delighted, no doubt, but Carson didn’t spark a mass movement in his direction.

The articulate and steely Fiorina showed why she should have been in the first debate. Fiorina surely will be in subsequent ones.

By contrast, Scott Walker did not impress, and he desperately needed to hit a couple of home runs.

What of Jeb Bush, who required a solid performance almost as much as Walker? Bush blew his opportunities in the critical first half-hour, and shied away from confronting Trump or making cogent arguments on other matters. But he got better. The defense of his wife struck a chord with viewers, and the last hour of exchanges, when Bush really came alive, was his best.

Yet Bush could not solve his underlying dilemma, and if you listened to the back-and-forth, you saw the future through the prism of the past. From the first, the Bush camp underestimated the difficulty of separating Jeb from both the dynasty issue and his controversial brother. “I’m my own man” doesn’t cut it when his advisers, donors, and approach are quintessentially Bush.

Much of the GOP grassroots just doesn’t want another Bush. Maybe Jeb’s massive money edge and the enormous power wielded by Bush World (a web of connections 70 years in the making) can grab the nomination anyway, but it’s far from a cinch.

Final point: I’m not a stubborn guy, but I am going to reiterate — in the hope that we don’t repeat the mistake four years from now — that this debate format is inadequate. Eleven candidates are too many on a stage, and this crowd of politicians produced a herky-jerky debate that couldn’t develop themes, skipped around too much on topics, and cut off exchanges just when they were threatening to prove fruitful. The moderators weren’t at fault, the format was.

In July I urged in Politico Magazine that the large group of candidates be divided evenly in a last-minute lottery (to encourage spontaneity), and that two back-to-back debates be held in prime time, perhaps an hour and a half per debate. Ask yourself whether that format might have worked a little better last night. Seven or eight candidates produce a rambunctious but manageable seminar. Eleven contenders create a chaotic, sputtering mob.

Kyle Kondik: Sinking Walker probably didn’t help himself

Wednesday’s debate was historic in at least one way: It was the first presidential primary debate in the history of such forums to feature more than 10 candidates. The sheer number of candidates on the stage, combined with the overwillingness of the moderators to tee Donald Trump up for food fights with the others, made it hard for many of the candidates to make much of an impression. Several were largely ignored, but that didn’t mean they necessarily lost. Ben Carson seemed to hardly talk at all, but his appeal is not about media facetime. Marco Rubio offered short, punchy answers, looking very much like the livelier Floridian. John Kasich is playing a long game in New Hampshire — the national spotlight is not something he’s seeking, and all his answers seemed to reinforce the core message his campaign is pushing: He’s the reasonable adult.

The candidate who made the least of his time was Scott Walker. While Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina offer, if anything, something different, the Wisconsin governor hewed closely to standard GOP talking points, and his early attempt at a one-liner against Trump felt canned. He may bounce back, but it’s hard to see how anything that happened in this debate will cause that comeback.

Despite his polling cratering in his key state, Iowa, Walker retains strong favorability ratings there. But it seems reasonable to question whether he can last until that state, or whether his candidacy goes the way of another much-ballyhooed Midwestern governor, Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota in the 2012 cycle.

There was another debate on Wednesday, too: The earlier “kid’s table” featuring Bobby Jindal, George Pataki, Rick Santorum, and Lindsey Graham. Frankly, we couldn’t blame anyone for forgetting about it, particularly because the early debate was robbed of arguably its two most compelling participants from last month: The rising Fiorina, and the now-former candidate Rick Perry. Graham had some nice moments, and perhaps Jindal or Santorum will have some role to play in Iowa later on down the road, but we suspect this earlier debate will be largely overlooked.

Geoffrey Skelley: Beware of snap judgments

The last time experts tried to decide who “won” a debate, many mistakenly thought that Donald Trump had struggled. Maybe he had in their eyes, but Republican poll respondents thought otherwise. There’s no question that the second Republican debate featured a large number of attacks on Trump. Whether or not they actually diminished him remains to be seen, but Trump didn’t shine brightly during the second GOP confab.

Most of the evening wound up being a muddle. Chris Christie was strong, but he’s so damaged in the eyes of conservative voters that it’s difficult to see him recovering. Rand Paul offered dovish foreign policy views that might have held greater sway before the rise of ISIS and the debate over the Iran nuclear deal, but now they seem totally out of step with today’s Republican Party.

“Winners” are difficult to demarcate because of the crowded stage, but Ted Cruz and Carly Fiorina were perhaps the strongest performers.

Cruz particularly seemed to understand better than anyone else that a debate is televised. Most of his responses were given with a full focus on the camera, speaking into the homes of American conservatives and not so much to the small crowd at the Reagan Library. Cruz is a former debate champion, and he routinely had eloquent and firm answers when he got a chance to get a word in edgewise. Cruz’s appeal is not one that will easily translate to a broad, general election audience, but his staunch conservatism on a number of issues, particularly foreign policy, must have played well to future Republican primary and caucus voters.

Fiorina was the other candidate who appreciated that she was speaking mainly to a television audience. Regardless of substance, her answers probably topped the charts in terms of erudition and detail. While her business record came under fire from Trump, she had smart responses to most questions and a solid grasp of details on a very wide range of issues. Of the three outsider candidates, she appeared to have the strongest performance in comparison to Ben Carson and Trump.

If Trump’s lead in national polls erodes, it’s easy to imagine that the person who replaces him at the top in some surveys could be either Carson or Fiorina.