Collected links & excerpts of reactions to the January 14th, 2016 GOP primary debate.
Last night all of the GOP presidential contenders polling above 1% and not named Rand Paul met in North Charleston, South Carolina for a Fox Business hosted debate. I say “hosted” instead of “moderated” because by all accounts, no real moderating was actually done at the debate. I didn’t watch the debate (I’m not able to breathe the atmosphere on the GOP/Fox alternate-reality Earth), but I have gathered up all the best links and commentary on the debate that I could find. This was the penultimate debate before the Iowa caucus on February 1st (the ultimate debate being January 28th in Iowa, moderated by Fox News).
What was going on before the debate?
A little context first, for any readers that have not been following the GOP presidential primary closely. Coming into the debate, the conventional wisdom has been that Trump and Cruz are leading and battling each other for the larger-than-ever anti-establishment vote, meanwhile Rubio/Kasich/Christie/Bush are fighting amongst each other for who will emerge as the establishment-backed candidate. This conventional wisdom says that once an establishment candidate emerges, they will be able to unite the party against Trump and/or Cruz.
Unfortunately for the conventional wisdom (not to mention the GOP establishment), recent polling both nationally and in early primary states makes it clear that it just isn’t so. Lauren Fox had a good write up of the conventional counter-wisdom in TPM, describing how primary voters don’t shift support among candidates the same way that political observers categorize candidates:
A recent NBC poll examined what would happen if Rubio exited the race. What conventional wisdom would expect is that his support would flow to Bush or Kasich or maybe Christie. But instead, the poll found that if Rubio dropped out of the race, a plurality of his supporters would not siphon off to Christie, Bush or Kasich. Instead, 28 percent of them would actually support Cruz. And 9 percent of them would surprisingly support Trump who is glaringly different than Rubio on a polarizing issue like immigration. Rubio supports a path to legal status while Trump would like to round up 11 million immigrants and send them home.
A Public Policy Polling survey found if given just two choices, 60 percent of Republicans would vote for Trump and 29 percent would cast ballots for Bush, a sign that some establishment support might move to Bush if the other candidates dropped out, but hardly all of it. Trump would also get a boost from a Kasich, Rubio and Christie exit. Similarly, in another head-to-head matchup, 59 percent of Republican primary voters would support Cruz and only 26 percent would vote for Rubio.
It is a well written piece; Fox does a good job dispelling a very common myth about primary voters in either party. Nonetheless, the conventional wisdom about the debate itself turned out to be true: The establishment candidates ended up mostly attacking each other while the Cruz/Trump truce officially ended as the two bullies in the race finally began trading rhetorical punches.
What happened at the debate
While I maintain that it is preposterous to call anybody other than media and political professionals the “winners” before any votes have been cast, there does seem to be a consensus among observers on both the left and the right about who won and who lost in last night’s debate. Cruz, Trump, and Rubio are all considered winners (even though they mostly won at each others’ expense), while Christie et al. are thought of as having lost.
Dylan Matthews at Vox sees it that way, adding the lousy moderators and “the truth” to the list of losers:
It’s a depressing thing when you have to evaluate candidates’ wins and losses by weighing the relative effectiveness of their lies. But that’s basically what I had to do with Christie and Cruz. They both lied their asses off tonight, Cruz about taxes and Christie about, well, everything. Christie’s lies seemed less helpful and more brazen, so I think they hurt him while Cruz’s helped.
But relative lying badness, and relative lying utility, are such strange, upsetting things to even be weighing. And Christie and Cruz were hardly the only offenders. Donald Trump falsely claimed that most Syrian immigrants entering Europe were “strong, powerful men.” In fact, most are women and children. Marco Rubio said that ISIS is trying to recruit doctors and engineers to infiltrate the US. Not really, no. Rubio also suggested that ISIS is a bigger threat than gun violence. Nope. Ben Carson, for his part, mischaracterized his own tax plan. And on, and on, and on.
It was just baby town frolics, all around. And the moderators, naturally, did no fact-checking of any kind. The result was a debate that probably left viewers less informed than they were coming in.
Also at Vox, Matthew Yglesias declared Senator Cruz as the clear winner of the night, heaping a sort of praise on Cruz as the perfectly built bridge between the GOP establishment and Trump voters:
He had his finger perfectly on the pulse of the conservative base from the get-go. He got the first question of the night — about the economy — and he completely ignored it in favor of a demagogic rant about the American soldiers who accidentally drifted into Iranian waters this week. Except in Cruz’s telling, there was no American error. He also forgot to mention the part where the sailors were returned, unharmed, within hours. Instead, he suggested they’d been kidnapped due to Obama’s weakness and that a Cruz administration might have retaliated militarily.
It is a glowing review of Cruz’s performance. But remember Yglesias is the same guy who recently made an epic #slatepitch in favor of Martin O’Malley’s candidacy. Just sayin’.
Matthew Continetti agrees (with most everyone) that Cruz very effectively rebutted questions about his eligibility for office, but Continetti believes Trump was still the winner of the night and that Cruz’s best moments might have mixed results:
But it’s hard to say how the GOP electorate will respond to their other exchanges. When saying Trump represented “New York values,” Cruz was acting as though the only Republicans who vote in primaries are very conservative and the only region that matters to the GOP is the south. He may have helped himself in Iowa, but also harmed his campaign in other states in a contest where every delegate counts.
One reason Cruz got a lot of chances to make his case to conservatives is because he was also the most-attacked candidate on stage, as Ella Koeze pointed out at FiveThirtyEight:
In the last debate, Rubio attracted the most candidate-on-candidate vitriol, but this time around Cruz was the focal point on stage. He was attacked roughly 22 times — almost as many as Hillary Clinton. That’s probably not a coincidence: Cruz has been recently ascendant in the polls and in media coverage.
The Washington Post noticed this as well, pointing out that second place has been the most perilous position to hold during this entire primary, as it invites attacks from the front runner and the trailing candidates:
The result was a night in which Cruz, a former college debate champion, found himself repeatedly on the defensive. Trump managed to turn around Cruz’s attack on “New York values,” giving an eloquent – especially for Trump – tribute to New York City’s recovery from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. All Cruz could do was applaud. And in the debate’s late going, Cruz reacted to Rubio’s list of apparent position changes by saying that half of it wasn’t true. The implication, which Cruz surely didn’t intend, was that the other half was.
Isaac Chotiner at Slate proposes that, even as both candidates have been targeted by the rest of the field for a while (and now also by each other), Trump and Cruz are simply better at politics than the rest of the GOP field (including Rubio):
When Cruz and Trump started really going after each other early in the debate, it appeared that they could in fact inflict—and suffer—some serious wounds. Normally two-man combat hurts both combatants and helps someone else in the field. (John Kerry and John Edwards both benefited greatly in 2004 when Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt tore each other apart in Iowa.) But the back-and-forths Thursday night showed both men to be engaged and politically capable, skillful in their answers and acute in the way they appealed to the base.
[Digression #1: The two questions that most interest me in this primary are (1) how much of Trump’s polling support will translate into caucus-going and primary-voting support? and (2) will Ted Cruz be the first candidate to withstand Trump’s attacks or will he find his support eroding (or collapsing) like all of Trump’s previous rivals? It is possible these questions will have conflicting answers: Cruz’s polling numbers may shrink over the next few weeks as a result of Trump’s attacks (combined with the GOP establishment’s zero-help policy toward Cruz), but if Trump’s poll-supporters don’t actually show up for the Iowa caucus then it won’t matter. Or Cruz might take a small hit in his support, but Trump’s supporters show up in force and he pulls off an upset in Iowa (which is expected to go for Cruz right now). If Cruz doesn’t win Iowa, I would expect his support to collapse pretty quickly, though I don’t have the data to guess where it would go next (see the Lauren Fox article I quoted earlier). And I could be wrong – Cruz has plenty of money and possibly more dedicated supporters. It isn’t like viability and participation have been mutually inclusive during this GOP primary season.]
Also at Slate, Josh Voorhees argues that Trump won the debate, and won it big:
Since unexpectedly jumping into the Republican race this past summer, Donald Trump has shaped the political conversation, dominated the national polls, and bended long-held electoral laws to his will. But on Thursday night in South Carolina, the blustery billionaire did something he had still yet to do during the past seven months: He lived up to his campaign trail performance on the debate stage.
Voorhees says that as good as Cruz’s answer was on his eligibility, the whole exchange probably did way more harm to the Senator than other commenter’s have supposed:
Cruz’s answer won the room, but Trump probably won in living rooms in Iowa and New Hampshire. Cruz, after all, was forced to watch as precious prime-time minutes of debate time introduced untold number of voters to the idea that politicos and pundits (and a few law professors) are debating his basic eligibility.
I really think Voorhees is astute here specifically because his theory of the debate – that pundits and the debate hall loved Cruz’s answer, but that Trump will be victorious in the eyes of the voters watching at home – is more congruent with what has played out over the last few months since Trump joined the race. Pundits think he has gone too far, but his support goes up. He lands a hit on a rival that pundits think was parried well, but his rival begins steadily losing support afterwards. Over and over this has happened, and if I had to bet I would bet it is happening again.
Nate Silver believes that this debate, beyond just Trump’s presence, really was an encapsulation of the whole GOP primary:
If you’d spent the past eight months hiking the Appalachian Trail, and Thursday night’s GOP presidential debate was the first whiff you’d gotten of the candidates in action, you’d be more than a little surprised to see Donald Trump at center stage, where the polling frontrunner normally stands. And maybe you’d be wondering where Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker went. But by the end of the nearly two-and-a-half hour debate, you’d have a reasonably good understanding of the dynamics of the Republican race.
(If you have any friends or family that have the option of hiking the Appalachian Trail – either literally or as a euphemism for a love affair in Latin America – you really should let them know to stay there until mid-November. This whole thing is just going to get uglier.)
One way the debate resembled the GOP primary itself is that it was focused on just two or three. There is an emerging consensus that less than half of the prime-time debate participants have any real chance at the nomination, but there is some disagreement about if this is down to a two or three candidate race. Jonathan S. Tobin at Commentary Magazine thinks it is a 3-way contest:
Looking at the field, it is still possible for Christie, Kasich or Bush to overtake Rubio in New Hampshire and end his bid to be the leading moderate conservative in the race. In a three-lane race in which Trump has cornered the outlier, independent vote and Cruz the evangelical and Tea Party conservatives, there is still room for a third candidate embraced by portions of the party establishment to make a run at the nomination. But nothing that happened on the stage in Charleston, South Carolina would lead anyone to believe that the third member of the first tier is someone other than Rubio.
Josh Marshall at TPM agress with Tobin (not a sentence that is written often) that this is now a Trump/Cruz/Rubio fight, but thinks Rubio is on his way out:
Stepping back though, I don’t think Rubio had a bad debate. He seemed as fine as he has in any of the others. But right now, he’s on the verge of being eclipsed as a real contender in the race. Cruz has taken and continues to hold the ‘alternative to Trump’ position that Rubio should have claimed. I saw nothing in this debate that will change that trajectory. I think we come out of this debate with it still being a Trump/Cruz race, with Trump in a somewhat stronger position than he went in, Cruz slightly weaker and the clock running out on Marco Rubio.
At The Daily Beast, Will Rahn thinks Rubio is already done and it is just Trump vs. Cruz:
I still hear people say that Marco Rubio is destined to have a big bounce, or that Jeb, with his resources, can somehow mount a comeback. And I guess they could. The only problem with these theories is that, right now, there’s approximately zero evidence to back them up.
We’ve entered, it seems to me, a two-man race for the GOP nomination. There is Trump, there is Cruz, and then there’s a bunch of guys who just won’t win.
Other points of general agreement include:
- Trump has improved as a candidate
- Ben Carson is unlikely to be on the stage much longer
- Jeb Bush is not good at landing an attack on a debate opponent
- Chris Christie is abrasive and it isn’t helping him
- John Kasich (and/or Christie) do not understand that nobody but them cares about them having been governors
Oh, and several folks pointed out that this debate was the first to really be nasty (again, more like the actual primary itself). Betsy Woodruff and Jackie Kucinich point out that the end of the Trump/Cruz truce had some unlikely outcomes:
But now whatever alliance Cruz and Trump had has been replaced by all-out war.
In fact, the exchanges between the two rivals did what many thought to be impossible: Cruz made Trump look reasonable and Trump made Cruz look likeable.
Frank Bruni (NYT) did not enjoy the fireworks as much as others:
At Thursday night’s Republican debate, the two frontrunners didn’t merely spar, as was expected. They glared at and scolded each other with a venomousness that was initially mesmerizing, then horrifying and finally just sad—very, very sad.
It wasn’t all just Trump vs. Cruz, as the promised melee for a minority vote share played out among the establishment candidates. From the LATimes debate writeup:
Other clashes played out among the other four candidates remaining on the main stage — Rubio, Christie, Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich – as they jockey for a strong showing in New Hampshire that could propel them into contention.
Rubio took after Christie, alleging that he had a track record of supporting liberal causes, including Planned Parenthood. Christie retorted that Rubio, who in a previous debate had brushed off attacks from Bush as a sign of weakness, was now doing the same.
Much ado has also been made about the Rubio vs. Cruz moments in the debate. Eliana Johnson and Tim Alberta write in the National Review:
Rubio and Cruz have for weeks been locked in a war of words over their respective records on immigration, with each calling the other an unprincipled flip-flopper. On stage, when Rubio was asked about his 2013 support for the failed Gang of Eight bill and the threats posed by terrorist groups exploiting America’s immigration system, he said the emergence of the Islamic State over the past 24 months has changed his view. “Radical Islam was not invented 24 months ago,” Cruz shot back, before offering a familiar contrast between his immigration record and Rubio’s.
Rubio responded with an attack that lasted several minutes, reciting a litany of issues on which he alleges Cruz has changed his views and accusing the fiery Texan of “political calculation.” He finished by accusing Cruz of being weak on national security, saying he had joined with Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders in voting for a defense budget that slashes military spending. Cruz smirked and said, “I appreciate you dumping your oppo research file on the debate stage.”
“It’s your record,” Rubio shot back.
And they conclude with another common perception of the ugly tone in the debate and the GOP primary as whole:
It’s a tone we’d all better get used to. Just one debate remains, less than two weeks from now, before votes are cast in Iowa. The pace and intensity of the sniping will only increase from here on out.
Indeed we can expect the sniping to continue, although Ted Cruz may call it carpet bombing.
That’s all the reactions I collected (and thought worthy of inclusion). If you think I missed something, please send it my way. I expect we will all be able to enjoy a nice cathartic laugh during next Monday’s Daily Show and Nightly Show (although us Hulu people won’t see it till Tuesday morning).
The next GOP debate is another Fox News affair on January 28th.