The Debate that Just Won’t Matter

Saturday night’s Republican debate could have made all the difference for any one of the candidates. Instead, it didn’t make any difference at all, not for any of them.  The men at the top of the polls didn’t stand out, so nothing’s changed there.  Yet the men at the bottom all stood out – all of them did about as well as they could have hoped – and each turned in his best performance to date.  This means that none of them gained an advantage over his fellow low-polling contenders. 

This means that the status quo will not be rocked, and the New Hampshire primary will turn out about the way the polls predicted. 

The media, in the immediate aftermath of the debate, didn’t think so – but they are wrong.

The big “headline” from the debate was the media’s assumption that people would care about Marco Rubio’s repetition of the point he was trying to make – but they won’t care, because it is irrelevant to the voting public.  It’s the kind of debating point that the media likes to jump on, but voters tend to ignore.  As my wife said, “when you’re trying to make a point and nobody seems to be listening, you repeat yourself.”  In other words, “it was no big deal.”

But in tracking the news coverage after the debate, ABC, Politico, Fox and others were almost identical in their comments – even similar in their examples from the past of why it would matter. 

One commentator compared Rubio’s repetition moment to the Reagan-Carter Debate moment when the Great Communicator said, “there you go again.”  That was a decisive moment, but only because the two men were in a head-to-head battle for the Presidency, and this was the only debate between the President and his rival. However, in New Hampshire, it was a “debate” among seven men, each trying to score points. 

Another commentator compared the repetition to that moment in the vice presidential debate in 1988 when Dan Quayle struggled to explain what a man as young and inexperienced as he was would do if he suddenly became President.  In frustration, he eventually cited JFK, to which Democrat Lloyd Benston said, “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.”  Everyone agreed that Benston won the debate – but lost the election.  However, once again, this was the final head-to-head debate between two men running for the same office, rather than seven men trying to stand out from the crowd.

Here’s how I see it.

Trump:  It was his debate to lose, and after he absented himself from the last debate, a lot of attention was focused on him.  However, he was – for Trump – low-key and fairly reasonable.  His one hiccup was his “shushing” of Bush, which did not play well with either the live audience of those watching on TV. It was rude, and – for a man ranked 25 points ahead of the man who was challenging him – unnecessary.  But it was a small thing, and won’t cost him votes.

Rubio:  His low point came in handling Chris Christie’s attack. However, for the rest of the debate, he was in top form, handling a number of controversial topics – abortion and gay marriage, among others – with grace and gravitas.  The media believes this will undercut him – but I think they’re wrong.  He may lose a few point – but then again, he may not.

Cruz:  Trailing Rubio in most recent polls, and unlikely to “trump” Donald Trump again, Cruz did just what he needed to do. He was reasonable, non-confrontational and low-key.  He is at his best, when dealing with crowds who are not all born-again constitutional conservatives when he is low-key.  This debate will not propel him upward, but the New Hampshire electorate isn’t as conservative or committed-to-faith as Cruz.  This debate will not cost him votes, and that’s about the best he could have hoped for.

Kasich:  Kasich turned in his best performance, by far, in any of the debates.  Apparently 100 town-hall meetings helped him hone his message and his delivery.  Yet the other three governors also did well.  If any of the governors picked up any points, it is probably Kasich – but it won’t be by much.

Bush:  Like Kasich, he delivered his best debate performance.  Yet he still lacks energy and passion, and he remains too devoted to his “I have a plan” approach – an approach that hasn’t worked all that well since Nixon’s “secret plan” for ending the Vietnam war turned out to be illusory.  He scored a few points against Trump over eminent domain, but the men he needed to score against were his fellow governors.  And that didn’t happen.

Christie:  From one perspective, Christie executed his best debate performance, demonstrating his strength in a leader’s role.  Yet his attack on Rubio was notably harsh – too harsh for some voters.  Worse, from Christie’s perspective, he attacked the wrong man.  He needed to take down Kasich and Bush – fellow governors with similar positions and similar track records. Those men he treated with kid gloves, gaining no ground.  He may lose a few votes, which will probably go to Bush, but not enough to keep Bush in the race or keep Christie from having to bow out.
Carson:  Ben seemed to get a bit more airtime than in other debates, but he hasn’t yet realized that playing the victim card – “I have to fight to get talked to” – does not do him any favors.  Maybe the first time, he might have gotten a bit of sympathy, but that can only work for so long.  The reason the rumor that he dropped out seemed so plausible is because nobody can figure out why Carson remains in the race.  He will lose ground, and probably to Kasich, because they both present the image of decent men who are in the middle of the road, despite Carson’s sharply conservative platform.

Conclusion:  This debate was informative and entertaining, but it didn’t move the needle in any significant way.  The three men at the top will remain at the top – with Trump strongly in the lead.  The three governors all did well – but uniformly so, meaning that none of them broke out from the pack.  Since breaking out from the pack was the only reasonable hope any of them had for remaining in the race, then – despite their best efforts – this debate was, for them, a failure.

Ned Barnett is a long-time issues management and campaign consultant.  A leader in the Nevada Republican Party during the “Tea Party Wave” of 2010, he is the author of more than a dozen books on effective communications, and an adjunct professor at two universities.  He has appeared on Neil Cavuto’s program, on the Imus radio program and has worked on three presidential campaigns as state-level media and strategy director.  His clients have included the Air Force Academy Alumni Association and the Tea Party Express’s TV and publication divisions.  He is currently writing a book on practical ways to win political campaigns. 

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