Who Won The First Republican Debate?

by Michael Dorf

During the first Republican primary debate (well, technically the second if you count the warmup act at 5 pm), I took to Twitter to provide my instant reactions, most of which were simply snark. (If you don't follow the Twitter feed for this blog, which is usually just links to posts and Verdict columns, you can see my tweets here.)  Here I'll add a few big-picture observations.

1) It's tempting to ask "who won the debate?"--albeit not in the sense of who was the most persuasive to any particular viewer. Along that dimension, I would give the nod to Kasich or Paul, but that's because Kasich was the closest thing onstage to a liberal on the role of government in helping people (especially with health care) while Paul's foreign policy views are a better fit for a Democrat than for most Republicans. But my first choice for the Republican nomination is not especially salient because I'm not a Republican. So we want to know how the various candidates did with Republican voters. Because I don't share their views on so many issues, it's hard to know. And anyway, as Fivethirtyeight tweeted in the immediate aftermath of the debate, voter reactions are shaped in part by media reactions. Nate Silver then declared Kasich and Rubio co-winners. Given that inconsistency, I'll press on as well.

2) As I said, I personally found Kasich to be the Republican I would be least upset about to see as president, but if actual Republican voters declare him a winner or co-winner, it will have to be in part because of the media bump and in part because of the home crowd. I also agree with Silver about Rubio. Rubio and Walker are both playing for the chance to be the more conservative and more dynamic alternative to Bush. I disagreed with a lot of the substance of what both of them said but I thought that Rubio came across as more sincere and more polished. Walker probably had a big enough lead over Rubio coming into the debate that he'll remain in third place--after Trump and Bush--but I wouldn't be surprised if in the coming weeks the top tier of candidates is said to include Rubio as well. I'd be a little surprised if Kasich moved up into that tier because he's starting from such a low base--and because the "establishment" wing of the Republican Party, where Kasich must hunt for votes, already seems sold on Bush. Still, it's early, so there's plenty of time for things to shake up. If Kasich can break into the top tier, then it should effectively be a four-man race at least through the early primaries: Bush, Walker, Rubio, and Kasich.

3) Trump will undoubtedly hang around for a while, but I think he has peaked. Going into the debate I shared the view that his was a doomed candidacy but I thought his performance was especially bad. Quite apart from the accuracy or inaccuracy of his claims, he didn't even make them effectively. For example, when asked about his four commercial bankruptices, he said he never declared personal bankruptcy, that he took advantage of the law like any business person, and that he had made hundreds of successful deals. I'll bet that most viewers didn't understand this answer, which could have been articulated much more effectively in this way: "I'm proud of my record as a job creator but you have to understand that if you want to succeed in business, you need to take risks. When I undertake a job, I often create a special company for that job. Hundreds of the deals I've made have worked out great, but a few didn't work out and so the companies failed. If you understood business, you would be asking me how I am such a great deal maker that ONLY four of my companies failed." Other Trump answers were simply incoherent, like the claim that he switched from pro-choice to pro-life because he knew someone who turned out great, after his mother decided not to have an abortion. What?? If Trump had started out as pro-life, would he have become pro-choice because he heard about a murderer whose mother had considered but rejected an abortion? I'm guessing that seriously pro-life Republicans will conclude that abortion is not an issue Trump cares about at all and that his current pro-life stance is wholly opportunistic.

4) Despite his supposed great record as a debater, Ted Cruz seemed to do very poorly. Partly this was a matter of airtime. Partly it was that he came across as less likeable than either Walker or Rubio, who are competing to occupy roughly the same niche--dark-haired forty-something conservative. But Cruz made a weak case even in absolute terms. His go-to move was to say that whereas the other candidates say they are conservative, he is the only real conservative. It's true that judged by public statement ideology score, Cruz is the farthest right of any of the Republican candidates, but only by a small margin over Walker and Rubio. And with even Dr. Carson--who by the same measure is to the left of every candidate other than Christie--suggesting that he would bring back waterboarding, Cruz's description of himself as the only real conservative in the Republican race doesn't seem credible.

5) My utterly subjective bottom line in sorting winners and losers is thus:

Carson (gave unresponsive but popular answers and played the neurosurgeon card well)
Fiorina (nobody watched the JV debate but the pundits say she won so she gets a bounce)

Water Treaders:
Paul (stance on surveillance solidified his hold on GOP libertarians but didn't expand appeal)

Christie (no memorable airtime except for testy exchange with Paul but you don't move up from 9th by picking a fight with the guy whose in 8th)
Huckabee (no gaffes but his sell-by date has passed)
Everyone else in the JV debate