Policy Amid Politics: An Analysis of the Second GOP Debate

McHenry Lee, JHU:

For a race that so far has been dominated by a candidate unwilling or unable to delve into the nuances of policy, Wednesday night’s debate was a change of pace. For over three hours, the top eleven candidates debated back and forth with only one break. Amid a flurry of one-liners and personal attacks, some of the candidates began to outline their visions for the country. Immigration and the Iran Nuclear Deal dominated the discussion. As with any debate, there were winners and losers. Who rose? Who fell? Who might be relegated to the junior varsity showcase?

Despite needing a strong performance to build some momentum, Scott Walker once again wilted in the spotlight. After leading in Iowa earlier in the summer, the Wisconsin governor has disappeared in the polls. He currently stands with just a mere 3% in the first caucus state, good enough for only tenth. Walker did himself no favors on Wednesday, talking for only nine minutes of the three-hour debate, by far the shortest speaking time of any of the candidates. When he did speak, he offered little of substance, mostly emphasizing his tenure as governor of Wisconsin, during which he took on public sector unions and survived a tough recall election. He tried to paint a picture of himself as a Washington outsider, citing his record of taking on special interests and defunding Planned Parenthood, but in a race currently dominated by two CEO’s and a neurosurgeon, Walker continues to struggle to differentiate himself.

Although he did not speak as often as his competitors, Florida Senator Marco Rubio devoted his time to substantive policy instead of going after his rivals. While his jokes may have fallen flat, Rubio continued to come off as the young, energetic, and knowledgeable voice in the room. He commanded every issue he discussed, ranging from foreign policy to his specific plans to reform the immigration system. He outlined several clear steps that his administration would undertake—including reforming legal immigration—to ensure that the United States admits immigrants based on merit, while also cracking down on illegal immigration by securing the border. Rubio even discussed climate change, something that he has been criticized for ignoring in the past. However, it will be interesting to see if the Florida Senator will see a corresponding jump in the polls. While pundits praised his first debate performance in August, Rubio stayed even or actually fell a few points in the weeks that followed. He may be entrenched in the middle of the pack at the moment, but Rubio leads the field when voters were asked whom they would consider voting for if their top choice dropped out. As the field narrows down, look for Rubio’s numbers to climb, as he is one of the only candidates who can simultaneously appeal to moderate, Tea Party, and Evangelical Republican voters.

Fearing his own electoral trajectory might soon resemble that of Scott Walker, Jeb Bush made every effort to appear more energetic and charismatic, a direct response to the concerns of pundits and voters who believe his campaign has been playing it too safe thus far. Unlike the previous debate, Bush succeeded in verbally competing with Trump, most notably brushing off Trump’s comments about his Mexican-born wife. He was also able to strike a positive tone when outlining his pro-growth economic policy. Bush passionately advocated for new fiscal policy targeting 4% annual economic growth, a clear contrast to the approximately 2% annual growth the US economy has seen since the turn of the millennia. He argued that economic growth and not government dependence would save the middle class and help those struggling in today’s economic environment. However, he did have trouble answering questions about his brother’s legacy, a topic he will eventually need to tackle with greater poise if he wishes to win the nomination and the general election. Although Jeb’s performance was certainly an improvement from August, he still has a long way to go if he wants to take back the title of frontrunner.

No debate recap would be complete without Donald Trump. After the August debate, most pundits were ready to eulogize his unconventional campaign. His debate performance was anything but positive, with most headlines criticizing him for going after popular Fox News moderator Megyn Kelly and for not having any concrete policy ideas. But then something strange happened: he gained 10 points in the polls and solidified his status as the frontrunner. Thus, with Trump’s previous post-debate spike in the polls, it is difficult to evaluate his debate performance on substance alone. This is in part because Trump’s support does not come from policy wonks or Washington insiders who argue over the nuances of political debates. Rather, he appeals to the voters who are tired of the political class promising one thing and doing another. It is clear that Mr. Trump is being held to a different standard, in the context of the debates and in the broader campaign as well. It is also quite clear that his displays of brashness and superficiality seem to garner more support than they repel. As such, despite the difficulties pundits and voters may have in predicting Trump’s polling and his electoral future, they must nonetheless pay these metrics close attention. At the moment, the real estate mogul appears to be holding onto the top spot in most states. But with the improving fortunes of Fiorina and the peskiness of Rubio and Bush, the tide may be finally turning. For the first time since he got into the race, Trump has lost ground in the polls. Whether this dip is a legitimate sign of trouble for the Trump campaign remains to be seen, but it is clear that the Republican field has begun to adapt to his pugnacious and unorthodox style, and the polls may soon reflect this change.

Unlike many of his fellow candidates, upstart retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson was able to stay above the fray. Like Trump, Carson has yet to articulate many of his policy stances and has been relatively untested by the press. He took a hit in the post-debate poll, losing his second place spot to Fiorina, likely because he never really offered anything new or specific on the debate’s hot button issues. Ohio Governor John Kasich failed to turn in as great of a performance as he did last month, but he remains a favorite among moderates and in the important primary state of New Hampshire. Kasich’s key moment on Wednesday came during his explanation of why the US needs to negotiate with its enemies, especially Iran. The remaining candidates, Rand Paul, Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz, once again struggled to stand out on a crowded stage. Paul and Christie resumed their quibbling from their corners of the dais, while Huckabee and Cruz continued to quietly carve out space in the field’s Evangelical wing.

Former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina was the big winner of the night. Just a month ago, she was resigned to the happy hour debate, stuck on the same stage as the likes of Jim Gilmore and Rick Perry. Now she is going toe to toe with Donald Trump, landing some punches on the current front-runner. Her biggest moment came when she took on Trump for criticizing Jeb Bush’s recent gaffe on defunding women’s health as well as his sexist remarks regarding Fiorina’s physical appearance. When she successfully singled him out for his apparent hypocrisy, a noticeably flustered Trump looked lost amidst thundering applause. Her debate success translated immediately into a huge jump in the polls. In a CNN survey done in the three days after the debate, Fiorina surged from 3%-15%. She has leap-frogged most of the field and now stands in second, behind only Trump. This is because Fiorina is able to give the party something it has desperately needed in the wake of the 2012 defeat and the party’s supposed “war on women.” Fiorina gives Republicans a credible and articulate female voice capable of eloquently expressing the conservative stance on issues ranging from abortion to economic policy. In a primary field historically and currently dominated by white career politicians, the feisty female outsider might just prove to be the answer.

Although we are still four and a half months away from the first primary vote, Wednesday’s debate showed how the field is beginning to align. Trump, Carson, and Fiorina, all political outsiders who made their names and fortunes as private citizens, together command over half of the vote in the current polls. This is indicative of a public that is sick and tired of the current political class and instead wants someone in power who is not beholden to special interests. Bush, Kasich, and Rubio remain the likely favorites of establishment moderates and have the necessary campaign infrastructures to compete for the top spot. The remainder of the field has yet to demonstrate their ability to contend in a national campaign. They may hang around into the winter, but the list of contenders appears to be narrowing.

In a primary field with more than a dozen candidates vying for debate slots, the future is hard to predict. Wednesday’s debate was one of the first steps in the process finding the next Republican nominee for president, a process that will undoubtedly remain entertaining and thoroughly competitive, even as substance remains occasionally elusive.


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