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Who's the real GOP frontrunner? A Vox symposium.

Here at Vox, we prefer policy analysis and sound, research-based understanding of the fundamental forces shaping politics to shallow gut-based horse race journalism. But the day of a debate featuring contenders in a primary campaign that's been a little light on white papers and policy is a good time to think about racing horses. Rather than waste time chatting amongst ourselves, we thought we'd chat amongst ourselves and then turn it into content.

What to expect

Matt Yglesias: I, personally, am really looking forward to this next Republican debate because I think we are entering a pretty unusual moment in politics where almost everyone knows they have no idea what is going to happen. So at least we can take crazy guesses. And since Andrew has just returned from the wilds of Iowa, his guesses will be maybe a little less ill-informed than the rest of ours.

Laura McGann: I think this year we've seen a prolonged Silly Season that isn't over just yet. But it will end. And when it does, Trump will look like a master at playing the media, voters will remember Ted Cruz is a bomb-throwing outsider, and the real candidate is Jeb Bush.

Matt Yglesias: Laura gets points for boldness!

Laura McGann: Who would have thought Jeb Bush would be a bold guess?

Andrew Prokop: What I saw in my recent weekend in Iowa seems to match the polls and the CW pretty well: There's a lot of enthusiasm for Ted Cruz, a lot of interest in Donald Trump, and a generalized good feeling about Marco Rubio. Other candidates almost never came up.

Laura McGann: How many Republican presidential nominees ever won Iowa, Andrew?

Matt Yglesias: W.

Andrew Prokop: Well, our most recent three presidents all failed to win the New Hampshire primary when they won their presidential nomination. So it's not like New Hampshire matters and Iowa doesn't.

Laura McGann: I’m not saying we should dismiss the early states entirely. My mind struggles to comprehend Trump v. Cruz. What were voters saying they liked about these two when you were out there? Sitting here at my desk in NW Washington, it’s hard for me to picture. Particularly with Trump. I see the summertime appeal, but so close to Election Day is surprising to me.

The establishment's big problem

Matt Yglesias: My problem with the theory that any of the "establishment" candidates can win this thing is that right now in national polling Rubio + Bush + Christie + Kasich = ~ 22 percent, so post-New Hampshire winnowing alone is nowhere close to getting the job done. I sort of buy the theory that Trump will probably lose Iowa and that losing Iowa might puncture the Trump bubble. But even if that happens, how does all that Trump support migrate over to Jeb or Marco?

Andrew Prokop: If Trump comes close behind Cruz in Iowa, I don't see why New Hampshire voters would abandon him en masse.

Matt Yglesias: That’s why I only sort of buy it!

Andrew Prokop: He needs an unexpectedly big defeat for that to happen.

Matt Yglesias: But I’m saying even if he does fade, it seems likely to benefit Cruz.

Laura McGann: Right. Where do the Trump votes go.

Matt Yglesias: To win, the establishment needs to winnow its own field while keeping both Cruz and Trump in the race.

The Great New Hampshire Winnow

Andrew Prokop: But that is what I expect to happen after New Hampshire.

Laura McGann: I would expect a flood of dropouts after New Hampshire.

Andrew Prokop: There's no way Rubio, Bush, Christie, and Kasich will still be in the race by South Carolina. Probably two at most will. What Rubio needs out of New Hampshire is pretty simple — he has to decisively beat those other three establishment-friendly candidates, all of whom have staked far more on New Hampshire than he has.

Matt Yglesias: Yeah, if that happens then it seems likely the other three will quit. But what if Christie comes second in New Hampshire? Does Marco drop out? Does Jeb?

Laura McGann: That all seems plausible. But then I remember Andrew’s previous story about Marco running a sluggish campaign. You’d think he’d be punching hard out there. But he’s not?

Matt Yglesias: I will say that I like Marco’s boots.

Andrew Prokop: That's the interesting scenario, Matt. Both Christie and Kasich are very weak outside New Hampshire, and (unlike Rubio and Bush) they don't have a ton of outside money to draw on.

They'd be relying entirely on media momentum to carry them to victory in the other states.

Matt Yglesias: Right — so if I’m Rubio even if I place third in New Hampshire I am taking my stylish footwear down to South Carolina and Nevada rather than throwing in the towel. And amidst continued confusion, I don’t see what erodes Trump’s poll numbers.

Andrew Prokop: Yeah, Rubio wouldn't drop out if he came in third behind Trump and someone else. He and the second-place person would continue on.

Laura, Rubio has gotten a rap of running a lackadaisical campaign in the early states. But he's still managing to poll in second or third in New Hampshire and Iowa, and he's bombarding both states with TV ads. We'll see if those have any effect.

Democrats fear Rubio. Do Republicans care?

Andrew Prokop: I think every Republican campaign is fervently hoping that Marco Rubio badly underperforms in Iowa and New Hampshire, in hopes that will take him out of the picture.

Laura McGann: Hillary Clinton probably feels the same!

Matt Yglesias: I sometimes want to run around the country grabbing Republican voters by the lapels and screaming, "You idiots! Don’t you realize Democrats are a hundred times more scared of Rubio than any of these other guys?"

Have they not noticed this? Do they not care?

Laura McGann: I do think that calculus will come into play.

Andrew Prokop: The establishment-friendly trio of Bush, Christie, and Kasich all see themselves in direct competition with Rubio. Cruz's team has been preparing for a showdown with Rubio. Trump ... who knows what Trump thinks, but if he's smart he's hoping for a Rubio flameout early.

Matt Yglesias: I guess Kasich is a pretty strong general election candidate too.

Laura McGann: Kasich is an interesting dark horse.

Matt Yglesias But he just seems hopeless.

Andrew Prokop: The Iowans I interviewed at Cruz and Trump rallies generally seemed to like Rubio. They just didn't feel any particular desire to vote for him (though many were still undecided, and could theoretically move toward him).

It’s completely conceivable that Rubio comes in third in Iowa, second in New Hampshire, and hangs in there when all the other establishment-friendly folks are forced to drop out.

Do moderates win in the end?

Matt Yglesias: Andrew’s scenario seems like the a nice plausible scenario that would give establishment types hope. But even if that happens, it still looks to me like a pretty thin path to the nomination for Rubio. The fact is, most Republicans seem really fired up about immigration, and Rubio is genuinely not trustworthy on this.

Laura McGann: This is still the same electorate that put Romney and McCain on the ticket, though.

Andrew Prokop: I don't know that that's true, Matt ... I think a hard core of the GOP is fired up on immigration. But for most it's just one of many issues. Laura, the thing with the 2008 and 2012 comparisons to me is that the conservative alternatives were so weak.

Laura McGann: I think polling has ISIS as the number on issue at the moment, actually.

Andrew Prokop: That's why I keep coming back to Cruz.

Laura McGann: And Marco has been positioning himself as the serious foreign policy candidate.

Respect Ted Cruz

Andrew Prokop: Cruz is a far more skillful politician, with access to a ton more money, than any of the doomed outsiders in '08 and '12. When you see him talk, it's clear that he's been obsessively honing and perfecting his sales pitch to the conservative base for years.

Laura McGann: Andrew, true, but still Republican voters have shown a willingness in the past to go with an imperfect candidate who seems more electable than, say, Herman Cain.

But Ted Cruz is formidable. He’s running a real campaign in the way conservative figures in the last two cycles weren’t.

Andrew Prokop: Whatever liberals might think of Cruz, he's a very good speaker and comes off as extremely knowledgeable and informed to a sympathetic anti-DC audience.

Laura McGann: Andrew, do you mean that in terms of your observations in Iowa, or just generally?

Andrew Prokop: Both. It's clear to me that Cruz calculated years ago that his path to the presidential nomination was to win the trust of the conservative base and to make sure never to lose touch with them or get on the wrong side of them.

Now, Trump has a very different strategy. A lot of the voters he's hoping to pick up aren't philosophically consistent conservatives.

Matt Yglesias: One thing that makes me feel bullish on Cruz is that I think a lot of DC-based reporters overstate his unacceptability to conservative elites.

Laura McGann: Matt, you’ve written about this before. I am somewhat skeptical. I still think Cruz is a character who shut down the government and sent Republican favorability numbers tanking. It will probably cost them the Senate.

Matt Yglesias: That’s why Republican senators hate him! But he didn’t engineer that shutdown with hypnotism; he had the support of a broad national conservative network.

Andrew Prokop: One thing I think people underestimate about Cruz is that he can change his pitch for a general election audience. We haven't seen that side of Cruz because the most liberal electorate he's had to win over in his political career was the Texas statewide electorate.

Laura McGann: This is the crux of the issue.

Andrew Prokop: But he's a wily politician and good at wriggling out of scrapes.

Matt Yglesias: Now I think you are overestimating Cruz, Andrew.

Laura McGann: Ted Cruz’s strategy is to run as a Tea Party presidential candidate, keeping the base behind him. But at some point he’s got to go more broad than that. Are his rhetorical skills good enough to do it alone? Can he pull it off with the Republican apparatus against him?

Andrew Prokop: You've written about his tax plan, Matt. In Iowa, he pitched it as a necessary step toward abolishing the IRS (which was the real applause line). If the numbers make the plan look bad, he'll change the plan or argue with the numbers.

Laura McGann: I think you’re underestimating Old Voters, Andrew.

Matt Yglesias: He is very skilled at bobbing and weaving, but I just don’t see how he can pivot his whole political persona away from "way conservative."

Andrew Prokop: To be clear, I think he'd face a lot of difficulty winning the general. I just don't think we should assume that the Ted Cruz we'd see now is the same one we'll see in the general. Cruz is good at code switching. When he talks to reporters one on one he sounds quite different than when he gives a stump speech.

Trump's exit strategy

Laura McGann: On Trump, can either of you picture that concession speech? I can’t.

Matt Yglesias: Because Trump will win!

(he always wins)

Laura McGann: This will be an interesting exercise for him.

When Trump loses a few states, will he just take his ball and go home in a huff?

That might not be such a great scenario for the establishment camp if it happens before they’ve winnowed their lane.

Andrew Prokop: I bet Trump will bitterly denounce the voters for being losers as he concedes.

Matt Yglesias: But why will he lose?

Andrew Prokop: I'm not sure he will!

Laura McGann: You think we’re headed for a brokered convention?

Matt Yglesias: I mean, as a journalist you definitely have to root for a convention showdown. I think that’s in the Constitution.

Laura McGann: I’m rooting for Jeb.

Andrew Prokop: It seems like there's a pretty strong dynamic in the modern system that results in the winnowing of the field down to two candidates, and that makes the brokered convention unlikely.

Laura McGann: But the system doesn’t account for a Trump.

Andrew Prokop: You'd probably need a serious three-way race to make brokered convention even plausible.

Laura McGann: Trump + Cruz + (Rubio/Jeb)?

Will anyone attack Trump?

Matt Yglesias: Okay, wait, let’s pull this back to the debate.

Laura McGann: Good idea.

Matt Yglesias: Do we think we’re going to see the Establishment Four arguing with each other, or will they try to attack Trump?

Andrew Prokop: They might try to get some press buzz by attacking Trump, as Bush did last time around. But clearly their main strategic imperative is to attack each other, and that's where they're putting their ad money.

Matt Yglesias: That seems right, and also like it’s the best option from a pure televised entertainment point of view since Jeb-Rubio infighting has a lot of pathos to it.

But it also seems like Trump will be sad if nobody is arguing with him, and will have to try to pick a fight with someone.

Andrew Prokop: Well, he has Cruz. He'll certainly be asked about the birther question.

Laura McGann: Trump presumably is thinking about Iowa, so I’d guess he’d take on Cruz. It'll be interesting to hear his response to the birther question.

Matt Yglesias: I feel like Larry Tribe’s op-ed has given Trump a perfectly respectable answer.

He can say there are real legal doubts about this, Democrats will definitely exploit them, and people should ask themselves if it’s worth the risk.

Laura McGann: Cruz is a bit of a wild card. He attacked the media a few debates ago and won the whole thing.

Andrew Prokop: That's exactly what Trump said in Iowa on Saturday, Matt. He even quoted Tribe.

Matt Yglesias: Cruz could win a place in my heart by standing up for his Canadian heritage. I’m a Canada enthusiast. But I somehow doubt he’ll take that approach.

Can Jeb find his energy?

Laura McGann: As much as I’m still in the Jeb corner, I do think that he needs to reassert himself over Marco Rubio in this next debate. I think it’s possible. His previous knock on Rubio for not showing up to votes fell flat a few months ago, but it feels more relevant now. Rubio’s playing the ad war game, rather than retail politics in early states. My understanding is that Iowans and New Hampshirites expect a handshake from the candidate they’re going to vote for. The lazy line isn’t a bad attack.

Matt Yglesias: I think Bush’s problem leveling that attack earlier was he didn’t have any larger point to make. His team now seems to have hit upon a larger narrative arc about Rubio as a flighty lightweight that at least sort of makes sense.

Laura McGann: The missed votes felt random and insincere.

So, yes, I agree, it suits the larger narrative.

Matt Yglesias: Parting thoughts? Debate hopes and dreams?

Laura McGann: Two thoughts from me:

1 — The absence of Rand Paul is a stunner. A year ago the chatter class thought he’d be a player in this primary, shaping it toward a libertarian bend. But he’s not even at 5%. Good reminder of how unpredictable this year has been so far.

2 — My larger point on Jeb is really about my disbelief about this primary. I do not believe Silly Season is going to be the real thing. I see the polls. I see the rallies. I suppose I am rejecting the evidence for some baseless gut instinct that actual voting behavior won’t change so drastically.

Andrew Prokop: We'll see, Laura. Past evidence shows that there can be really big swings in the final moments before Iowa and New Hampshire. But it also shows that there aren’t always big swings like that. Trump and Cruz have been durable for quite a while now, and Rubio has stubbornly refused to surge all that much. (Jeb seems pretty much toast to me.)