The eighth Republican presidential debate of the 2016 campaign — and the last one before the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday — began with a slapstick offstage candidate pile-up and generally devolved from there.
Donald Trump referred to the live debate audience as "donors and special interests" backing Jeb Bush. John Kasich thanked the audience for their "patience" for seemingly no reason at all. And Marco Rubio appeared totally incapable of speaking extemporaneously rather than returning repeatedly to his pre-memorized script.
We won't know who "really" won until poll results trickle in. But in the meantime, here are the candidates who ended the night better off than they started it — and the ones who slipped.
Winner: Chris Christie
For most of this campaign, Chris Christie has been an also-ran. The governor who just four years ago was seen as the biggest potential primary threat to Mitt Romney has regularly polled about as well as Carly Fiorina and the now-exited Rand Paul and Mike Huckabee nationally. In New Hampshire, where he's pinned all his hopes, he briefly boomed in mid-December (see the orange line below) but has declined substantially since, and now averages sixth place with only 4.9 points.
And that's despite getting the endorsement of New Hampshire's influential conservative Union Leader newspaper, as well as Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, whom many New Hampshirites know from being in the same media market as Boston.
Christie's only hope for a shot at the nomination is getting second or maybe third in New Hampshire and beating out Rubio, Bush, and John Kasich as the establishment's preferred anti-Trump, anti-Ted Cruz candidate. Before tonight, the odds of that happening appeared to be, if not zero, then very, very close.
But Christie delivered a bravura performance tonight, emerging as the only candidate onstage whose energy and fervor could match Trump's. In the past Christie's persona has appeared unduly intense, but this time it worked, and it worked particularly well in his devastating exchange with Rubio. Rubio just kept repeating the same talking point, over and over again, and Christie called him on it:
But Christie performed well beyond that moment. Seconds earlier, he got in a great zinger at Rubio's skipping of Senate votes, which really landed:
When you talk about Hezbollah sanctions act that you list as one of your accomplishments, you weren't even there to vote for it. That's not leadership. That's truancy.
He also gave a compelling answer when confronted with polling evidence suggesting that the vast majority of Americans want to raise taxes on the rich (Christie, by contrast, wants to cut the top income tax rate by more than 10 points):
I actually have experience with raising taxes on millionaires in my state, it was done. It was done by my predecessor. I want people to know the truth. You're wrong. Here is why you're wrong. After New Jersey raised taxes on millionaires, we lost, in the next four years, $70 billion in wealth, it left our state, to go where it would be treated more kindly.
If the United States raises taxes any further, that money will leave the United States, as well. We won't have better jobs. Let New Jersey be the canary in the coal mine. It is a failed idea and a failed policy, it's class warfare. It happened in my state. I've stopped it from happening again. But we cannot do it. The 68 percent of the people are wrong about that, it will hurt the American economy. We tried it in New Jersey. It did not work.
To be clear, this answer is kind of ridiculous on substance. The evidence on the existence of millionaire tax flight is murky, and even studies finding an effect generally conclude that it's small. The best study I know about concludes that a 10-point increase in the tax rate on millionaires should lead to 1 percent of them leaving the state, and that the revenue-maximizing tax rate on millionaires is in excess of 68 percent — way above the combined state-federal rate in any state.
Moreover, this isn't really generalizable from the state level to the federal one. If you work in New York City, it's relatively easy to move from suburban New Jersey to suburban New York state or suburban Connecticut. It's a lot harder to move to Canada or the United Kingdom or Australia. So it's even more doubtful that raising taxes on millionaires nationwide would cause much in the way of migration.
But it worked for Christie because it let him appear like he doesn't follow polls and is willing to stand up for his convictions when the public disagrees, and, more importantly, it actually answered the question being posed. Rubio and Bush replied to that question with typical boilerplate about the importance of creating jobs. Christie responded to the actual specific inquiry — should we raise taxes on millionaires? — with a relevant argument on that precise point. That's rare in debates, and welcome.
Winner: Donald Trump
This is a counterintuitive call, but hear me out for a second.
Trump did suffer from a rough back and forth with Jeb Bush, in which Bush assailed Trump's record of exploiting eminent domain to enable his real estate projects. Referring to the case of Vera Coking — a widow whose Atlantic City house and land Trump tried to seize to build limousine parking for his hotel and casino — Bush asked, "How tough is it to take property from an elderly woman?" It was a startling moment, not least because Bush is very, very bad debater who shouldn't be capable of delivering a hit that clean.
But taking a step back, the biggest loser of the night, by far, was Marco Rubio. And a loss for Rubio, on the eve of New Hampshire, is almost by definition a win for Trump, his weird personal rivalry with Jeb Bush aside.
To see why, take a look at the current New Hampshire polling averages:
That little light blue line ticking upward since the beginning of February? That's Rubio. For all of January, the non-Trump candidates were bunched together in the low 10s and high single digits. That's not just evangelical-targeting candidates like Cruz and Carson who could never be expected to fare well in New Hampshire; that's also moderate establishment types like Rubio, Bush, Christie, and Kasich.
But the support was divided. Combined, Rubio, Bush, Christie, and Kasich could totally swamp Trump's level of support, but because that segment of the electorate was so torn, Trump has posted very impressive 20-point leads.
The establishment's best hope was to have one candidate, probably Rubio, soak up his like-minded competitors' votes enough to become a credible threat to Trump. Beating Rubio by 30 to 25 would be a much less impressive victory for Trump than beating Rubio/Bush/Christie/Kasich by 30-10-10-10-10.
That unification was sort of underway after Iowa. Rubio was gaining steam, Christie in particular was losing ground, and a close Rubio loss to Trump was looking plausible. The Rubio campaign has been widely mocked for its so-called 3-2-1 strategy, in which Rubio finishes third in Iowa, second in New Hampshire, and then first in South Carolina. It's still unclear how exactly they expect to win in South Carolina (Rubio is losing by about 23 points currently), but if they have any hope of winning there, a close loss to Trump in New Hampshire is a necessary prerequisite.
By totally blowing tonight's debate, Rubio made the "2" component of his plan significantly less likely. And by blowing it in large part because of an unexpectedly strong appearance from Chris Christie, one of the candidates whose voters he needed to win over, he made the establishment nightmare scenario, in which the rest of the candidates finish in a cluster 20-odd points behind Trump, significantly more likely.
That's all excellent news for Trump. If he wins by a huge margin in New Hampshire, his path to the nomination starts to look clear. It sets him up for a win in South Carolina, where he's already leading, giving him big momentum going into Nevada and the big batch of primaries — Texas, Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia, Alabama, Massachusetts, etc. — on March 1. That's more important than whether he got booed after a bad answer on eminent domain.
Loser: Marco Rubio
Saturday, February 6, 2016, will forever be known as the day that Marco Rubio looked like a malfunctioning robot, utterly incapable of engaging in normal human conversation and desperately searching his ROM for the hard-coded talking points his operators had soldered in.
The back and forth with Chris Christie when it happened was about basically nothing at all. Rubio insisted that Barack Obama was a Machiavellian mastermind who is competently carrying out a well-thought-through plan for transforming America into Sweden. Christie insisted that Obama is not just evil but also wildly incompetent.
This matters a bit for Rubio's message — he's a freshman senator just like Obama was, and so has an interest in arguing Obama is a disaster for reasons unrelated to his lack of experience upon taking office — but ultimately, "Just how much does Obama suck?" isn't a very important or interesting debate.
But it wound up being interesting and important because Rubio was wildly unprepared for it. He clearly only had one talking point — "Obama knows exactly what he's doing" — and Christie called him on it. And then Rubio repeated the talking point again:
Rubio: This notion that Barack Obama doesn't know what he's doing --
Christie: There it is. There it is. The memorized 25-second speech.
Rubio: That's the reason why this campaign is so important. Because I think this notion -- I think this is an important point. We have to understand what we're going through here. We are not facing a president that doesn't know what he's doing. He knows what he is doing.
It was a humiliating moment for Rubio. And it was compounded by the fact that Rubio used the same talking point even more times later in the debate:
Say what you will about 2008-era Barack Obama, but he was a first-term senator who could speak eloquently in impromptu settings — or, at least, could speak extemporaneously at all. Rubio couldn't, and he couldn't even when another candidate got applause for pointing out that he couldn't. He had to know he was flailing, and he kept doing the thing that was sinking him anyway.
We don't know yet if this is a debate flub on the order of Rick Perry's 2011 "oops," which effectively ended his campaign. It's way too early to weigh its magnitude. But it was by far the most cringeworthy moment of the campaign so far, and seriously jeopardizes Rubio's odds of uniting the establishment vote and making this a three-way race with Cruz and Trump.
Most self-destructive debate performance since Quayle ’88 and J.B. Stockdale ’92: Rubio.— James Fallows (@JamesFallows) February 7, 2016
Loser: the moderators
Reasonable people can differ as to the proper role of debate moderators — how hostile they should be toward candidates, what counts as a "gotcha" question, how much back and forth they should allow — but one part of the job description that's fairly hard to dispute is that they should introduce the candidates properly.
And yet ABC News's moderators, David Muir and Martha Raddatz, didn't manage to check off that box. If you watch the pile-up that began the debate, it's clearly mostly Ben Carson's fault. He didn't hear the moderators call him to the stage and stayed put, even as a staffer frantically motioned for him to go to his podium.
But it's largely Muir and Raddatz's fault too. They introduced the candidates as they looked out to the audience, and didn't notice that Carson hadn't made it to his place. Worse, they called out Marco Rubio so soon after they called out Donald Trump that Trump just stood in place with Carson as well. Raddatz even announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, the Republican candidates!" as Trump and Carson remained offstage. It was a breathtakingly incompetent handling of what should be the absolute easiest part of the moderators' job.
Matters didn't really improve once they started asking questions. Here are some real questions Muir and Raddatz asked over the course of the night, lightly paraphrased:
- How should Ted Cruz discipline his staffers for saying Ben Carson was dropping out the night of the Iowa caucuses?
- What would you do if the North Koreans nuked America?
- John Kasich, you poll worse than Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Does that mean you're wrong on immigration?
- New Hampshire has an obscure electrical transmission project to get hydroelectric power from Canada. Thoughts?
- Donald Trump, how many jobs are you going to create? You say it's a lot, but how many?
- Ted Cruz, do you really care about New Hampshire's heroin problem? Like, in your heart?
- Chris Christie, would you let the FBI invade Mexico to attack bad drug people?
- Who do you want to win the Super Bowl? (No, for real, this was a real question, and they had everyone answer).
Even when the questions were reasonable, they did no follow through to ensure the candidates actually answered them. Raddatz asked Trump how specifically he'd destroy ISIS; Trump replied "I'd take all their oil," and Raddatz more or less allowed him to leave it at that.
A lot of debates this cycle have featured markedly poor moderation, but Saturday's debate was worse than most.
Loser: Ben Carson
Not only is he polling in the single digits in both New Hampshire and South Carolina, he didn't even go onstage at the right time. C'mon, man.