The 2016 cycle's 11th Republican presidential debate became an all-too-literal dick-measuring contest within minutes, and proceeded to force viewers to question what counts as debate, or as political discourse, or as communication between human beings, for a full two hours.
Marco Rubio referred to Donald Trump as "Big Don," out loud, in a room with people and microphones in it. Ted Cruz at one point declared, "I really hope we don't see yoga on this stage." Even the ostensibly "moderate" John Kasich went out of his way to praise deposed Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi for some reason.
We won't know who "really" won until poll results trickle in and the primary voters cast their ballots. But in the meantime, here are the candidates who ended the night better off than they started it — and the ones who slipped.
Winner: John Kasich
At this point, the three non-Trumps are basically kamikaze pilots.
Realistically, the GOP nomination will either go to Donald Trump outright, or be decided in a brokered convention. For the latter to happen, each of the remaining candidates has to keep campaigning and win a few more states — knowing that there's zero chance any of them becomes the nominee.
A brokered convention can pick a non-candidate as a nominee, a Mitt Romney or a Mike Pence. It can't pick a candidate who lost the primaries.
It's folly to wonder if Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz or John Kasich can win the nomination outright. They can't. Instead their debate performances have to be judged on how they affected the candidates' odds of successfully performing their role in the grand Trump sabotage plan.
Kasich's role in that plan is winning Ohio, one of the biggest remaining states and, crucially, one that's winner-take-all. If Trump wins there and Florida, the race is over. It's not clear that Kasich can pull this off, despite being hugely popular in his home state and having recently won a landslide reelection. There's only been one poll of the state since the primaries started, and it found Kasich behind Trump by five points.
So what Kasich needs to do is close that gap, and Thursday night he gave a performance that could do just that. While Cruz, Rubio, and Trump talked over each other and argued about their dick sizes and yoga and other such mishegas, Kasich stayed above the fray. He had a consistent message: I balanced the federal budget in the 1990s. I've led a successful conservative government in the swingiest of swing states.
It hasn't been a winning message nationally, but in Ohio it serves to remind voters of things they already love about Kasich. He was the adult on the stage. And while data is still sparse at the moment, Frank Luntz's focus group loved him:
The longer this goes, the higher Kasich climbs and the lower Rubio sinks with my focus group. #GOPDebate— Frank Luntz (@FrankLuntz) March 4, 2016
He gained more Twitter followers than his better known non-Trump rivals:
Who’s gained most Twitter followers since #GOPDebate started:— Dan Diamond (@ddiamond) March 4, 2016
Kasich still engaged in a bit of self-deception. He talked about being the nominee eventually. He declined to go full #NeverTrump and tell Floridians to vote for Marco Rubio. He committed to supporting Trump as the nominee, when pointedly refusing to do so could've made him a stronger stop-Trump contender. And there was that weird Gaddafi moment.
But he did better than Rubio or Cruz, and gave exactly the performance he needed to have a shot at a favorite son upset in Ohio.
Winner: The moderators
Reportedly, Fox News has given up on Marco Rubio. "We're finished with Rubio," the network's head, Roger Ailes, recently told a host, per a report by New York Magazine's Gabriel Sherman. "We can't do the Rubio thing anymore."
But even if the Rubio lovefest is over, the network's grudge against Donald Trump definitely isn't. They gave him by far the most airtime of any candidate tonight, but also used it to bludgeon him repeatedly.
Chris Wallace directly challenged Trump on his claim that letting Medicare negotiate drug prices would save more money every year than Medicare spends on the drugs in total. Trump's response was pathetically weak: "I'm saying saving through negotiation throughout the economy, you will save $300 billion a year." (What exactly "negotiation throughout the economy" means? Not specified.)
Megyn Kelly called up not one, not two, but three examples of Trump making contradictory statements on a key policy issue. When Trump tried to interrupt, she forced him to listen to all three. When he finally got to respond, he began with, "Well, on Afghanistan, I did mean Iraq," which is probably a bad mix-up for a would-be president of the United States to make.
When Rubio and Trump started screaming at each other about Trump University, it took a while for the moderators to get the discussion under control, but once they did Kelly didn't let Trump's claims stand, rebutting his claim that the school had an A from the Better Business Bureau (it's actually a D-). When he claimed that almost every student was happy with the education they received, she forced him to address the former students suing him claiming they demanded refunds.
Was the moderating in the debate disinterested arbitration from actors not invested in a particular outcome? Of course not. They had knives out for Trump from the beginning. But in this case, the particular political interests of Fox News and those of the viewing public converged. Trump is probably going to be the Republican nominee. He deserves more scrutiny than the rest of the field. And the Fox team subjected him to as much scrutiny as he's faced in any debate to date.
Winner: Hillary Clinton
The worst case scenario for Hillary Clinton (or Bernie Sanders, if he were to make an improbable comeback and seize the nomination) in the general election is facing Marco Rubio. He has problems within his party, but at the end of the day he's a young, charismatic, reasonable-seeming candidate with broad party support who adds to the sense that Clinton has too much historical baggage and could potentially reduce Democratic dominance with Latino voters.
The best-case scenario is either facing a bona fide extremist who the Republican party is inclined to abandon and support half-heartedly if at all in the general election — like Trump or Cruz — or facing a Republican party in total disarray without a clear nominee until the convention in July.
It now seems like the latter is all but inevitable. The way things stand, odds still are that Trump wins outright. But tonight emphasized that if he were to lose, it would happen in the most chaotic and disruptive way possible. The window where Rubio could've won outright has closed. It's over. It's either Trump or a brokered convention.
And the forces pushing for the latter appeared divided and impotent. Kasich put up a good showing, for sure, but Rubio definitely did not, and Ted Cruz refused to even hint at support for a united anti-Trump front. The anti-Trumps are not in total disarray, but they're not exactly in lockstep either. And while they committed to supporting Trump if he's the nominee, the sheer venom of their attacks, and the broader context in which they took place, confirmed that if Trump wins he won't be taking his party with him.
I genuinely don't know what's better for Clinton: facing Trump in a 1964/1972-style race where the party establishment doesn't have his back, or enjoying a summer of Republican chaos until a compromise candidate is chosen at the RNC and the Trump voters become demoralized and stay home in the general. All of her options are good now, and the longer this mess continues the better they get.
Loser: Marco Rubio
The first nine Republican debates (save the one Trump skipped) were defined by a weird repartee between Jeb Bush and Donald Trump in which the former fecklessly tried to attack the latter only for Trump to respond with brutal insults that utterly deflated Bush. Not only that, but Trump issued his insults with relish, like the only reason he even entered the race was as part of a far-too-convoluted revenge plot against Jeb.
With Jeb out of the race, many of us feared this dynamic would vanish. We shouldn't have worried. Marco Rubio is apparently all too willing to step into the old Jeb role of Trump punching bag, and Trump is all too willing to use him as such.
This did not result in Rubio landing some real hits against Trump. It resulted in Rubio trying to attack Trump again, and again only for the debate to devolve into pointless cross talk.
Worse, Rubio's points were sometimes actively contradictory. The same guy who said this:
This is a time for seriousness on these issues. You have yet to answer a single serious question about any of this. [To Trump] Will you give us a detailed answer about foreign policy any time you're asked on it?
Also engaged in this exchange:
Cruz: You can do it. You can breathe. I know it's hard. I know it's hard. But just…
Rubio: When they're done with the yoga, can I answer a question?
Cruz: You cannot.
Cruz: I really hope that we don't — we don't see yoga on this stage.
Rubio: Well, he's very flexible, so you never know.
Seriousness is a very important quality in a candidate, you see.
Worst of all, Rubio never got the chance to make an affirmative argument for his candidacy. Or, more accurately, he never took the chance to do so. Ted Cruz criticized Trump plenty but he also made an active argument for why he's the most compelling Trump alternative. That's bad for the #NeverTrump effort but it's a bonus for Cruz personally. Kasich, for his part, rarely did anything other than reiterate the basic rationale for his candidacy.
Rubio, by contrast, became like a weak, gutted, bizarro Trump, with all the weird venom and none of the confidence or successful self-promotion. Rubio was dead before tonight, and the debate mostly served to remind the public why.
Loser (for the night): Donald Trump
Things are looking good for Trump at the moment. He currently leads in the winner-take-all states of Ohio and Florida, the latter by a wide margin. Victories there wouldn't just make it hard for John Kasich and Marco Rubio to continue their campaigns; they'd give Trump a huge delegate lead, so big that he'd probably only have to win half of the delegates in the ensuing contests to secure an absolute delegate majority. Unless something changes in the next two weeks, the nomination is his for the taking.
There are two locations, realistically, where something could change: in the next few weeks' primaries, or in a debate. The former avenue is tricky for anti-Trump forces. If, say, Ted Cruz were to win Louisiana and Kentucky, that could halt Trump's momentum. But it's hard for Cruz to win Louisiana and Kentucky having lost Super Tuesday to Trump. It's a sort of catch-22: Cruz needs to win additional states to get momentum. But he needs more momentum than he's got to win additional states.
That leaves debates as a more plausible inflection point. We've already seen their potential to blunt momentum from past primary performance. Rubio was riding high on his third place (???) showing in Iowa … until he choked in a debate right before New Hampshire, pushing him all the way down to fifth there. It's at least possible that the same kind of thing could stop Trump in his tracks.
Sure enough, tonight's Fox News debate had Trump on the defense for most of the running time. The moderators explicitly debunked his claims on prescription drugs, and he didn't have a good defense. Megyn Kelly brought up the debacle that was Trump University, presenting some pretty damning material, and Trump scrambled to respond.
Then again, Trump spent the better part of one debate repeating left-wing talking points about George W. Bush's failure to prevent 9/11 and lies about Iraqi WMDs, and that seemingly didn't hurt him. He had a rough night tonight. It feels strange to dub him a winner. If it moved the dial anywhere, it probably hurt him. But in all honesty, Trump has gotten away with enough so far that the odds this debate deprives him the nomination are probably low.