For our review of the third Republican presidential debate, held last night in Boulder, we attempted to answer four questions:
- Which establishment candidate did the best?
- Which candidate is most likely to drop out next?
- Who is the real frontrunner now?
- Who in the undercard belong in the premier debate, and vice versa?
We sort of stuck with the format.
Who did the best?
Rubio, by default. Kasich's canned lines missed, and Bush failed to connect. By the way, "I don't want to regulate fantasy football because my team's awesome" is not a winning answer, but let's apply that logic to global warming: How about, "I'm the only candidate on this stage who is committed to solving global warming because my house is only 10 feet above sea level and the sea's a-risin'."
Who's next to drop out?
My formula: Pr(keep running) = pr(win)*(running to win). That is, candidates who are running for the fun of it (or the attention, or the future Fox News gig) are likely to stay in regardless of how low they are in endorsements/polls/fundraising. It's the candidates who are running to win and most clearly not winning who drop out. Error term: At the margin they might also think about who gains from their departure, so Santorum/Huckabee might worry that their support would go to Ted Cruz.
So: Santorum, Jindal, Christie. It has to be soon, or they might as well stay until Iowa. Jeb is fading but still has enough support that it would be premature to drop out. Like Peyton Manning, it's too late to quit because you aren't at the top of your game.
Who's the real frontrunner?
If I were a GOP insider deciding who to endorse/donate to, I think it's going to narrow down to Rubio versus Cruz. I think Rubio wins that contrast once more GOP senators weigh in.
So it turns out Marco Rubio isn't spending a lot of time on the Senate floor these days since he's running for president. So he's missed a lot of votes. And one of the zingeriest zingers last night was Jeb Bush backing up the Florida Sun-Sentinel criticism of Rubio for missing those votes.
Let's be clear about something: Missing votes is not a problem.
The United States Senate has been around for two and a quarter centuries. In that time, the Senate has figured out some ways to manage absences. One is the convention of pairing, where two senators who cannot be present for a vote but who plan on voting on opposite sides of the issue both agree not to vote. And even when that won't work, the Senate leadership spends a lot of time figuring out how each vote is going to go. Since most votes are party-line votes, this isn't too hard. And if the vote is going to be close, they work hard to make sure that every senator is there to vote. But if it's not gong to be close, then not voting doesn't change the outcome.
Now, the Sun-Sentinel could legitimately complain that Rubio isn't doing all other work that a senator should be doing, like sponsoring legislation, lining up support for bills, and negotiating language in bills. But that hasn't been the argument.
In a world where candidates need to do what Rubio is doing if they want to be president, then it is silly to complain about candidates responding to those incentives.
Who did the best?
Again with the winning. Okay, got that out of my system. Rubio demonstrated a knack for turning questions around in a way that didn't seem completely forced, and allowed him to stress key talking points and present himself in a sympathetic light. This makes the audience feel like they're watching a skilled debater, which I guess is sort of loosely associated with other presidential qualities. But Rubio stood out in another way from Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and Mike Huckabee. He didn't accidentally stumble into talking points about regulating fantasy sports, or inequality. He didn't sound like he was desperately trying to follow the logic of his own points — the Social Security debate went around and around without ever trying to reconcile its competing premises: that Social Security is an important form of social support, and that government revenue collection is theft. Rubio, like a good debater, kept control of the logic behind his talking points most of the time. The major exception to this was immigration, when it wasn't clear how his family's story would fit into the priorities for immigration that he described. That's a big exception. But I would still award him high marks for avoiding dissonance between big ideas and specific policy prescriptions.
The other candidate whose performance stood out a bit was Chris Christie, who jumped in to correct Bush about the wisdom of regulating fantasy sports. He inhabited his "tough message, straight talk" role well, and the line about government theft of Social Security will probably resonate with the target audience. But I thought Christie did well in the last one, too, and it didn't make a difference.
Who is the real frontrunner now?
If you have to ask, there is no frontrunner.
Who in the undercard belonged in the premier debate, and vice versa?
I didn't watch. I had official responsibilities associated with my actual job, and I hear the political internet is pretty down on people who shirk their job responsibilities these days.
Between the World Series and the airing on CNBC, ratings were probably off for this debate. So the impact will be strongest among elites. After his disastrous performance, Jeb Bush has likely suffered a grievous blow to his chances. Donors and activists may start abandoning a campaign that they see as a sinking ship. Not only did Marco Rubio easily dispatch Jeb's "French workweek" attack, he also showed an ability to answer the question he wanted, rather than the question he was asked, which is always a good skill in debates. Ted Cruz demonstrated that no one can pander better to the Republican base than he can (he also blatantly wooed Rand Paul's remaining followers, presumably on the assumption that Paul will quit the race soon). I don't think any of the other candidates affected their chances much. Donald Trump actually appeared subdued for once. Ben Carson seemed out of his depth on policy, but he always does, and his supporters love him anyway. John Kasich's Huntsman Unleashed act may not appeal to many Republicans.
Who in the undercard belong in the premier debate, and vice versa?
I'd like to suggest a swap between the undercard and the top tier debates: Lindsey Graham for Jeb Bush. Graham stood out in the undercard debate for having forceful and lively answers to questions and consistently steering questions toward his area of expertise: national security. He was funny, gracious, and interesting. That is, he was everything Bush was not. Bush failed to have a single memorable moment in this debate, and at times seemed almost to be trying to fulfill Donald Trump's worst caricatures of him.
So far in this process, the debate hosts have assigned candidates to the top and bottom tiers by their poll standing. This is certainly understandable, as it's a reasonably clear and transparent metric, but of course poll standing in October tells us very little about who's likely to actually win the nomination, who would be a strong candidate against the Democratic nominee next fall, or who would even be a good debater.
From what we know about how the nomination process works, Bush is still a strong contender. He's got the bulk of support among those Republican officeholders who have endorsed in the presidential race, and even though his fundraising is faltering right now, he certainly has access to wealthy donors who know that Republicans tend to win when they nominate Bushes. As Jeb's brother and father proved, one can win office without being a great speaker or debater.
But the patience of Bush's backers is not infinite. Unless he can demonstrate that he's good at some aspect of this, and pretty soon, party insiders will likely start looking for another horse. I say send him down to the minors, where he can work on his skills.