What To Look For In Tonight’s Republican Debate

Two significant political events will take place during the next two days. The first is tonight’s debate at the Reagan Library featuring eight Republicans vying for their party’s presidential nomination.  The debate begins at 8 p.m. eastern time. The second is President Obama’s nationally-televised “jobs” speech, scheduled to air tomorrow at 7 p.m.

Let me focus here on the debate, and turn to the President’s speech in a separate post. Labor Day signifies that we are about halfway through the invisible primary – the roughly 10-month period in which the field of candidates that will compete in the series of caucuses and primaries is established. As always, there are two stories to follow: what the media says is happening in the nominating process, and what is actually happening.  With that in mind, let’s look at the Pollster.com composite polling date here.

The polling trends prompt at least four observations. First, despite being declared by several major news outlets as the “winner” of the first two major Republican debates – largely because he refused to engage in much give and take and thus appeared “presidential” – Mitt Romney’s polling support hasn’t inched upward at all.  Indeed, it dropped in the aftermath of Rick Perry’s entrance into the race.  This has to be somewhat troubling to Romney, particularly since he entered the race with relatively high name recognition due to his failed 2008 bid.  It suggests relatively soft support among potential voters.  Even more problematic, he does much worse in polling of registered voters, as opposed to surveys of all adults, suggesting his candidacy is actually weaker than the composite polling indicates.

In contrast, Rick Perry has shot to the top of the national polls, with a bullet, since formally entering the race. He leads Romney by 6-8% among all adults, but his lead doubles in surveys among registered voters.  Right now, in fact, if surveys are to be believed the race for the Republican nomination isn’t even close. This despite the obligatory media efforts to both a) take down the front-runner and b) to establish an unflattering candidate caricature.  In Perry’s case, the stereotype is that he is “dumb”.  This puts him in line behind a succession of stupid Republicans, dating back to Gerald Ford (really more clumsy than dumb), Ronald Reagan (described by Clark Clifford as an “amiable dunce”) and George W. Bush (“Shrub”), all of whom succeeded in becoming president despite their lack of intelligence. (Don’t get me started on Ike!) Perry has to hope he can somehow live up to his predecessors’ profound stupidness.  Tonight is as good a night as any to demonstrate that he lacks what it takes to be characterized as “smart.”  The key issue is whether Romney reacts to his lukewarm polling and decides to directly engage Perry, or insists on trying to sail above the fray. Much has been made of Perry’s “weak” debating skills, but those qualities are largely overrated in these types of events. What matters instead it if the candidate stays on message – and happens to pick the right message given the electoral fundamentals.  For Perry, that means focusing on jobs, jobs, jobs and – yes – jobs.  Avoid controversial statements, and instead reassure voters that you have a presidential temperament.

The second observation is Palin’s staying power in national polls.  Although her polling arc mimics Romney’s, she has managed to remain in the top tier of candidates despite running a somewhat unorthodox campaign to date.  Part of her polling success, of course, reflects name recognition based on her previous vice presidential run.   And she has the highest negatives of any of the Republican candidates.  Nonetheless, although she will not be participating in tonight’s debate, her presence will be felt.  And she will certainly be watching as well.

The third fact is the media-contrived story-line that Bachmann’s candidacy is weakening.  The recent reshuffling of Bachmann’s campaign staff has been interpreted by the media, not surprisingly, as an indication that her candidacy is struggling.  Never mind that it might make her stronger. In fact, next to Perry, she has come the farthest of any Republican in putting together an electoral coalition, she retains strong support within the Tea Party, and she currently has the most cash on hand of any Republican, except for Romney, among those who have filed FEC fundraising reports. (Paul has raised and spent more. Neither Perry nor Palin have filed as yet.).  And yet, because the media has difficulty handling more than three top-tier candidates, they have decided to pit Bachmann and Paul against each other for that coveted third spot (assuming Palin doesn’t announce). Let’s see if the two candidates take the bait tonight.

Finally, midway through the winnowing process, the bottom tier candidates – Cain, Gingrich, Santorum and Huntsman – are in full-blown survival mode. The danger here is that if the media decides they are not viable, it doesn’t matter how well they do in the debate. Gingrich, in my view, clearly was the strongest debater at Ames, but the media are simply not interested in his candidacy, and so his strong debate performance largely went unrewarded.  If these four don’t attract media buzz, they can’t raise money because donors largely follow the Mayor Daley adage of “don’t back no losers.”  Of this group, Huntsman seems to me to be closest to falling into the “Pawlenty of danger” zone. His effort to brand himself as the maverick “sensible” Republican hasn’t worked, I think, because it ignores a basic fact: the people he is appealing to don’t vote in Republican primaries.  Moreover, his strengths – particularly his diplomatic expertise – are not what voters are looking for during this electoral cycle. Santorum, trying to find a place in the field, seemed determined to dislodge Paul during the last debate. Let’s see if he tries to reprise that tactic, or looks to pick on someone else – such as Bachmann.

A final point – most potential voters will not pay attention to tonight’s debate, with more of them watching America’s Got Talent instead.  The debate matters much more to the issue activists, donors and media who collectively establish candidate viability during the invisible primary.  So when you evaluate the candidates’ statements, and judge winners and losers, do so in terms of these audiences, and not the general public.

If I can, I’ll try to come on later tonight with the post-mortem.


  1. Hi Matt,

    Good points here. But could you explain why the front runners among this particular group of GOP candidates keeps getting bumped by the latest candidate to announce he’s or she’s in the race. Could that be because the public simply doesn’t know the most recent candidate very well, and once they’ve heard them speak and see a bit about the campaign they look for the next boy — or girl — wonder?

    My take is that the folks being polled haven’t liked any of the front-runners so far, and eagerly jump to the newest candidate as their best hope to beat Obama. They size them up for a few weeks, get disenchanted and then look for the next one. As a tactic, Perry might be smarter than he appears just by virtue of waiting to be among the latest to announce (does that make Palin smarter than Perry — heaven forbid!)

    Now, or pretty soon, GOP activists will have to decide which one of these candidates they dislike the least… which is my point: it doesn’t appear that any of the GOP candidates have any depth of support. It’s an inch deep, and very flighty… all at the whim of how those polled feel — not think — on any given day.


  2. Angelo,

    While I think there was a great deal of dissatisfaction among Republican voters with the composition of the field early in the process, when it appeared to be Romney and the seven dwarfs, I think (and polling data suggests) that Republicans are now far more satisfied that they have real choices among solid candidates. This is party due to Perry’s entrance, but it also reflects that the fact that they’ve heard these candidates on several platforms now, and they actually are more impressive than initial media reports suggested. It is also a function, I think, of Obama’s increasing electoral vulnerability; Republicans are realizing that if they can muster support for a single candidate – almost any candidate – they will be in very good shape to retake the White House. So that’s going to up the enthusiasm level for whoever the nominee is. This is not to discount your point that there is a bit of the ‘flavor of the month” feel to this process, as the media hype and then scrutiny move to the latest entry. Perry may be benefiting – and will likely suffer – from this effect. but once the field is settled (where are you, Sarah?) I expect it will be winnowed fairly quickly and Republican support and enthusiasm will deepen for one or two (or possibly three) front-runners.

  3. These debates are looking like some kind of contest to show the world who’s the craziest candidate, like an insanity pageant. Are GOP voters THAT crazy as to vote for someone like a Rick Perry? Yes. If you could download Ghadafi’s personality into a GOP candidate, the GOP voters will go for him like a wrench toward an MRI magnet.

  4. Anon,

    For what it is worth, I suspect Republican-leaning voters have pretty much the same view toward those who supported the President. Take a look at some of the comments on the Republican leaning sites like Red State, or Michelle Malkin.

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