With the latest Gallup polling showing Obama’s support at its lowest among whites, Hispanics and blacks, last night’s Republican debate took on added significance, particularly since it was the first to include purported front-runner Rick Perry. Because the media has anointed itself as kingmaker, it is useful to see how the leading pundits scored last night’s debate, and compare that to how the candidates’ actually did (in my humble opinion). Significant differences often indicate where the winnowing is likely to take place. Keep in mind that these debates typically tell us more about media preferences than about how likely voters actually feel about the candidates. But this is important, since media preferences shape coverage, particularly in determining candidate viability, and that is a major factor in winnowing the candidate pool during this period.
Of course, the major news focus was on the Romney-Perry clash. Because scoring a debate is a highly subjective process, pundits tended to pick the winner of this clash to be the one who was closest to the media outlets’ general ideological leaning; conservatives (see here and here ) thought Perry came out ahead, while liberal/moderates outlets (see here) gave the nod to Mitt. This says less about how these two actually did than it does about the preferences of these particular media outlets. In truth, neither did much to damage their candidacy, which in the end is probably a slight victory for Perry, since he is now the de facto frontrunner, and this is his first time on the national stage.
To be sure there will be the usual tsk-tsk’ing among the chattering class about Perry’s description of Social Security as a “ponzi” scheme. When he first made this claim, analysts chided him for this supposed gaffe. To his credit, Perry ignored them and came right back with the same claim last night. When Republican-leaning voters hear Perry’s claim, they know immediately what he is saying – that the program is underfunded. Let others debate the finer points of what a ponzi scheme really is – as a short-hand reference to the sorry state of Social Security funding, the phrase works.
The biggest loser in last night’s debate? If the media is to be believed, it was Michele Bachmann. Never mind that her performance was almost identical, in terms of talking points, presentation, poise, and any other criteria you can think of, to her two earlier and highly praised debate performances in New Hampshire and Iowa. With Perry’s entrance into the race, the media has decided she must be winnowed, and they are well on their way to doing that. She has been hammered in the last week for her “stall” in the polls and the shakeup in her campaign team and despite another strong performance last night, the media reacted with a dismissive wave.
But Bachmann’s reviews were positively sterling compared to poor Newt Gingrich’s. If debates were scored on the basis of a candidate’s substantive knowledge about important issues and proposed solutions, Newt Gingrich would be leading the polls. It is easy to forget, with all the anti-Newt media caricatures floating around, just how much leadership experience on the national stage this guy has, how knowledgeable he is, and how he generally runs circles around his media interlocutors. Alas, if you read today’s news accounts, you wouldn’t know Gingrich even participated in last night’s debate. The media has written him off, which says more about them than it does about his qualifications for the presidency.
Jon Huntsman, meanwhile, has been relegated to “best friend” status. The pundits all included a paragraph that praised his likeability, his informed opinions and his moderate stances on the issues, and then proceeded to reiterate that he has no chance of winning. In the end, Jon won’t get the girl, but he gets to pal around with the leading man.
Nor did much happen last night to brighten the electoral fortunes of Rick Santorum, Herman Cain or Ron Paul. All acquitted themselves well – Paul in particular was his usual lucid self in justifying his libertarian stance on a number of issues – but there are simply too many candidates on the dais for the media to cover and they have already decided, by dint of scant news coverage, that these three must go.
There you have it. These same Republicans – at least most of them – will square off again next week in Tampa, Florida, another key battleground state. By then, of course, the President will have announced his latest jobs plan, which will undoubtedly provide fresh fodder for the debaters. But what will the President say – and will it make any difference? I’ll try to address that topic in my next post.