The Real Winners And Losers In Last Night’s Debate

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.



  1. I must be smarter than I thought I was. I am the Hillary gal….want her to challenge Obama…but I appar to be getting nowhere. Watching the debates last night I was very impressed with Newt and Huntsman. They are the only two who stood out IMHO. Can´t believe I am saying that about Newt and don´t know much about Huntsman but he certainly appears to have many more credentials than Obama did. I like the fact that he has lived abroad and been Governor of a state. I´d like to know more about him…..but I guess it doesn´t matter.

    Obama has lost any respect I had for him….big jobs speech playing at 4 PM in California. Smart guy!


  2. Sally,

    There is an argument to be made – and Huntsman is making it – that in the general election he can attract independents and Democrats like you who are disillusioned with Obama. The problem for him is making it to the general election!

    In Obama’s defense, California has drifted into the safe Democratic column in recent presidential elections, so I’m guessing he figures it is better to schedule a 4 p.m. talk there than it is to go head to head with pro football.

  3. Ok Matt,

    Then 5 PM in the mountain states or 6 PM CST….not a time when most professionals are in front of the tv……

    Did you hear Cheny´s latest remarks about Hillary?

  4. I did indeed – according to the former VP, she is one of the more competent members of the President’s cabinet. Not surprisingly, Cheney is encouraging Hillary to run, but probably not for the same reasons you are!

  5. Hi Professor,

    Sorry I may be a bit biased as a Mitt Romney backer, but wasn’t that initial exchange about job creation a bit silly? After all, Texas has a population almost four times the size of Massachusetts, so how does comparing the number of jobs created by Perry to Romney apples to apples? Not only that, Romney left Massachusetts with an unemployment rate just above 4%… isn’t that as close to full employment as an economy can realistically get? Not only can circa 4% not be considered even remotely close to a jobs-need crisis, but I think most other governors would drool to get their unemployment down to that figure in any economic climate.

    Not to mention, each state is unique from one another, and again, comparing the number of jobs created from one state to another, at different periods of time no less, seems to be nothing short of futile (and let’s not forget, governors really have no control over the unemployment rate anyways…). I did think it was pretty funny when Romney compared Perry’s boast over jobs in Texas to Al Gore claiming the internet… just one of many points where I think Romney trumped Perry. But admittedly, I am a little biased.

    Anyways, I would be interested to hear your thoughts on that entertaining exchange.


  6. Professor Dickinson,

    Do you see Huntsman as a possible Vice Presidential Candidate if the Republican nominee is the more conservative Perry? While I know that the VP slot has very little influence on a voter’s decision, a Perry/Huntsman ticket seems like it would appeal to tea partiers, Christian conservatives, and Independents. Plus no one would challenge Huntsman’s ability to step in and do the job like the way they did with Palin.

  7. Owen,

    Huntsman as VP is certainly possible but not very likely in my view. Much depends on who is elected, and what s/he perceives s/he needs in terms of the VP not just electorally – although this is the most important consideration – but also in office. Biden didn’t bring much in terms of electoral votes, but he did compensate a bit for Obama’s perceived inexperience. So alot depends on what Huntsman is perceived to bring that other potential vp candidates cannot. I’d see a Perry-Romney ticket as more likely right now.

  8. Tom,

    I don’t know if the exchange was silly. Perry’s strong point is his jobs record which is exactly the theme Romney was pushing before Perry entered the race. so it is inevitable that they will spar over who has the stronger record. Of course, as you point out, the exchange is substantively dubious for all sorts of reasons, including the ones you point out. For starters, they governed at different times – Perry took office during a recession, Romney during a boom. I could go on, but your point is right: the comparison is difficult to evaluate. Politically, however, it is the key to both candidacies, and thus has to be made, and will continue to be made. Note that I thought both Romney and Perry did well overall.

  9. I was left with th impression that NBC and POLITICO are in love with Huntsman. He got a lot of face time.

    They set the standard to participate at 4% in a national poll. I think Huntsman only got that number in one poll. He barely registers in the other polls that have been released.

    They pretty much ignored Herman Cain.

  10. I think you are right. Huntsman has always been something of a media darling, despite the lack of evidence that he has broad-based support among Republican voters. To journalists, he seems “reasonable” compared to what they perceive as the other Republican troglodytes.

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