Tag Archives: Republican debate

The Donald, Debates and Those Smug Political Scientists

It has become increasingly clear to me that beyond the uptick he has caused in their respective audiences, political pundits are enjoying Donald Trump’s ascendancy in the polls not least because they believe it exposes political scientists’ inability to explain the 2015-16 presidential electoral dynamics. As @JGreenDC recently tweeted, “[t]he most pleasurable part of this campaign cycle is that traditional insiders don’t have any idea what’s going on and they’re losing cachet.” By “traditional insiders” the pundits mean – as this Josh Barro tweet suggests – my arrogant political scientist colleagues! Barro tweets: “My favorite part is watching smug political scientists be dumbfounded.”  (Me?  Smug?  I’m sure Barro was referring to others in the profession. After all, only one pundit has blocked my twitter feed…..so far.)

However, as I discovered in an interview last week on Ari Melber’s Let’s Talk radio show, a post I wrote for US News in mid-August headlined “Do the Rules Apply to Donald?” may have inadvertently contributed to the perception that political scientists are baffled by Trump’s staying power. In asking me to explain Trump’s position atop the polls, Melber pointed out that in the article I noted that the duration of Trump’s front-runner status already far exceeded that experienced by the four Republicans – Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and Herman Cain – who spent a significant period leading the polls in the 2012 Republican race. On average, their period of discovery, scrutiny and, eventually, a polling decline lasted about two months. Trump, in contrast, has been leading polls going on four months, with no clear sign of a polling decline as yet.

As I conceded to Melber, when The Donald announced his candidacy last July, I did not anticipate that he would remain atop the polls for this long. (Nor, I suspect, did many of my colleagues). But this doesn’t mean we are clueless when it comes to understanding why he has remained the front-runner for so long. As I wrote in July soon after Trump began his meteoric rise in the polls, his candidacy was being fueled by a media that found his controversial, over-the-top rhetoric impossible to ignore.  I concluded that post by writing, “The sooner the media begins evaluating The Donald on the details of his policies and his governing expertise, rather than on his deliberately provocative comments designed to mobilize a disaffected public, the sooner The Donald’s political bubble is likely to burst. Alas, I have little confidence that most journalists, in this era of dwindling audiences and shrinking profit margins, will be able to resist taking the easy road by dismissing The Donald as a serious candidate. To date, it is a media strategy that has The Donald laughing all the way to the top of polls.”

In retrospect, where I miscalculated was in not fully believing my own prediction; clearly I underestimated the media’s willingness to resist The Donald’s ability to dictate his press coverage. It turns out that pundits have found it impossible not to report on Trump’s rhetorical excesses, even as they chide themselves for doing so. As John Sides demonstrates, The Donald’s standing in the polls closely tracks the amount of media coverage he has received; as coverage goes up, so does his standing in the polls.

Note that it hardly matters whether the coverage is negative or not – as Sides indicates, it is not as if the media has refrained from criticizing The Donald for his often intemperate remarks. But that simply provides him with more free publicity, which seems to boost his polling support.

So what, if anything, will cause Trump to drop out of the top polling spot? The simple answer is that it will require someone more newsworthy to begin to eat into his media coverage.  For what it is worth, for the first time in months someone other than Trump – in this case Ben Carson – landed atop a recent national poll, although it may be too early to read much into this. This one poll notwithstanding, Trump remains in the lead based on aggregate polling.

And it would not be surprising if Trump gets a temporary polling boost based on tonight’s Republican debate due to the renewed media focus on his candidacy. Of course, that depends in part on whether the media finds someone other than Trump’s performance even more newsworthy. In this respect, tonight offers one of the few remaining opportunities for underfunded candidates, such as John Kasich or Marco Rubio, who are currently trying to break out as the alternative to Trump, to take advantage of the free media and have their Carly Fiorina debate moment. Fiorina, you will recall, saw her polling numbers blip upward after each of the first two Republican debates in which she participated although she has found it difficult to maintain that momentum. For those like Jeb Bush who have the resources to play a long game based on winning delegates, on the other hand, tonight’s debate may be less crucial, at least in the short run. Still, he undoubtedly wants to perform well if for no other reason than to stem the spate of stories citing his recent staff cutbacks, and his consultation with “Mommy and Daddy” Bush, as evidence that his candidacy is in trouble.

I suspect the immediate media focus tonight, given recent polls, will be on Ben Carson. It will be interesting to see how much the CNBC moderators John Harwood, Becky Quick and Carl Quintanilla focus their critical questions on the Good Doctor, given some of his recent statements equating abortion with slavery and linking gun control to the Holocaust. You will recall that Jake Tapper spent much of his time moderating the first CNN Republican debate by trying to goad the candidates into personally attacking one another, while the Fox crew focused much more on substantive policy differences. Let’s hope we don’t see a repeat of Tapper’s strategy.

As always, I’ll be live blogging the main debate, beginning shortly before it gets started at 8 p.m. EDT on CNBC. (Alas, it is not showing on any over-the-air broadcast channels.) Ten candidates will participate in the grownup event, while the remaining four – Lindsey Graham, Bobbie Jindal, George Pataki, and Rick Santorum, hold their own “kiddie” discussion at 6 p.m. I hope you can join in by posting comments at this site – it is always more fun with some audience participation. Just post in the comment box, or hit the twitter follow button at the top of the page.

See you at 7:45!

It All Comes Down To Tonight

Put out the dog.  Get a sitter for the kids.  Heat up the popcorn, and ice down the beer.  Tonight’s CNN debate – the 20th of the campaign season – is slated to start in less than an hour.  And it may be the biggest one so far.  The debate comes less than a week before primaries in Arizona and Michigan, and polls in both states indicate close races between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum.  One week after that, it’s March 6 – Super Tuesday – when Newt Gingrich hopes to resurrect (once again!) his campaign with a strong performance in the southern tier of states holding primaries that day. Ron Paul, meanwhile, continues his strategy of picking up delegates, piecemeal, as he continues his slow (very, very slow) slog toward the convention.

So what do the candidates have to do?  For Mitt and Rick, this is a high stakes event. Despite his surge in the polls since his three-state victories in early February, Santorum has yet to prove that he can win in a high turnout state. His best chance to do so may be Michigan, where he is running neck-and-neck with Mitt, and where his brand of economic populism may play well.  He is undoubtedly going to be pressed on some of his more strident comments that have been resurrected in recent days (Is that you….Satan?) I don’t expect him to back away from his socially conservative views, particularly since several social issues, including Obama’s effort to find a compromise with religious organizations on funding for contraception, are sure to be raised tonight but he may seek to repackage them in a softer, kinder manner.

Mitt, meanwhile, released a more detailed tax plan today, the first step in a strategy designed to return the campaign toward the economic issues where he feels more comfortable, and which he sees as his strength. (It’s also an effort to trump the President’s own corporate tax plan, which he released earlier today.) Romney is slated to give a major economic speech later this week, and I expect him to preview that in tonight’s debate.  Because immigration is such a big issue in Arizona, I also think Mitt will reiterate his hard line on illegal immigration, which may set up a reprise of the Mitt-hiring-illegals snafu we saw raised in an earlier debate.  I expect him to try to throw Rick’s Senate record back against him, particularly key votes on spending bills, in an effort to present him as another Washingtonian who couldn’t rein in spending.  Look for Mitt to try to do to Rick what he did to Newt in Florida – bear down with a steady barrage of criticisms citing Rick’s Senate record.

Keep in mind that Newt Gingrich, having already written off Arizona and Michigan, is gearing tonight’s performance to Super Tuesday.  That means making the case to Tea party conservatives and evangelicals that he, and not Santorum, best represents their views. He needs to regain his policy mojo as the man with comprehensive, yet simple, solutions to the nation’s problems.  In recent days he been pinning his comeback on energy policy, and I expect him to stress that quite a bit during the debate.  Which Newt will we see tonight?  The media-baiting, elite-hating, policy-stating, stage-dominating Newt who clearly won most of the early debates, or the I’m-not-bold, I’m-just-old Newt who fizzled in the Florida debate?  This may be his last chance to use the debates to reignite his campaign.  Indeed, it may be the last time we see him in a debate, period, pending the Super Tuesday results.

Finally, Ron Paul, who has seen a bit of the luster of his candidacy wear off after disappointing caucus performances, is hoping a strong performance will help build a bit of momentum heading into Super Tuesday.

CNN’s John King, who inadvertently ignited Newt’s campaign in the debate prior to South Carolina by asking about Gingrich’s ex-wife, will be moderating tonight’s event.  We can only hope that similar Newtonian moment takes place.  Even without that, this promises to be a no-holds-barred event. The one question I do have is how many people are still tuning into these debates.  It’s been almost a month since the last one, so I suspect the viewing audience will be large, but I can’t be certain.

No matter. Sit back and enjoy.  I’ll be back on live blogging in a bit.  As always, I invited you to join in view the comments sections.

Let the Games Begin!

Previewing Tonight’s Debate: Can Newt Rush The Republican Fraternity? Cue Dorfman!

Last May Newt Gingrich’s announcement that he was running for president set off a wave of media criticism which collectively suggested his candidacy was D.O.A.   The withering attacks by press and pundits reminded me of how the members of Delta House reacted when Kent “Flounder” Dorfman’s face went on the screen as a prospective pledge:

Now that I think of it, Newt looks a little like Dorfman.  But I digress.  At the time, (in true Otter fashion!), I wrote a blog post suggesting that the experts’ efforts to dismiss Gingrich’s candidacy were premature. In my words: “At this point, however, Republican presidential candidates are not trying to beat Obama – they are trying to beat other Republicans.   To do so, they need to survive the invisible primary – the period from now until the start of the actual nomination process in early 2012.  That requires staying within the top tier of candidates, as identified by the media, for the next nine months…There’s no reason to suggest Gingrich can’t stay within the top 2-4 candidates based on these criteria. Then comes the actual nominating process, beginning most likely with Iowa and New Hampshire.  Can Gingrich do well in these contests?  At this point, it is impossible to say.  But his chances are no worse than any of the other major Republican candidates….  Looking ahead to Iowa, with Huckabee out, Gingrich is likely to be among the top three candidates at this point, and if he comes out of there no lower than third he has a good shot of being competitive in New Hampshire.”

I concluded: “In short, it is far too early to dismiss Gingrich’s candidacy based on the initial bumps on which the media has focused so heavily. Contrary to Charles Krauthammer’s prognosis, Gingrich remains very much a viable candidate.  And, if things get tough, he can always call on Shakespeare’s Second Witch, whose incantations proved fatal to another national leader:

“Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork, and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg, and howlet’s wing,–
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.”

Powerful trouble?  But for whom?  Stay tuned.”

At the time, much like Otter’s defense of Dorfman, my post received the online version of a flurry of beer cans. Six months later, however,  it looks like a post written by a smart Delta House rush chairman (“damned glad to meet you”). But if I proved prescient last May in warning against dismissing Gingrich’s candidacy, I would be lying if I said I knew he would be leading the pack come mid-December, and that it would be Newt – and not Mitt – who has the greater chance of closing this nomination race out early. (And don’t get me started on my Rick Perry prediction….)

With just a few hours to go before tonight’s latest, and most important, Republican debate (and I’ll be live blogging it at 9 eastern time), it’s worth analyzing why Newt is leading the pack to head Delta House…er…win the Republican nomination. In a word, it is the debates.  In this excellent Newsweek article chronicling his comeback, Gingrich acknowledges that his rise was based largely on his debate performance, combined with a good deal of luck in the questions, and questioners, he received during the early debates.  Gingrich recognized early on that the audience for these debates consisted not of party leaders and opinion makers, but of disaffected rank-and-file Republicans who were the vanguard of the Tea Party movement. And when he took on Chris Wallace for the tone of his question during an early debate –  he chided Wallace for asking a “Mickey Mouse” question about Newt’s staff leaving him and received thunderous applause – Gingrich had the good sense to realize that attacking the media, and not fellow Republicans, was his route to the top.

But it took more than this. In most years, Newt would still have been shut out of the Delta House pledge process. But he benefitted this election cycle by the proliferation of Republican debates.  Much like Obama, who in 2008 was forced to use caucuses to attract delegates and much needed media coverage because he couldn’t beat Clinton in the big primary states, Gingrich made a virtue  of necessity by using the debates to force the media to provide coverage of him that he couldn’t afford to buy on his own.  But this strategy required multiple debates, and the cooperation of the other candidates.  And they did cooperate.  Romney once again proved unable to demonstrate to Republicans that he possesses any sense of authenticity. The early not-Romney candidates faltered under the unyielding glare of the media spotlight. Meanwhile, Newt remained just under the radar, blasting the media, adhering to Reagan’s 11th amendment, and drawing on his years of experience and policy wonkiness to climb to the top of the polls.

Newt’s rise is a reminder why the nominating process is so unpredictable, and why pundits were wrong to write him off.  Simply put, unlike the general election race, political scientists can’t really use previous nomination races as a basis for predicting what will happen this time around.  There are simply too many changes – in candidates, but also in venues, and rules and other institutional factors, to think that today’s nominating contest will follow the patterns of previous ones.  Whenever a book or article comes out presuming to be the definitive work explaining how the nominating process works – the party decides! – events invariably prove that the conventional wisdom is outdated. To be sure, there are some basic rules of thumb that seem to hold for most nominations most of the time, but these aren’t really precise enough to generate accurate predictions very early in the game. Remember – I said not to dismiss Newt. I didn’t say he’d win.

And that leads to tonight’s critical debate.  The media, finally, recognizes what you have heard from me for several weeks now: that Newt’s candidacy is for real, and that his support is not going to follow the same arc we saw with Bachmann, Cain and Perry.  This is not to say that the Republican Party establishment and opinion makers are happy with Newt’s ascendancy – they continue to predict his imminent demise and they are actively working to make that happen.   They may yet succeed. But if it Newt’s candidacy does implode, I predict it will have little to do with issues related to Newt’s personal “baggage”.  As I noted in an earlier post, even social conservatives are focused on the economy in this election cycle, and not on cultural issues.  And Newt’s skeletons have long since been exhumed from the closest.  If Bill Clinton’s bimbo eruptions couldn’t derail his presidential bid (or even his presidency – remember, he was most popular during the impeachment and Senate trial), I doubt Gingrich’s personal travails will be his downfall.  Nor do I think the ethics charges, or the Fannie Mae lobbying, or the money he earned after leaving politics, is going to matter very much to rank-and-file Republicans seeking to beat Obama.

No, if Gingrich is to fall, the other Republican candidates – especially Romney – must work to topple him. That means stepping up tonight to begin pressuring Gingrich on his publicly espoused policy views which are both all over the place and in many instances very moderate.   For example, wasn’t he for global warming before he was against it (and what about that Pelosi ad)?  What are his views on immigration?  Newt has a rich and quite public policy record, and Republicans should have a field day pointing out inconsistencies tonight. They need to target Newt and keep him on the defensive for the full hour. It will help that there are only six candidates in the mix tonight.

These attacks, however, likely won’t be enough on their own to bring Newt down.  For that to occur, Newt has to make a slip or two in reaction to the pressure. He has to stumble, either by twisting himself into a policy conundrum or lashing out at his accusers (Stop lying about my record!) or both.  And this is where it gets interesting: has Newt really matured?  Is this the new Newt – wiser, more humble, and more thoughtful – that has been advertised?  Have the years in the political wilderness really mellowed him?  Is Callista a calming presence? Has Catholicism changed his moral compass?

Tonight, I expect the sharpest exchange of views in a Republican debate so far, and the most focused attack on Newt and his record.   And what does Newt think of all this?   I have to believe he’s thinking this:

Tonight. National television on ABC at 9 o’clock: the Delta House pledges convene once more.  Don’t miss it.  And remember, I’m not making any predictions – but Republicans need the dues.



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.