Winners and Losers of the GOP Debate


Caroline Fleischhauer

It is just 96 days until voting begins in Iowa and the presidential race is officially underway. Last night’s debate was, in many ways, a turning point in the campaign: it’s time to get down to business, because there isn’t time left for mistakes, and impressive performances are more important than ever. Some candidates soared last night, others stumbled; but for all, last night’s performance came at a defining time. Here’s how the candidates did last night, and what we can expect moving forward

Jeb Bush: Arguably, Gov. Bush was the debate’s biggest loser. He needed a big win and came out with a huge loss. His attempt to appear outspoken and forceful by criticizing fellow Floridian Sen. Marco Rubio backfired spectacularly and benefited Rubio, while Jeb was left looking like an awkward desperado. He moved farther away from center stage—a symbol of his drop in the polls—and spoke for the second-least time of any candidate. The Bush campaign was in the early stages of panic before the debate, but it may have a full-on crisis now.

Ben Carson: Loser. Like Jeb Bush, Ben Carson was one of the candidates who spoke the least, and he did very little with his time. He fumbled questions on policy, most notably on his budget plan, and generally appeared slow and uninformed. His best answer undoubtedly came on his position on gay marriage, but that does little for a candidate in an economic debate whose base largely consists of evangelical Christians and whose position on gay marriage is already publicly defined by previous controversial comments in which he claimed homosexuality is a choice.

Chris Christie: Winner. Christie had a good night—he appeared forceful and got in several good lines. His admonition of moderator John Harwood drew applause in a debate in which the most raucous public support came for denunciations of the media. He stole Jeb Bush’s thunder on a question about government regulation of fantasy football and managed to frame it as another example of media failure. Coupled with the fact that his poll numbers can only go up, it was a good night for Chris Christie.

Ted Cruz: Winner. Vaunted pollster Frank Luntz reported that Sen. Cruz’s condemnation of the media earned “the highest score we’ve ever measured. EVER” in focus-group testing. A standout answer that perhaps did not get enough credit was a strong response with accurate evidence to a question on the pay gap and women’s issues. Cruz continues to successfully fashion himself the strident outsider. Whether that strategy can be successfully executed and pay off remains to be seen.

Carly Fiorina: Loser. Despite speaking the longest of any candidate, she failed to come out with any standout moments. That’s a bigger problem for Fiorina than for other candidates for two reasons, first because her campaign has branded itself as one that will grow in support with each debate as voters get to know the candidate. This means when her support fails to increase after a debate, it’s easy for the press and horse-race journalism to create a narrative that her campaign is faltering that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The second problem is that the campaign’s narrative is somewhat true—Fiorina is not as well-known a public figure as virtually anyone else on the stage with her, meaning she needs flashy moments to ensure voters remember her. Last night she came away with nothing, despite the fact that an economically-focused debate at least theoretically should have played to her strengths. She gave a composed defense of her controversial performance as HP’s CEO, but the issue promises to nag her campaign.

Mike Huckabee: Loser. Gov. Huckabee was in the bottom half of the candidates in terms of speaking time and did little with it. His emphasis on the importance of disease research may hold some value, but it is hardly an exciting position for a campaign that needs a little excitement.

John Kasich: Could go either way. Kasich has a reputation for a temper, and he certainly decided to play the role of an unwelcome realist last night that perhaps didn’t do as much good as expected. But his brand of compassionate conservatism and deep faith could still prove appealing to some voters, and his strong economic record and high popularity in Ohio, perhaps the most valuable swing state, will continue to make him a contender for a place on the ticket.

Rand Paul: Could go either way. Sen. Paul continues to fill the libertarian niche in the race, but he isn’t doing much to raise his low poll numbers. His performance won’t add fuel to recent rumors that he’s soon to drop out of the race, but it won’t do much for his numbers either.

Marco Rubio: WINNER. Senator Rubio’s performance—emphasis on performance—was nothing short of dazzling. He continues to display the political skills that have had several New York Times op-ed contributors writing since March about his strong chances at the nomination. His counterattack to Jeb Bush’s criticism of his Senate voting record was perhaps the most politically skillful event of the night and just one example of his ability to convincingly frame valid criticisms of him as ridiculous and unfair attacks. Rubio’s youth, personal background, policy experience, political skill, and home state will continue to make him a strong candidate for the nomination and in the general election.

Donald Trump: Loser. That rating might be controversial—some outlets dubbed Trump a winner. But he didn’t do much with his time, and he was much more toned down than usual. Ironically, his team’s work to transform him into a less volatile and controversial candidate capable of winning an election may prove counterproductive if Trump proves to only be interesting to voters when he’s braggadocious and offending somebody. He once again proved to be out of his depth on policy in the most policy-focused debate thus far, and moderator Becky Quick’s question on his position on H1-B visas prompted an outright lie that ran contrary to his own website’s assertions. Carson was beginning to overtake him in polls prior to the debate; could the reign of Trump finally be ending?


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