Believe it or not, I sucked it up and watched the entirety of the first Republican presidential debate in Milwaukee which took place on Wednesday night. Brendan and I are going to talk about the lead-up to this debate and how it went on our next podcast, but I want to give you some brief impressions here. As you probably know, Donald Trump opted not to participate and instead, during the debate, he aired an interview he did with Tucker Carlson on the social media site formally known as Twitter. On Thursday, he flew to Atlanta to get booked for attempting a coup. It’s the fourth time he has had to surrender to authorities this summer, and we have to consider the possibility that, despite his commanding position in the polls, one of the eight people who did participate in the debate will become the Republican Party’s presidential nominee.
I’m just gonna go across the stage from right to left, beginning with North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum. A late entry into the race, he’s sitting at zero point five percent in the FiveThirtyEight average of polls. He barely met the requirements to be a participant, and then immediately tore his Achilles tendon playing pickup basketball with his staff. I gotta give the man mad props for showing up on that bad foot and standing without assistance for two hours. On that basis alone, you could argue he won the debate. He’s probably the most normal of all the candidates but a lot like Joe Manchin of West Virginia, he’s political interests are primarily about protecting the energy producing industries which are vital to his home state. He took some shots at China and he proved he could say many words in the one minute candidates were allotted to answer questions, but his big win was simply getting his face out there because almost no one knows who he is or what he looks like. I imagine his polling might quadruple, which would give him the support of two out every hundred Republicans.
Next to Burgum was South Carolina U.S. Senator Tim Scott, and I have him pegged as the biggest loser of the night. I just couldn’t figure out what strategy he was pursuing. I wrote about his “betting everything on Iowa” strategy on Monday, and he obliged by getting pretty churchy at times to appeal to Iowa’s evangelical base, but frankly Mike Pence is better at that smarmy and sanctimonious schtick and it showed. Scott is actually kind of a normie compared to the average Republican these days and certainly a moderate on racial issues, and he wants to push more of a optimistic Reaganesque message which really can make him stand out from the crowd. But his biggest moment came when he promised to complete Trump’s laughing stock of a border wall. I guess he wants to pick up Trump supporters with that nonsense, but it seemed pretty far off brand for what he needs to do. He came in with a 3.7 percent polling average and I’m not sure it will improve. It didn’t help that he probably got the least amount of airtime.
Former South Carolina governor and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley seemed to be the favorite of the post-debate punditry on CNN and MSNBC but I think that’s more a reflection of their thirst of a non-crazy Republican than an astute measure of her performance. She definitely made her presence known, however, and she stood out not only as the only woman on the stage but as a forceful defender of an internationalist and active foreign policy. She also posed as a moderate and reasonable vote on abortion even as she said she supported the South Carolina Supreme Court’s ruling, which came earlier in the day, in favor of a six-week ban. Still, for Republican women (and men who love women) who don’t support Dobbs, Haley made herself the clear choice. I don’t know that that wins her more votes than it loses, but it might help in contests where independents can participate.
Next to Haley was Vivek Ramaswamy, and I personally felt like he had a terrible night. His policy positions were stupid and I thought he was on losing end of several exchanges with other candidates and was just generally annoying. But on reflection, I wondered if his clown-show act was exactly the kind of thing Republican voters now crave. He was the strongest supporter of Trump on the stage and pushed an extreme form of isolationism. One post-debate focus group of Republicans I saw had Ramaswamy as the clear winner. I didn’t see it that way, but he probably will see an uptick in the polls where he was already sitting at 10.3 percent, and that’s a win.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s campaign hyped the fact that he would be everybody’s punching bag, but that turned out to be the man he was sharing center-stage with, Ramaswamy. The post-debate consensus appeared to be that this was bad news for DeSantis because it meant he was considered irrelevant by his rivals. But that’s absurd. DeSantis came in at 14.8 percent in the average of polls, clearly in second place to Trump. It’s not a bad thing that his opponents let him off easy, Without getting into detail, I thought DeSantis had a strong debate performance. I don’t care for his message and nearly every response he gave started with “America is in decline.” But I think that message resonates with Republicans, and if they have to choose someone other than Trump, DeSantis is well positioned. A Washington Post/FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll says DeSantis won the debate, and that’s consistent with what I saw.
The only other contender for best debate performance, in my view, was former vice-president Mike Pence. Now, poll respondents had Pence in fourth place, but considering that he’s become persona non grata (4.2 percent in the average of polls) in TrumpWorld, that’s a remarkable finish. This is a guy the base wanted to hang, and he’s in the top half. Pence’s big accomplishment was getting everyone on stage to agree that he was right to recognize Biden’s victory and follow the Constitution. But he also just comes off as more presidential than the others, and he’s more confident on the stage than he used to be. He worst moments for me were probably good moments if the goal is to win over Iowa evangelicals, so I think he had made a lot of progress.
Chris Christie is always entertaining but he’s there to bash Trump, not to win. That’s admirable but he should stick to the job rather than saying he’d put Hunter Biden in jail for ten years on his gun charge. He mixed it up with Ramaswamy a bit but he was a disappointment. He came in with 3.5 percent, and only one percent named him at the debate winner.
Former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson is likewise there to bash Trump and he did a far better job of it because he talked about the 14th Amendment barring Trump from being on the ballot and predicted that the issue would end up at the Supreme Court where Trump might well lose. It was important to get that message across. Hutchinson barely qualified for the debate, but he kicked ass as a Never Trumper, and he’ll probably get a tiny bump and some financial encouragement to keep going. On the merits, Hutchinson might be the strongest general election candidate of the eight, but so what?
Anyway, more soon on the podcast.