Kicking Off the Debate Season


Welcome to Debate Day! Finally, voters and analysts will get to see one party’s field (or at least, some of it) take the stage to duke it out in primetime. The main GOP debate participant list is set, as is that of the warm-up confab for the seven Republicans who failed to make the top 10 in an average of recent national polls (a statistically dubious criterion).

The Crystal Ball’s Kyle Kondik will be in Cleveland and tweeting observations throughout the day at @kkondik, while Larry J. Sabato (@LarrySabato) and Geoffrey Skelley (@geoffreyvs) will also be tracking both events on Thursday.

We have some short thoughts about the debate, but first we wanted to follow up on our piece last week on the lengthy history of primary debates. We knew we might overlook a debate or two while compiling our list, and it appears that we may have missed at least one — a March 5, 1972 Democratic primary debate at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. Sources conflict as to whether or not it was nationally televised — most of the debates we included aired widely — but thanks to long-time political watcher and Dallas Morning News columnist Carl Leubsdorf for alerting us to this event. The best part? He knew about the debate because he was actually there.

As for tonight’s 10-person showdown, here are a few points to ponder:

  • Kasich’s strategy worked: Most polling has long shown Gov. John Kasich (OH) to be relatively unknown, a situation familiar to many other candidates in the crowded GOP field. But Kasich would have been embarrassed to not be on the stage for the first debate because it’s taking place in Cleveland, which happens to be in the state he governs. Kasich was the second-to-last member of the 17-person Republican field to get into the race (ex-Gov. Jim Gilmore of Virginia was last), and the Kasich campaign seemingly hoped his late entry would boost his poll numbers enough to enter the top 10 just prior to the debate, assuring him a spot. Unfortunately for former Gov. Rick Perry (TX), who Kasich narrowly beat out for the final lectern, Kasich’s strategy panned out. Kasich and his allies have also devoted some early resources to television advertising in New Hampshire, and it has helped improve his standing in that important early state, too.
  • Talk about a spotlight: There is an incredible amount of attention being paid to this initial debate, and ratings should be high. It seems this is the product of two conditions: First, Republican candidates have been running for president since late March, when Sen. Ted Cruz (TX) announced his bid, so we’ve been waiting over four months for some kind of national kickoff point. Tonight’s debate fills that role, serving up a setting where the candidates actually have to engage each other in person. Second, and probably more significantly, Donald Trump’s presence has to be a media multiplier. Trump, who holds a large national polling edge over his GOP compatriots coming into the debate, has been the overwhelming focal point of campaign coverage for the last few months. Given his apolitical celebrity prior to becoming a candidate, it’s possible that there has never been someone with this much star power on a presidential debate stage. Correspondingly, we’ve heard some media outlets are devoting an incredible amount of staff to the event.
  • Speaking of Trump: We’ve been waiting for Trump’s poll numbers to come back to Earth, but so far they haven’t. Tonight may serve as something of an inflection point for his viability as a candidate. Should Trump confound expectations by being substantive and respectfully commanding on stage (while at the same time not completely losing his edginess), he may maintain his frontrunner position in the polls. But should Trump be vague in his answers, demeaning toward his opponents, and flagrantly disrespectful of the debate’s rules and conditions, he may get his polling comeuppance. Or maybe he’ll bomb — at least in the eyes of informed observers — but it won’t hurt him one bit in the short term.
  • Don’t overreact to the debate: Remember, we’re still near the beginning of the presidential primary process, and most of the country truly is not paying attention, except perhaps to Trump’s widely-reported antics. That as much as anything else probably explains his strong early polling. The Iowa caucus is tentatively scheduled for Feb. 1 — half a year away. There are lots of twists and turns to come between then and now. Nobody’s going to win the nomination tonight, although it’s not impossible to imagine a widely-covered, embarrassing mistake doing lasting damage to a candidate’s bid.