The first Republican primary debate of the season was the most-watched primary debate ever, and Fox News’s highest rated program ever, thanks in large part to Donald Trump. And while the candidates were remarkably unwilling to take on Trump (who currently leads in national polls), the Fox News moderators weren’t. Fox surely appreciates the extra eyeballs Donald is bringing to the nominating process, but they aren’t loving what he’s doing to the GOP brand.
The moderators went after Trump for not ruling out a third party bid, for all the horrible things he’s said about women, and for the number of times one of his companies has declared bankruptcy. And he probably still would have come out of it ok, if not for his post-debate remarks about Fox moderator Megyn Kelly.
Of the top tier candidates, Jeb! and Rubio looked like scared little kids at the beginning of the debate, but Rubio started to warm up after delivering a couple nervous but effective answers. Jeb! never really warmed up. Scott Walker had one objective: convince a sympathetic audience that he doesn’t just have the conservative resume everyone loves, he’s also not nearly as boring as everyone says. And on that score, he made some interesting points about his love of Reagan andzzzzzzzzzz. Maybe next time, champ.
As for the rest of the field, Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee tried to say crazy things to get attention, but everyone was more interested in watching Trump take on Fox News, or Chris Christie and Rand Paul almost come to blows over surveillance and national security.
Fox analysts insisted that after Fiorina’s stellar performance in the undercard debate, we will be hearing a lot more from her (maybe as a potential VP or cabinet nominee). And of course if by stellar they mean performed better than Rick Perry, who couldn’t even get Ronald Reagan’s name right during the undercard, then it would be difficult to argue that point.
To echo Matt Yglesias, this was one of the least boring debates I’ve ever seen. It was tense and exciting, with a number of frank exchanges peppered in among the canned responses you most often see at these events. That’s partly because candidates know they have to take some risks to stand out among 17 contenders. And partly it’s because we’ve never seen anything quite like Donald Trump.
We know he’s a shameless loudmouth, appealing to low-information conservative voters who are anti-establishment and anti-immigrant. But I think he’s also demonstrating how ineffective typical political rhetoric is at connecting with audiences. A lot of presidential hopefuls are proposing the policy prescriptions that many Tea Party voters want. But they aren’t talking about them in a way that gets those voters excited. And Trump’s popularity may be ephemeral, media-driven, or based on little more than name recognition. But however fleeting it is, what does it say about the Republican party that at this moment, he is the best they think they can do?