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Web Chat: Republican Primary Debates

In the October 19 web chat with POLITICO, expert Stephen Hess took your questions on the most recent Republican debate, assessing the tenor and tone of the conversation and how it might be playing out with voters. What were the candidates’ strong points? Has anyone emerged as a clear leader in the race yet?

The transcript of this web chat follows.

12:30 Vivyan Tran: Hey everyone, welcome to the chat. Let's get started!

12:31 [Comment From Matt Clark: ] In my opinion Newt Gingrich continued to sound like the most informed and capable candidate again in last night's debate. Despite the perceived baggage that will likely keep him from the oval office, do you think he'd still be a solid choice for VP?

12:32 Stephen Hess: I agree with you that Newt was one of the only people who kept his cool last night, and clearly he has given more thought to more of these questions than anyone else on the platform. But a VP candidate will be picked for what he adds to the ticket and that may be geographical, ideological, sometimes it's even personal. I don't think under any of those criteria that the person who gets the nomination, and I have to assume it will either be Romney or Perry, will see any advantage in choosing Gingrich for VP.

12:32 [Comment From Johnson L: ] The debate last night got pretty heated between Romney and Perry. Do you think their attacks on each other were effective? Or did they both just look bad?

12:33 Stephen Hess: I thought it reflected the fact that they don't much like each other. In all the previous debates, people were just giving their soundbites. Last night it was very otherwise, and they were often going for the jugular. Particularly between those two, there was something that struck me as personal. This suggests that those who were for Romney thought he did better, while those who were for Perry thought he did better.

12:33 [Comment From  Paul: ] Are there more debates than usual this year? It feels like it.

12:35 Stephen Hess: It certainly feels like it, but I read this morning that there aren't. We're barely halfway through. That was the eighth, and there will be 20, I gather, before we're finished (correct me if I'm wrong). I agreed with you up to a point on whether there have been too many. But last night convinced me that they have some real advantages over what the system would have been without them. First of all, the debates have clearly raised interest, given that audiences that used to be 3 million for a debate are now reaching 6 million. In a country where only 50% of eligible voters vote for president, I think it's quite wonderful that the debates seem to have helped to generate some real interest in politics.

12:36 Stephen Hess: Second, what would these candidates be doing if the contest wasn't focused at this point on debates? They would be having commercials on TV or running along main street shaking hands. Having commercials on TV means that only the richest ones can play the game (Romney and Perry). So I think the debates have opened up the field of candidates. For now, the clutter of candidates is useful.

12:37 Stephen Hess: So I think we are soon going to see real voters go to real polling places, rather than straw polls, and the debates will become less significant.

12:37 [Comment From  Richard: ] I'm intrigued by the huge Republican field, which seems to be an anomaly. What happened to the Republican party's usual practice of picking a consensus candidate quietly? Or was that always a myth?

12:38 Stephen Hess: Your premise is half right and half wrong historically. It is true that almost always the candidate that was really considered the establishment candidate ultimately wins. But, at this stage, a year before the election, there really are always 8, 9, 10 or a dozen people who throw their hats in the ring. Lots of people do it for reasons other than thinking that they will ultimately be the winner.

12:38 [Comment From Karen: ] Who do you think "won" the debate last night, and why?

12:40 Stephen Hess: I think it continues to be clear that Romney is the "best debater." The problem there in terms of qualifications for president is that the debates don't really test many of them. It's useful to get some taste of the personalities of these candidates and how they will respond to stress, but we simply have to keep in mind that they're not the be all and end all in terms of how you should be judging candidates for president.

12:40 [Comment From Guest: ] How did Anderson Cooper do as a moderator? There seemed to be some debate about the way he was rephrasing questions from the audience, and can anyone keep the candidates under control?

12:41 Stephen Hess: I thought he did very well. And why do I say that? It's because I could imagine myself standing on that stage with that audience in front of me and with millions of people listening and I sure know that it's an incredibly difficult job. Again, the debates are not a contest to judge the best moderator, but I do think that among those we've already seen, he gets high marks.

12:41 [Comment From Guest: ] Do you think Herman Cain has peaked?

12:43 Stephen Hess: Probably. A very engaging gentleman, and much of the early enthusiasm for him was either for him as a person or on his 9-9-9 proposal. The 9-9-9 proposal was beaten back pretty devastatingly last night by the other candidates and also by a non-partisan analysis that came out yesterday. It's going to get harder for Herman Cain as the debates turn to other subjects—like foreign policy—where he describes himself as "not knowledgeable."

12:43 [Comment From Niemela: ] Santorum seemed to be trying to make some waves... but will his performance make any sort of impact? He seems like wallpaper at this point.

12:44 Stephen Hess: I would guess that he's the next and most likely candidate to drop out of contention. He sounded awfully desperate last night and I certainly don't think the American people are looking for a desperate president.

12:44 [Comment From Nina: ] The discussion got pretty heated towards Iran. Which of these candidates do you think will have a war stance towards Iran if given the presidential power to do so?

12:45 Stephen Hess: I simply don't know from the information offered last night. It was clear that Iran was dragged into the conversation and the candidates were not focusing on it. An issue of that importance simply has to await a more thoughtful, detailed conversation.

12:45 [Comment From Karen: ] Has Jon Huntsman done irreparable damage to his campaign by boycotting last night's debate?

12:47 Stephen Hess: Jon Huntsman is a person with a wonderful resume, truly one that looks "presidential" in comparison to people who have held that office, and yet his campaign was spinning wheels. So he regrouped and is making a last stand in NH. To that degree, avoiding the Nevada appearance helped him. So the answer to your question will be decided on the day that NH settles on a primary date.

12:47 [Comment From Robert: ] Why did Bachmann bring up Obama so often? What's the thinking behind this strategy? It seemed a little off.

12:48 Stephen Hess: This was a strategy that all of the candidates started with, and some of the others last night were diverted by questions and attacks on them and their positions. But I don't think Bachmann was doing anything that was out of kilter with what Republicans are doing in regards to the 2012 election, which essentially is a referendum on Barack Obama. And by the way, whenever a president runs for reelection, it is always a referendum on the incumbent.

12:49 [Comment From Matthew: ] Do you think the more aggressive tone of last night's debate will continue or be dialed back?

12:51 Stephen Hess: If the strategists decide before the next debate that it was useful to their candidate, we'll see more of it. It's not something in which one turns on and off the switch, it's something that is determined. So we will see how sucessful each candidate and his staff felt that this aggressive tone was. There is another argument, and that is that the overall tone benefited Barack Obama. Some, particularly independents, think it's distasteful. But independents are also turned off by Obama's aggressive campaign tone through NC. So I guess I'm left with them impression that these independents, who will decide the election, are very sensitive people.

12:52 [Comment From Edie s.: ] Would you say there's a frontrunner or leader at this point? Do any of the candidates seem like they can compete with Obama?

12:54 Stephen Hess: Well, I think we can measure frontrunners in various ways. We can measure them by how well they're doing in the polls. Romney is the one who does best in head-to-head polls with Obama. We can also measure it by how well they do within their own party. There, Romney has about 25% support. You can also measure frontrunners by how much money they've raised—Romney and Perry are so far ahead of the others it's not even a contest. Romney has more, but both certainly have enough to do what they want to do. But remember, past elections have shown us that frontrunners are not necessarily inaugurated on the next January 20th at noon.

12:55 [Comment From Matthew: ] What did you think of the responses to the question asked about the "occupy wall street" protests?

12:56 Stephen Hess: While I don't remember the exact details of that question, Occupy Wall Street is an issue that Obama is riding on at the moment. It's a delicate issue. You can support the sense that there's that much frustration out there, but since the movement—like the tea party movement—is so diffused, a further endorsement may put you on the side of some very un-useful positions.

12:56 [Comment From Anton: ] Based on the barbs exchanged between Romney and Perry, one would think that immigration will be a big issue for the GOP primary. But is that really true?

12:57 Stephen Hess: Yes, I think immigration is truly a "2012" issue. Not only because of its importance and its complications, but also because of the very substantial Hispanic community within the United States. I don't think any potential candidate can slip out of taking a fairly precise stand on immigration.

12:58 [Comment From Gemmy: ] I noticed multiple candidates were chummy with Cain (even while attacking him). Romney complimenting him, Perry calling him "brother." What's the strategy behind this? Is he a viable VP choice?

1:00 Stephen Hess: I think their "chumminess" with him reflects in part that they don't see him as a serious threat. It may, in part, reflect that he is a very pleasant person. Again, I would be surprised to see Cain chosen as VP because increasingly, beyond the criteria I already stated having to do with geography and ideology, we've given the VP a more considerable role in the governmental process in Washington. Note, of course Dick Cheney, Al Gore, and Joe Biden. This is an area where Herman Cain simply has no background and cannot be useful in that role—as the liaison to the Senate, for example.

1:00 Vivyan Tran: Thanks for the great questions everyone, see you next week.

1:00 Stephen Hess: Thanks for having me!

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