Several candidates did well tonight: Donald Trump, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio (more on them later). But what was most remarkable tonight was who lost—and what that means.
Jeb Bush: Despite being the son and brother of U.S. presidents, Jeb Bush looks ever uncomfortable on stage. Every answer he gave tonight sounded like a student-actor unsure if he said his lines right in a high school production of Our Town. Coincidentally, that play is about a town in New Hampshire, profiling how people change over time and eventually meet their demise. Jeb Bush has had his run—even in New Hampshire—and now it’s time to call it a day.
Bush had so much opportunity, so much funding, a strong resume, and institutional backing. Yet, he squandered it, seemingly every time he spoke. Tonight’s debate was an obvious display of that. Americans want a president who is smart, confident, bold, strong, and clear. Jeb Bush showed none of those traits tonight—or any other night in this race. It is important to consider Jeb Bush’s position in context. He needs to beat Donald Trump, yet he is struggling to keep ahead of John Kasich. His weak performance in debates, in interviews, and in town halls has been supplemented by a Jeb Bush who has tried to play a variety of roles: professorial, angry, funny, compassionate, and powerful. Sadly, he wasn’t convincing in any of those roles—and he surely won’t get the role he’s been auditioning for over the past year.
Ben Carson: In the lead up to tonight’s GOP debate, much of the conversation around Ben Carson was his that campaign was in peril. His campaign has been savaged by a series of high-level resignations and the effects of that were obvious tonight. Carson—who has appeared unready for each previous debate—looked woefully unprepared for tonight’s debate. Each answer rambled on, stringing words together into seemingly incomprehensible statements about a variety of issues.
At one point in the race, Ben Carson was biting at the heels of the front-runner and appeared—numerically—to be a contender. But with that surge in the polls came limelight and greater attention to his words. His words are that of an individual not prepared to be president, and he is overshadowed by almost every other candidate on the GOP debate stage. Campaign disruptions, particularly in the days leading up to the Iowa caucuses, would be a substantial challenge for any candidate. For a candidate as unprepared (for even a presidential debate) as Ben Carson, such a shakeup is a death knell. Carson’s campaign is currently in the emergency room and after tonight it has now lost its pulse.
John Kasich: This week brought some good news for John Kasich in New Hampshire. He was rising in the polls, after spending substantial time and ad money. It was probably the best news of the campaign for him thus far. The challenge is that Kasich’s appeal in states like Iowa and South Carolina is quite limited. A third or fourth place finish in the Granite State will not be enough to overcome multiple poor performances in the other early caucuses and primaries.
His debate performances hurt him even more. And it’s difficult to watch. John Kasich has a wonderful resume, list of accomplishments, and knowledge of the issues—foreign and domestic. However, whenever he talks about those issues and that experience, he has trouble connecting to GOP voters in an effective way. He consistently sounds like he is on a job interview. Unfortunately for Kasich, the hiring committee—GOP voters—have trouble connecting the candidate they see in person with the one they see on paper.
In another race, in another year, with another set of candidates, John Kasich may have excelled. However, on a stage loaded heavily with personalities and light on accomplishment, the Kasich-style candidate just cannot compete. Tonight that struggle was more obvious than ever.
Rand Paul and the Junior Varsity Squad: Paul, Fiorina, Huckabee, and Santorum are fighting a fight they cannot win. In many ways, they are facing the same problem that Kasich is; they cannot compete with the powerful, media-hungry, bombastic personalities in the race. For these four, there is a greater challenge: they cannot even get on the same stage as those personalities. Instead, they are cast to an alternate debate that many fewer people watch. By the time the moderators wrap their portion of the night JV performances are quickly forgotten and then immediately overshadowed by Trump & Co.
Rand Paul had the best opportunity tonight. He opted out of the JV debate—to which he was recently ostracized. Initially, that appeared to be a smart political strategy. He could have channeled Trump. He could have done something entirely unconventional and unique and loud. He could have drawn media attention not simply for skipping the debate, but by planning an event during the day that was outsized, was all to himself, and had an effect on tonight’s debate. Instead, he opted to do TV interviews arguing that mathematical errors in poll aggregation kept him off stage. Those are not the words or actions of a candidate with any chance at winning.
#WINNING: Not a single candidate emerged as the winner tonight. A group of four—Trump, Christie, Rubio, and Cruz—each did well and their respective supporters will surely say that their candidate won. They might not be wrong. There is an argument to be made for each. I would argue that Trump and Christie were strongest—perhaps not because of the quality of their performances, but because of the impact of their performances on the race. Trump as the front-runner risks losing his perch. With each debate, a mistake or misstep puts his status atop most polls at risk. His performance was strong enough to preserve that status. In fact, he may have given the best answer of the night and taking down Ted Cruz’ critique of Trump’s “New York values” by invoking New York City’s resolve after 9/11. Cruz was left applauding Donald Trump, his answer, and the memory he invoked.
Similarly, Christie had much to lose. His campaign is at a crossroads. A poor performance here and there could doom a campaign that is still polling well below several competitors. By the numbers, he is far below tonight’s other “winners,” and he needed to do well in this first debate of 2016 to get a little wind in his sails. He did just that. Governor Christie balanced his personality properly: abrasive when necessary but not offensive. He appeared strong and in command. He sounded intelligent and informed. He conveyed his points in an effective way. His primary target of the night, Marco Rubio, looked diminished each time Christie threw a barb at him.
Most importantly, however, unlike many of the others on stage, Christie looked and sounded confident. But Christie’s confidence was not intended to set him apart from his fellow Republicans (though it did), it was meant to juxtapose him from a president he argues is weak and meek. Christie was neither. And in policy and persona, he showed the GOP what a true alternative looks like. Christie may not win the nomination, but he’ll probably get a decent bump in the polls after tonight’s performance.
THE TAKEAWAY: Tonight, a lot of people will claim victory, many will whine about not getting equal time, many will (rightly) complain that the cut-off bell seemed broken for some candidates but not others. One thing, however, was clear. The GOP primary is a four person race. The next debate should feature Trump, Cruz, Rubio, and Christie, and Reince Preibus should clear seven extra seats in the audience for the other candidates on stage tonight.