The first two televised debate of the 2016 election were held last night in Cleveland, Ohio, sponsored by FOX News. The afternoon debate featured seven Republican candidates who, according to FOX, did not place in the top 10 in recent national polls. The prime time debate featured the top ten candidates in the polls chosen by FOX. One thing is certain, it was the most watched primary debate in history, doubling previous audiences The fireworks rivaled the Fourth of July.
There were two audiences judging the candidates—Republican primary voters, and the general public. In the hall and on television, most viewers were Republicans, but other politically curious Americans also tuned in. We will not know how voters judged the candidates until new national polls are conducted over the next week. Probably, Republican viewers and the general election electorate came to different conclusions.
It seemed that FOX News wanted to slow down the meteoric ascendancy of Donald Trump in the polls. The first question was intended to cull Trump from the pack. The question was asked in the negative to single out Trump. They were asked who would not pledge that they would not run as a third party candidate in the general election. Trump, of course, was the only person who raised his hand, angering most of the Republican partisans in the hall.
Trump was singled out for other “gotcha” questions not posed to other candidates. Moderator Megyn Kelly questioned Trump on disparaging statements about women calling them “fat pigs” “dogs” and other terms not fit to mention on television. Trump retorted to laughter, “Only Rosie O’Donnell.” Kelly said it was more than O’Donnell. Trump was also questioned about his flip flops on issues like abortion. After the debate, Trump complained that those questions were not asked of other candidates.
Pollster Frank Luntz assembled a focus group and after the debate he said “News was made tonight.” Luntz stated that before the debate, most of the group supported Trump and after, almost no one still supported him. To some it appeared that the answers from many on the focus group sounded like talking points, not answers one would expect from “average” voters.
It was clear that in the early debate, Carly Fiorina raised her standing in the field. In the main event, there were a couple of potential winners—Ohio Governor John Kasich and Senator Marco Rubio. Kasich, who just announced a week ago, barely made the cut to appear in the debate.
Kasich stood out, particularly to the non-Republican viewers, possibly looking the most presidential. He did not attack Trump but rather acknowledged that many people agreed with him on immigration, he just had different ideas. The governor also did not make the mistake Romney did in 2012 by moving so far right in the primary, he was not electable in the general.
Senator Rubio refused to get into the mud and managed to get a few good one liners. Deflecting earlier criticism of his support for immigration reform, Rubio said you can build a wall, but can we stop El Chapo from tunneling under it? He won applause when he said “If I’m our nominee, how is Hillary Clinton gonna lecture me about living paycheck to paycheck? I was raised paycheck to paycheck. How is she — how is she gonna lecture me …about student loans? I owed over $100,000 just four years ago.”
Mike Huckabee also got in some memorable one-liners. When asked about transgendered persons being allowed in the military, he said “The military is not a social experience.” He drew applause when he accused abortion providers of “selling” fetal parts “like they’re parts to a Buick.”
Governor Chris Christie may have reclaimed his right to be considered a contender. He smacked down Senator Rand Paul who blasted Christie for hugging Barack Obama. Christie said the hugs he remembers are hug from families of the victims of 911. Perhaps the fieriest moment came when Christie told Paul “When you’re sitting in the subcommittee just blowing hot air about this, you can say things like that.” Ben Carson was probably the most humorous on stage.
Jeb Bush and Governor Walker did no damage last night, but they did not separate themselves from the pack. As the front runners below Trump, that was probably the strategy.
When it comes to the general electorate, the GOP was probably the loser. For the most part, the stands the candidates took on women’s health, gay marriage, immigration and other issues fired up Republican primary voters, but probably hurt the Party’s brand in the general election.
It will be interesting to see how the 10 seats are filled in future debates.