Forget Debate Winners and Losers, What's Important Is the Strategy Each Revealed

AP/Morry Gash

Hidden beneath all the GOP debate hoopla, media coverage, and subjective individual rankings last week was something far more important than a one-night debate stand:

The media strategies of each of the serious top-tier candidates were revealed. 

Their campaigns have done extensive and detailed internal polling to help determine their most likely supporters among the most likely Republican primary voters. 

For the moment, these groups do not include fervent Trumpers, the most loyal supporters who’ve stuck with him through scandals, outbursts, and the incessant drumbeat of negative media coverage. 

For now, these folks, perhaps 40 or 50 percent of the party’s primary voters, appear immune to the attempted blandishments of other campaigns. Chris Christie aside, the GOP candidates don’t want to alienate those voters with direct attacks on the former president as much as headline-seeking moderators sought to elicit them. 

These candidates might need to lure over some Trumpers later. Vivek Ramaswamy, on the other hand, is constantly courting them with all-out Trump support and promises of a Trump pardon in the unlikely event the 38-year-old wealthy businessman reaches the Oval Office.

Ramaswamy’s tactic didn’t seem as suck-uppy as it would have had Trump attended the debate. This is a real problem for Ramaswamy, who may be counting on Trump’s absence somehow later. Think about it: If you like Donald Trump, why settle for an untested soundalike?

The other campaigns’ internal polling is crafted to identify Republicans and independents most susceptible to persuasion at this early stage. And determine their most important issues and dislikes, even down to the stump vocabulary that resonates most with them.

There’s much room for movement again in this cycle. The Pew Research Center polled GOP voters during the 2015-16 cycle and found that during the primary process and early party debates, virtually every one of them changed their mind on a candidate at least once, most twice, and many three or four times.

Trump is back and a known commodity this time; some maintain too-known. He’s preoccupied with legal troubles, fundraising off of them (skipping expensive rallies), and playing a Prevent defense with a large polling lead, counting on their accuracy and longevity.

Some polling since last week showed the most interest in Ramaswamy and Nikki Haley, who called out the former for his naivete, rehearsed catchphrases, and lack of foreign policy experience. 

Haley, who is 51, is a former state legislator, two-term governor, and Trump cabinet member as the forthright-speaking ambassador to the United Nations who stood down Russian and Chinese aggression with facts, figures, and authority as she did in this debate video.

Her husband, Michael, is a National Guard captain with a combat tour in Afghanistan, who recently began a year-long deployment in Africa.

News accounts noted negatively that Ron DeSantis did not participate in debate dust-ups and shoutings. News media crave conflict, which former reality show host Trump knows well and provides for them. 

I suspect DeSantis’ more professional style was intentional as a direct contrast with the outbursts and interruptions of the former president.

DeSantis is the only service veteran in the field after several cycles without any. He is the closest to Trump in current polling but has a long way to go to catch up.

He was narrowly elected Florida’s governor in 2018 with Trump’s help and overwhelmingly reelected without it last year after four years of energetic conservative policies and an anti-woke agenda.

The challenge for the 44-year-old is to deliver his conservative bona fides, record, and calmer, more controlled demeanor to a much wider audience of Americans, first in the early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina and then beyond.

If DeSantis is not shouting, the media will play him down. So, his pitches will take time to sink in. He has until the holiday season. 

This strategy will also require political patience and a lot of money to allow primary Republicans and GOP-leaning independents to see for themselves the contrasts in age and behavior with you-know-who.

Trump has said he will not attend any primary debates because he’s so far ahead. 

The next debate is on September 27 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, airing on FoxBusiness. New stricter party fundraising and polling qualifications may bump out some of last week’s debate lineup, such as Asa Hutchinson and Doug Burgum.

Showing up would subject Trump to more direct, confrontational questioning from debate moderators than he got from Tucker Carlson over his numerous pending indictments and trials, perhaps triggering a Trumpian outburst or rant. 

His presence would also make a silent but unfavorable contrast with more disciplined and much younger panel members whose polling told them Trump’s behaviors steered many of his 2016 voters to stay home or mark a Joe Biden ballot in 2020.

Given the mounting and disturbing examples of Joe Biden’s mental and physical frailties, I suspect that age, especially the appearance of age, is going to play a key role next year in voters’ minds.

In fact, that’s the major reason Biden, who turns 81 this fall, has ruled out any Democrat primary debates this cycle. Now, if Trump’s the nominee, his matching debate-ducking decision gives Biden an open door to dodge debates in the general election, as incumbent Richard Nixon did successfully in 1972. 

In such traditional debates, even with sympathetic media, Trump or any of the Republican contenders could destroy Biden, who often mumbles incoherently, makes out-of-context remarks, or takes on a prolonged blank stare as if someone turned him off.

The 77-year-old Trump says many things. Some true. We’ll see if he stays away when his lead shrinks as TV audiences become more familiar with the others in his absence and polling catches up with the shift. 

Thirteen million watched last week’s debate show, which is what it was. That’s the largest audience any of the participants has ever had. A surprisingly large number of viewers were in the younger demo.

Once again, I caution against paying too much attention to polling this fall, even if results favor your current chosen candidate. 

The nature of “news” is it must seem “new.” Media relies on new poll results far too much before there are any real votes to count. It’s all they have to document stories, even if those results have likely changed by the time you read them.

Trump’s team is attempting to use current polling to make his nomination seem inevitable at the GOP convention, still 11 months away. That might work. But it’s dangerous because the slightest dip in his numbers shatters that image, and the decline can snowball.

You may have missed the absence of those regular massive Trump rallies. They are very expensive. And as Democrats planned, Trump’s been busy turning himself in and posting bonds.

Our primary system is a cockamamie setup. Early voting states are representative of only themselves yet carry disproportionate weight in winnowing the field and advancing others. 

Iowa is a swell place. But if its caucuses were as important as popularly portrayed in primary season, we’d have had Presidents Mike Huckabee and Pete Buttigieg. 

Same for New Hampshire, whose voters thumped George W. Bush in 2000 in favor of John McCain, who never did become president, while Bush had two terms.

It doesn’t make big national news, but with Trump occupied elsewhere, early-state voters have seen much more of the other contenders, especially DeSantis, Haley, and, in Iowa, Pence. Face-to-face encounters are powerful in such rural places.

Trump is far ahead in national polls. At the moment, he leads in both Iowa and New Hampshire. But as some astute poll readers note, those state leads are far smaller than his national lead.

More importantly and ominously for Trump, in both states, a majority of Republican voters say they want a presidential nominee other than the former president.


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