OK, I’ll admit it. I am a political junkie who can’t have too much insider campaign news, gossip or survey results. God help me, I do love it so.
So with the countdown on for first Republican debate, I am in full pre-game mode. My fellow political nerds get it. Our SuperBowl (the first one of the cycle) is Thursday night. I’m warning the wife and kids. Turn off the phone, don’t talk to me – food, water, bathroom breaks, fire alarms be damned. The game is on and I’ll be parked in front of the tube from opening patriotic graphics to the last bloviating analysis.
And just as the sports nuts “debate” pre-game stats, expectations and matchups before their favorite team plays, we political geeks like to prognosticate before the big game too.
Full disclosure: I am a former Republican political consultant. But these days I work exclusively for independent causes, organizations and candidates. That doesn’t mean I’m not biased – but I won’t pull punches. I’m not “cheering” for any of these candidates… I just want a good show!
So here’s how I see the debate playing out for the ten candidates who grabbed a seat at the grownup table and what their campaigns should hope to achieve at this first game. (You better believe I’ll also be watching the kid’s table debate among those who didn’t make the big game playoff… but that will be more like watching an all-star game or the Pro Bowl. It doesn’t really count.)
The rundown (in order of ranking by most recent national polls):
The First Tier:
Donald Trump: The Donald needs to remember to “dance with who brung ya”. You vaulted to the top of the charts by being bold, brash, light on details, heavy on bombast. It’s working. You own the “anti-candidate” space. Keep owning it. Attack the political system and politicians – but not individual candidates unless they throw an elbow first. Don’t try to keep up on wonky policy minutia… that’s definitely off message. Remember your role: Throw bombs, toss red meat, let no personal attack go unpunished. Believe it not, there is a ceiling of support for The Donald. He just hasn’t hit it yet. He will not be the Republican nominee – but for now it’s impossible for political junkies to not enjoy the Trump Express (especially playing parlor games guessing how long it stays on the tracks.)
Scott Walker: Aside from Donald, Walker is one of the few candidates on a roll. He’s building a strong Iowa and national ground operation, he’s popular with a lot of GOP insiders, he’s rising, albeit slowly, in national awareness. But now is NOT the time to swing for the fence. “Slow and steady” should be your mantra. Poised and presidential should ring in your head. Answer questions coolly, calmly, thoughtfully (especially when it comes to your soft-spot knowledge of foreign affairs). You’ve got a modestly impressive record as a governor. Primary voters will like that outside-the-Beltway appeal. Your goal is to survive this first introduction to a national audience unscathed and undamaged. Let the second/third tiers go for others’ jugulars. Walker needs to keep eyes on the prize – make voters start legitimately visualizing him going mano-a-mano with Hillary next fall. Not losing in a primary debate can be a win for Walker.
Jeb Bush: Like Walker, he can score a solid win by not losing. You’ve raised (or, better said, your SuperPac has raised) an incredible amount of primary dollars. But you’re better known for now as son/little brother rather than juggernaut frontrunner. That’s good and bad. True, a lot of GOP primary voters have Bush fatigue. But GOP primary voters for 40 years have ended up nominating the guy (thus far it’s always been a guy) who is supposed to win. That’s what has made this cycle’s GOP primary so interesting — there’s not really a single supposed to win candidate who has emerged yet. With Trump sucking up so much of the political oxygen no one of the other 2nd and 3rd tier candidates are getting any chance to breakout yet. (Recall that Michelle Bachmann actually won the Iowa GOP straw poll and was a one-time frontrunner for the GOP nomination? Michelle Bachmann!) For Bush, this is a good thing. Jeb should send The Donald notes of encouragement and thanks every week The Donald stays in the race as it deflects arrows that would’ve been fired at Bush by now had Trump not been in the race. Bush is quietly building the campaign, raising more money and remaining firmly entrenched in the top tier… waiting for the inevitable Trump collapse… and able to strike when GOPers are ready to anoint the candidate who is supposed to win. Again, Jeb’s goal is to come across as confident and capable. There is no need to attack – unless attacked first – and only then show that you truly did put on your “big boy” pants for the debate.
Mike Huckabee: I’m surprised he’s doing this well. He’s not raising money, he doesn’t have as strong a ground game as others, and he’s struggling to find the movement conservative voice. He’s in a battle royale with Carson and Cruz and a sprinkling of the others to capture social conservative support. Whoever breaks out with this key component of the GOP coalition – if they can break out – could become an interesting 2nd tier competitor as the race matures. Watch for a heapin’ helpin’ of southern-fried bromides from Huckabee – probably competing with the Cruz/Carson/others faction to see who can blast Planned Parenthood, Iran and Obama the loudest and longest.
Dr. Ben Carson: Who? Is Ben Carson the Herman Cain of 2016? Or the Rick Santorum of 2016? He won’t be the nominee. But can he figure out how to demonstrate he’s got the chops and gravitas to become a real player? Can he define himself as poised, prepared and presidential? Yes, he can safely claim the non-politician mantle (along with The Donald). But what else ya got? Is there more there? He’s a hit on the social conservative circuit. But he’s not alone on stage fighting for that segment
Ted Cruz: The Republican Barack Obama? Or a whole lot less? He’s barely been in the US Senate and he’s off and running for the big chair. He’s got his fans… and he’ll make more with his ability to stand toe to toe with anyone and deliver some great zingers. But his poor party bedside manner has brought with it a great number of detractors inside and out of the party. There’s no doubt he’s smart. But he comes across as a little odd and not very likeable. (And don’t underestimate the power of likeability in party primaries.) Want to share a beer with Ted Cruz? Not so much. The Cruz mission of the evening is to introduce himself to a bigger audience and prove his smarts, demonstrate his oratorical abilities, and prove that he belongs on the stage with some of the better-known (and liked) players. Primaries (and debates) should be about addition — start with your base and add more supporters into your sphere. Yet, Cruz seems wired to subtract rather than add, seemingly itching for a fight. He needs to show he can be the flag bearer for the entire party.
Marco Rubio: What happened? The wunderkind had a great kickoff, great buzz, excellent early money raised. Then. Blah. Nuthin’. No mo’. It’s like he’s fallen off the map. Rubio has a number of challenges that he can start to chip away at during the debate. First, he looks even younger than he is. He needs to look, sound, act “presidential.” The first whiff of immaturity, unpreparedness, weakness from Rubio will be all debate watchers will remember. A few short weeks ago (pre-Trump), Rubio was thought of as a serious player and a better-than-even odds candidate to make it into the competitive top tier. Now? Not so much. Many Democrats think Rubio is the strongest potential GOP nominee – the one they’re afraid to run against. That instantly keeps him around in the primary (and by far the favorite VP nominee for everyone but Bush). But is that enough? Rubio will be afraid of making big waves in this first debate. That’s probably smart considering the potential pitfalls of taking a risky swing this early. Don’t be surprised if he throws an untargeted generational punch or two at fellow debaters (Bush).
Rand Paul: What happened, Part II? “The most interesting man in politics” is now the incredibly shrinking and mostly unseen major party candidate. The pre-announcement excitement was there, the neo-libertarian message was on target, early money seemed to be coming in. But then the kickoff was a jumbled mess. The candidate came across as not ready for prime time. Most recently, articles of campaign in-fighting have been the most interesting element of the Paul campaign. That’s not the chatter you want for your campaign. Others have co-opted his messaging. So, what is the Paul message? And can he find his mojo? How does he show he influence can be bigger than his dad’s fiery but limited appeal? He may be more socially conservative, but he wants and needs the fawning, frenzied libertarian grassroots. As with many others on the stage, Paul needs the debate to reframe his campaign and reintroduce himself to primary voters. The clock is ticking on his campaign’s ability to turn this ship around and get back into the fight… before he’s written off as merely quirky and undisciplined.
Chris Christie: Did Christie miss a better shot in 2012? I think so. So many questions circling about his New Jersey leadership coupled with reasonable questions about where he breaks out? Who is his constituency? Can he claim a natural audience? Is there a large enough base of “moderate” Republican voters that can thrust him into the top tier for the primary? I’m not so sure. And can he out “straight talk” Trump to be the bombastic, “I’m bigger-than-those-small-thinking politicians” leader? He’s the wild card tomorrow night. He’s got to figure out a way to be taken seriously and seen as presidential. But he’s also got to be seen as a no-holds-barred fighter. (First punch at Trump? I wouldn’t put it past Christie.) Interestingly – and personally frustrating for me – Christie has said he’s going to focus on appealing to independents in New Hampshire as they can vote in the partisan primary and have a outsized influence on the first-in-the-nation primary’s outcome. Yet, Christie’s gubernatorial administration is actively, vocally opposing efforts to reform the primary election system in New Jersey to allow unaffiliated/independent voters from participating in that state’s primaries. Hypocrite? Then, last week, Christie took an open shot at Colorado and the couple other states that have recreational marijuana laws, saying that “the party is over for legal weed” if he becomes president. So what is he? Now he’s a proponent of the nanny state? And against states’ rights? (Let’s see how well that will play in the “Live Free or Die” state). The bottom line is Christie has got to find a consistent, winnable message that resonates with primary GOP voters. He’s not found it yet. If anyone aims a haymaker at Trump to try to earn a headline, it’ll be Christie.
John Kasich: A total stranger to many, Kasich has been around the block as a representative and is the current Governor of Ohio. (Yep, the same “as goes Ohio, so goes the country” Ohio.) He’s a mostly-popular executive of a hugely important state. He’s got a couple knocks – Obama Care, taxes, comes across as a bit arrogant to some. Kasich snuck into the adult-table debate, knocking Rick Perry to the pre-game. But he’s the sleeper for many pols, demonstrating he’s solid on the issues, credible, experienced, funded-enough and with a killer network of operatives and GOP big feet both in DC and across the country to be the surprise first tier player if he keeps on the same trajectory. And remember, he did toy with running once before (formed an exploratory in 2000) which gives candidates a great advantage over those that haven’t run. He plays well with constituencies across much of the GOP spectrum. He and team know that it’s early. He doesn’t need to blow the roof off with his performance in the first debate. No one will attack him, yet. He should treat this debate as his introduction to a national audience. Remind voters that you’ve been around the block but have found even greater success outside Washington as a successful governor. Even though he’s not top-tier yet – he should act like he belongs there. A successful debate for Kasich is one in which he doesn’t lose.
Who will win? I’m guessing there will be both winners and losers emerging from the debate. (Of course, if you listen to their campaign staff in the spin room following, every single one of them will claim a win.) The candidates who understand their roles and what they need out of this first Super Bowl will be the ones that have the best shot at claiming “victory.” I’m looking forward to writing a post game analysis already.
So, game on fellow political geeks. Who do you think will win tomorrow night?
Jim Jonas is a Denver-based political messaging and management consultant for independent/nonpartisan causes, organizations and candidates. firstname.lastname@example.org