Who were winners and losers in Wednesday night’s first GOP presidential debate? Start with the overall winner and likeliest to be the GOP’s nominee: Donald Trump, who didn’t show up.
Those who said Trump wasn’t fit to be president (Chris Christie, Asa Hutchinson and, to an extent, Nikki Haley) got soundly booed. Trump told former FoxNews star Tucker Carlson in a counter-debate interview carried on X (formerly Twitter) that he didn’t debate because he was leading the GOP field by “50, 60, sometimes 70” points (In fact, it’s 41 points nationally according to RealClearPolitics.com and 26 points in Iowa, the first contest, and 31 in New Hampshire, the second.)
Trump declared that the interview with Carlson had 231 million views, “the biggest view on social media EVER, more than double the Superbowl.” (In fact, a Washington Post poll showed that a third of likely GOP caucus or primary voters watched all or part of all or part of the debate, and only 5 percent watched Trump-Carlson. And, proving Trump’s enduring appeal, 90 percent of those who watched the interview had a very favorable or favorable view of Trump, as did 65 percent of those who watched the debate.)
In the Carlson interview, Trump revisited familiar themes, bashing his rivals, repeating his lies that the 2020 election had been stolen, defending the Jan. 6, 2020 invasion of the US Capitol as “a day of love and unity,” and suggesting there might be an upsurge of violence soon (“there’s a level of hatred I’ve never seen.”)
Back to the debate: Who’d be the best general election candidate (though unlikely to win the nomination): Nikki Haley, former South Carolina governor and Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations.
Haley exhibited courage (blaming Republicans and Trump for increasing the national debt by $8 trillion), strength (taking on Trump stand-in Vivek Ramaswamy for wanting to stop aiding Ukraine and “choosing a murderer (Vladimir Putin) over a pro-American country. You have no foreign policy experience and it shows.” Also Haley showed realism and moderation about abortion (although she calls herself “unabashedly pro-life”) by saying it was dishonest for her rivals to propose a national law restricting the procedure, since such a federal ban could never pass the Senate and that states needed to establish a consensus on the issue, not “demonize” it).
She showed political deftness (she raised her hand when asked if she’d support Trump if he were the GOP nominee, but added, “he is the most disliked politician in America” and would lose the election. She was also deft on climate change, saying that human activity was responsible but that the US should be trying to get China and India to reduce their emissions. And she demonstrated feistiness and confidence, quoting Margaret Thatcher’s line: “If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.”
Who’s the likeliest to get nominated if Trump for some reason doesn’t make it through the primaries: Vivek Ramaswamy, who stoutly defended Donald Trump (and got repeatedly cheered for it) sounding more like his chief publicist than his rival.
At 38, the millionaire entrepreneur is running as an outsider, “not bought and paid for by special interests” like all others on the stage, he claimed. He said that Trump was the “the best president of the 21st Century” (yet Ramaswamy is running against him), and that if Trump is convicted of any of the crimes for which he’s been indicted, he’d pardon him.
He also took policy positions straight from the Trump playbook: climate change is “a hoax” and US energy policy should be “drill, frack. burn coal, embrace nuclear.” He’d stop providing weapons to Ukraine and spend the money on “fortifying our Southern border.” He was free with attacks on fellow candidates, saying that Haley’s hawkish views constituted applications for the board of a defense contractor. And he was obnoxious, overflowing with grinning self-confidence, drawing attacks from Pence for needing “on the job training” and by Christie as an “amateur.”
Who’s likeliest to be picked as Trump’s running mate: South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott.
Ramaswamy may have been auditioning for the job (and is likely runner-up on this list), Scott has the advantage of being black and possibly defusing (entirely valid) charges that Trump is a racist. Another advantage is that Scott is well-liked in the GOP. He’s experienced in DC and, most importantly, would not challenge Trump for publicity and limelight, as the hyperactive Ramaswamy might. Scott did not light up the stage and, for someone expected to inject morality into the debate, he flubbed on the issue of Trump’s indictments. He (along with many others) said that Vice President Mike Pence did the right thing on Jan. 6, refusing to yield to Trump’s pressure to help him steal the election he lost. But Scott immediately pivoted to attack the Biden administration’s “weaponization” of the Justice Department.
Which candidate was the most severely misjudged in post-debate punditry: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
It was the practically unanimous consensus of post-debate commentators that DeSantis failed to reverse his slide since being touted as Trump’s most dangerous rival, which polls show that slide has happened as Trump’s lead has swelled. But when the Washington Post, 538 and Ipsos polled 775 likely primary or caucus voters who watched the debate, DeSantis came out on top with 29 percent saying he performed best, closely followed by Ramaswamy at 26 percent, followed by Haley at 15 percent, Pence at 7 percent, Christie and Scott at 4 percent and Hutchinson, former governor of Arkansas, and North Dakota Gov. Doug Bergum at 1 percent. Those under 10 percent have to be considered losers.
Asked in the poll whom they’d consider voting for, DeSantis again came out best, at 67 percent, better even than Trump’s 61 percent, and followed by Haley and Scott at 46 percent and Pence and Christie at 23 and 22 percent. When debate watchers were asked about candidate favorability, DeSantis scored 72 percent favorable to 25 percent unfavorable – again better than Trump at 59-39. Haley, Ramaswamy, and Scott also scored well, at 65-27, 60-32 and 65-23, respectively. All the others were net-negative.
So, what do debate performances suggest about who’d win the November 2024 election? If it’s Trump vs Biden, the RealClearPolitics average of August polls shows Biden with a two-point lead, 45 percent to 43. And RCP’s polling average shows that Biden also is viewed favorably by 40 percent of Americans for a net negative rating of 15 percent. Trump’s numbers are 38.4 positive and 57 percent negative, for a net negative of 18.6.
Based on her debate performance, Haley might defeat Biden since she is younger (at 51) than Biden yet experienced as a governor and as a foreign policy official. But she’s unlikely to win the GOP nomination. A Trump-Scott match-up might be formidable, too, if Scott could moderate Trump’s image as an extremist. The outcome will depend on whether inflation continues to drop and the economy stays strong – and if Democrats can again (as in 2022) make abortion and GOP threats to democracy major issues.