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Trump Lost the Debate by Not Showing Up

September 14, 2023
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If Republicans nominate someone other than Donald Trump, the primary debates he’s avoiding could be a reason why. So how did last month’s debate affect the GOP contest’s trajectory? 

The Aug. 24 Washington Post/Ipsos poll asked Republicans who “performed best” in the debate: 29% said Gov. Ron DeSantis while 26% said biotech millionaire Vivek Ramaswamy. A deeper comparison of that poll with a pre-debate survey from Aug. 22 provides a more meaningful look into how the debate affected the race.

The two surveys asked GOP voters how open they were to considering each candidate. Viewed this way, the evening’s big winner was former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, whose “considering” number rocketed from 24% to 46%, while her “not considering” remained unchanged at 46%. She was followed by Mr. Ramaswamy, whose “considering” rose from 23% to 46%, offset by a 2-point bump in his “not considering” to 45%. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott was close behind, adding 18 points to his “considering,” reaching 43%, while his “not considering” grew 6 points, to 47%.

Starting from a higher base, Mr. DeSantis had a smaller 16-point “considering” jump to 67%, while his “not considering” fell 5 points to 27%. This put him ahead of the front-runner, Mr. Trump, who dropped 3 points on the “considering” measure, from 64% to 61%, and rose on “not considering” by 7 points, from 27% to 34%.

All Republicans on the stage also saw their favorability ratings improve. Mr. DeSantis was on top. He came to Milwaukee with a 58% favorable, 25% unfavorable rating and left with 72% favorable and his unfavorable unchanged.

Mr. Ramaswamy’s favorable number went from 30% to 60%, but his unfavorable jumped 22 points—the worst for any candidate—from 10% to 32%.

Compare that with Ms. Haley and Mr. Scott. She was 38% favorable, 20% unfavorable before the debate. After, she’d picked up 27 points to end at 65% favorable with her unfavorable up 7, to 27%. Mr. Scott started at 37% favorable, 11% unfavorable. He picked up 28 points on the favorable and 12 on the unfavorable to end at 65% to 23%. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christieimproved from 21% favorable, 49% unfavorable before the debate to 35% and 60% after. 

Again, only one candidate had a net drop on this measure. Mr. Trump went from 65% favorable, 32% unfavorable before the debate to 59% and 35% after. This 9-point margin shift in the wrong direction suggests staying away hurt him. 

Elections aren’t an event but a process, punctuated by moments when candidates move up or break down. Since all the candidates but Mr. Trump helped themselves in the first debate, the big question for the second, on Sept. 27, will be which candidates build on their progress.

Each used a different tack to propel his movement. Mr. DeSantis relied on his Florida record and blue-collar background. Mr. Ramaswamy was a fast-talking performance artist, positioning himself as a mini-Trump. Former Vice President Mike Pence relentlessly portrayed himself as a Reagan conservative. Mr. Scott was his soft-spoken, affable self, emphasizing his extraordinary life. Mr. Christie had limited opportunities to assail Mr. Trump, so he championed his record as New Jersey’s governor while jabbing at Mr. Ramaswamy. 

The most sophisticated debate strategy was Ms. Haley’s. She defined herself as a different kind of conservative, blaming both parties for spending too much and emphasizing the need for “new generational” leaders. She also effectively attacked Mr. Biden and assailed Mr. Ramaswamy for opposing aid to Israel and Ukraine, which she said demonstrated that he has “no foreign-policy experience.”

If Republicans nominate someone other than Donald Trump, the primary debates he’s avoiding could be a reason why. So how did last month’s debate affect the GOP contest’s trajectory? 

The Aug. 24 Washington Post/Ipsos poll asked Republicans who “performed best” in the debate: 29% said Gov. Ron DeSantis while 26% said biotech millionaire Vivek Ramaswamy. A deeper comparison of that poll with a pre-debate survey from Aug. 22 provides a more meaningful look into how the debate affected the race.

The two surveys asked GOP voters how open they were to considering each candidate. Viewed this way, the evening’s big winner was former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, whose “considering” number rocketed from 24% to 46%, while her “not considering” remained unchanged at 46%. She was followed by Mr. Ramaswamy, whose “considering” rose from 23% to 46%, offset by a 2-point bump in his “not considering” to 45%. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott was close behind, adding 18 points to his “considering,” reaching 43%, while his “not considering” grew 6 points, to 47%.

Read More at the WSJ

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