Do the GOP Debates Really Matter?

Carly Fiorina edged up in polls after a successful performance in the second Republican Presidential debate, but the bump proved to be short-lived.

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One of the more amusing exchanges at last Tuesday night’s Republican Presidential debate came after Donald Trump boasted about his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. “I got to know him very well because we were both on ‘60 Minutes,’ ” Trump said. “We were stablemates, and we did very well that night.” A few minutes later, Carly Fiorina tried to one-up the New York billionaire. “I have met him”—Putin—“as well,” she said, “not in a green room before a show but in a private meeting.”

Both candidates, it turns out, were exaggerating wildly. As Charlotte Alter writes, in a post for Time, “Trump was interviewed by CBS’s Scott Pelley in his New York City penthouse for the season premiere of the hour-long docu-series, while Charlie Rose travelled to Moscow to interview Vladimir Putin.” So not only did Trump and Putin not share a green room; they didn’t share a continent. As for Fiorina, my colleague Amy Davidson and the Huffington Post’s Amanda Terkel were among those to point out that, by the former Hewlett-Packard C.E.O.’s own previous account, she did meet the Russian leader in something resembling a green room, in Beijing, where the two of them were giving speeches. “We were in sort of a green room setting, actually,” Fiorina said on “The Tonight Show,” in September. “The two of us were sitting sort of in a chair like this, about this close, for forty-five minutes before his speech and before mine.”
So both Trump and Fiorina fibbed, or at least shaded the truth. Does it matter? In terms of how the debate unfolded, not much. Neither Trump nor Fiorina had a particularly strong night, but they weren’t called to account for these particular infractions. Even now that their statements have been exposed, the fallout will probably be minimal. Under the unstated but generally agreed-upon rules of reporting these events, neither statement rose to the level of an outrageous falsehood or a harrowing gaffe. In a two-hour political debate, you expect some misleading utterances and slipups. It’s only when a candidate says something indefensible—such as Gerald Ford remarking, in 1976, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe”—or suffers a public brain malfunction—think Admiral James Stockdale, in 1992, or Governor Rick Perry, in 2011—that the consequences are severe.

But that pattern raises the larger questions of whether what any of the current crop of candidates is saying counts, and how much this entire series of G.O.P. gabfests matters. Since August, we’ve had four of them, and neither of the best debaters in the race—Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz—is leading in the polls. Instead, two of the most mediocre performers—Donald Trump and Ben Carson—are still way out in front. We can discuss all day the basis for Trump and Carson’s support: celebrity appeal? A dislike of professional politicians? Animus toward illegal immigrants (Trump)? Evangelical Christianity (Carson)? Whatever it is, it isn’t their talent for the cut-and-thrust of live debate.

Trump benefitted, in the first debate, on the Fox News Channel, from his novelty value, but since then he has delivered three unimpressive performances in a row. By now, we know his shtick. He makes a few general comments about making America great again, directs a few mocking comments toward Jeb Bush, retreats into silence whenever a detailed policy discussion gets going, and takes some additional shots at whichever of the other candidates has incurred his ire. (On Tuesday, it was Kasich and Fiorina.) Carson isn’t much more impressive; arguably, he isn’t any better at all. During the first three debates, he was so passive that it appeared he was barely deigning to take part. He showed a bit more energy in Milwaukee, especially when he attacked a media that has lately questioned some details of his life story. But, when the discussion turned to economics and foreign policy, he sometimes looked lost.

Will these shortcomings hurt the two candidates in the coming weeks? It seems unlikely. According to the Real Clear Politics poll average, Trump has been leading handily for almost four months. Since early September, his only real competitor has been Carson, who recently moved into a tie with him. If this pattern is a blip, it is a very extended one. Back in May, before Trump made his candidacy official, I wrote a piece distinguishing the G.O.P. circus from the G.O.P. horse race. Right now, though, the circus is the horse race. To avoid this glaring truth, to concentrate on how the members of the supporting cast are doing relative to one another in live debates, is to present a pretty skewed version of what’s happening.

In one sense, of course, the debates do matter. To the extent that people (particularly donors and bookers for television shows) base their thoughts and decisions on the post-debate commentary taking place in the media, a performance that reporters and pundits consider to be powerful can give a candidate a boost, and a performance that is perceived as weak can do damage. Particularly for candidates trailing in the polls, this is important.

Following the second debate, Fiorina’s strong showing gave her a temporary lift; after the third debate, Rubio was the beneficiary. After his forceful display on Tuesday, Cruz may get a bit of a bounce. On the other side of the ledger, Scott Walker’s undistinguished appearances in the early debates helped to sink his campaign, while Bush took many knocks after his lacklustre showing in the CNBC debate. And John Kasich, one of the few candidates willing to depart from the standard Republican script on economic issues, did himself no favors on Tuesday night by repeatedly interrupting the other candidates.

At this stage, however, these are second-order developments: Trump and Carson are the big story. Perhaps their supporters don’t care very much about the content of the debates. Perhaps they view what happens during the debates differently from the pundits, including Republican ones. On Wednesday, an Internet poll carried out for the Wall Street Journal indicated that Trump came out on top in Milwaukee: twenty-eight per cent of likely primary voters declared him the winner.

In any case, the debates seem unlikely to determine who will win the early states. The next one doesn’t take place until December 15th, and, after that, there will only be one more before the Iowa caucus, which is scheduled for February 1st. Between now and then, something might bring down Trump and Carson: the Republican establishment will be praying that it does. But it won’t be the televised debates.

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