It’s ”report card” time as the presidential debate season is
now well underway. Each commentator, be they a journalist,
an academic or a political operative pass out their
subjective equivalents of “A, B, C, D” or “F” as a response
to each candidate’s performance. Like almost everyone else,
I have been doing it, too.
But I am now wondering how useful these shorthand personal
evaluations (and that is what each one ultimately is) to a
process when there can be such divergence between the
self-styled “sophisticated” appraisals and how they are
actually being received and understood by the great number
of voters who make the only grading that truly counts --- with
their votes in the primaries, caucuses and then in the general
I think these reservations are particularly pertinent in a
campaign cycle when the party establishments and the media
establishments seem so distant from the various voter groups
In the Republican third debate, with almost entirely the same
cast of candidates as in the first two, there was, I think, only
some limited variance in the performances of the contestants.
Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie,
Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, John Kasich, Rand Paul
and Mike Huckabee performed variations on themes and
styles already established. Of course, certain of them seemed
to do better or worse than previously, and the media predictably
and understandably looked for “gotcha” comments, weak
personality projections and other moments to build a reportage
There is nothing the matter with this if it reflects with some
accuracy what the viewers/voters think. But if the polls. focus
groups and grass roots unrest have any value, I think our
“report cards” might be more off the mark than we would like
to think they are.
Let me illustrate with specific examples. After the first (and so
far only) Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton was declared not
only the winner by most pundits, but re-installed as the
inevitable nominee. Yet there were signs that Bernie Sanders
had done better than reported. After the third GOP debate, there
is almost a universal declaration that Jeb Bush’s candidacy is
finished. The left-wing flagship, The New York Times, then
editorialized that Chris Christie should give up, notwithstanding
that he had seemed to give three straight excellent debates, with
his performance in the third debate possibly being his best so far.
Many say Ben Carson, who now leads in some polls or is second
in most others, is “too laid back” or “uninformed” to continue to
be in the first tier. Another cliche is that Carly Fiorina does well
in the debates, but fades in public regard afterward. John Kasich
is trying too hard, and not connecting, goes another pundit
narrative. He had been a media favorite after the first debate.
Marco Rubio, many now say, is coming on strong, especially
after he “demolished” his mentor Jeb Bush in a particular
exchange. Mike Huckabee is a nice guy, but too “hokey.” And so
on and so on.
Needless to say, all these commentators are supposed to say
something, so I am not suggesting they are not doing the job
expected of them, nor am I saying they are necessarily wrong.
But, as we saw initially in the 2012 cycle, there is now an
ultimately contrarian “rotation” of favorites in large candidate
fields over several months. In smaller candidate fields, such as
the Democratic field this cycle, when the frontrunner has so many
controversies and such high unfavorables, isn’t it premature to
declare the race over just because Joe Biden decided not to run?
The Democratic field is not going to get much smaller. Martin
O’Malley might kick himself if he pulled out too soon, as perhaps
Tim Pawlenty did in 2011. The Republican field, however,
probably has to get smaller, sooner or later, so that voters see
how the GOP finalists (whoever they might be) do under the
pressure of the interaction of the party’s best candidates (again,
whoever they might be).
The presidential debates are important and likely critical. Mrs.
Clinton might win her party’s nomination after all. Donald Trump
and Ben Carson might fade. Jeb Bush, at some point, might
withdraw. But so far, the 2016 presidential cycle seems determined
to defy easy predictions.
The reason for this is not capricious. The reason for this is the voters.
Each of us who comments on and tries to analyze this election might
want to remember this enduring and central fact of our political life.
Copyright (c) 2015 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.