We’ve arrived at the third Republican debate. As a CNBC debate, the night’s focus will be on the economy, or, as Mike Huckabee sees it, “Uh oh.”
Here is the field as determined by CNBC’s polling methodology. (The podium spots are shown to you in my picture above. Believe it or not, that’s a PPFA original, not a Michelangelo.) To qualify for the main debate, a candidate needed to average three percent across NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox, CNN and Bloomberg polls released between September 17 and October 21. Ten candidates did that. To qualify for the undercard debate, a candidate had to earn at least 1 percent in any one of those polls, which four more candidates did and James Gilmore did not. Those four are (with their current national Real Clear Politics averages):
- Lindsey Graham (1.0)
- Rick Santorum (0.6)
- George Pataki and Bobby Jindal (0.2)
Things are getting interesting down there, if by “interesting” one means “embarrassing.” Expect more of the same from these candidates. Jindal remains the only one I can see breaking out with an Iowa miracle, but he might be running low on patience. After two kiddie table debates, none of these guys seem to have a Fiorinaesque breakthrough in them. Will a third debate really help?
As for the big ten candidates, here are quick blurbs on each. I’ll rank them by their current RCP averages, although the CNBC order is a bit different due to its polling window and which pollsters it factored.
10. Chris Christie (2.4): There’s still nearly a hundred days until the primaries begin, but the clock is ticking on Chris Christie. I think he’s actually run a pretty solid campaign. His debates have been generally praised by Republicans, and he has nearly no rival in charisma and retail politics. But what has it gotten him? A tenth place standing, an RCP average of 2.4, and he was a tie-breaker drawing away from a third consecutive debate behind an end podium. Christie prides himself as a straight-shooter, so how long can he justify being distracted from governing his state while campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire? I still think he’s one of the five or so most likely nominees, however he’s also one of the more likely to drop out by the end of the year. His sagging poll numbers run him the risk of being left off the next debate stage. The vultures are circling. Expect bombast.
9. John Kasich (2.6): After his home crowd bolstered a strong first debate, his second performance fell flat, and now so has his campaign. Not only is he struggling nationally, but his once stellar New Hampshire numbers have fallen back to Earth. He’s been putting all his chips into the Granite State basket, and for a while it seemed to work; there was an 11-poll stretch from the end of July into September where more often than not he polled double digits in the state. The last three polls there, however, earned him 6, 7, and then 5. This election cycle is forcing him to swim upstream against a torrential current. Not only is this long-time politician the classic insider in the year of the outsider, but he doesn’t have the name recognition of the other insiders, most notably Bush and Rubio. In the debate tonight, he needs to pivot away from being every Democrat’s favorite Republican — we saw how well that worked out for Jim Webb when he tried it in reverse — and instead boast about his legitimately conservative record.
8. Rand Paul (3.4): He continues to go nowhere with Republicans. He can’t win this primary, and he probably knows it. Like his father before him, he’s not expecting to win, but rather he’s hoping to shape the national dialogue. Luckily for him, tonight’s focus is on the economy, and Rand Paul has one of the best (from the conservative perspective), most detailed tax plans in the field — a 14.5 percent flat tax across the board. He wants to “blow up” the tax code, get rid of its 70,000 pages, and make it so you could do your taxes on something the size of a postcard. He might be out of step with the party on foreign policy and some social issues, but when it comes to the economy, he’s fluent in the GOP’s language. He will be strong tonight and get a minor bump in the polls because of it, especially in New Hampshire.
7. Mike Huckabee (3.8): You know what’s more telling than even his struggling 3.8 national average? His 2.0 average in Iowa. He won the state eight years ago, and now he can barely convince one Iowan in fifty to give him another chance. They know who he is and are rejecting him nearly as badly as they’re rejecting 2012 winner Rick Santorum (1.4). There’s a reason I have them both ranked outside of the top ten in my Power Rankings. I wonder if he can keep up in tonight’s economically focused debate. Even though he was a governor and therefore has budget experience, there has been considerable conservative criticism of his fiscal record as governor. He earned an “F” from the CATO institute in their Fiscal Policy Report Card of 2006, his last full year in office, and a “D” for his tenure as governor. This record could be a liability tonight, and it’ll be awfully difficult to obfuscate by bringing up abortion, gay marriage, and prostitution. He’ll find a way, though. He always does.
6. Carly Fiorina (5.8): Can she go three for three? The top debater in the field so far, tonight Fiorina looks for the hat-trick. She might be wondering what more she has to do. While she did get a brief pop after the last debate — reaching as high as 15 in national polling — her surge never reached the heights, nor did it last nearly as long, as fellow NonPols Trump and Carson. Her last six polls are pedestrian 5, 4, 6, 7, 5, and 7. As a former CEO, she will once again speak competently tonight on the fiscal issues. I’m curious to see if the CNBC moderators grill Fiorina on her HP record, which I’ve heard spun convincingly from all sides. She’s shown she can handle herself extremely well in a debate, so I expect another strong performance that emphasizes her experiences her record in the private sector.
5. Ted Cruz (6.6): You know how I feel about his campaign. Look out for Ted Cruz. He’s also my pick to win Iowa after Trump and Carson’s surges are over. Check out this Iowa climb dating back to January:
Expect more even-keel consistency to set himself up for the long haul. This campaign is going exactly as planned. (It’s best if you repeat that in the voice of the Emperor from Star Wars.) However, his patience for the Trump and Carson collapse might be wearing thin. He’ll shift a gear to siphon some of their voters. Instead of asking “Who will stand up to Washington?” he’s asking “Who HAS stood up to Washington?”
4. Jeb Bush (7.0): I just don’t know. Republicans should love his gubernatorial record, but between the loaded last name, moderate immigration policy, and his downright lackadaisical and soft approach to politics and debating, there’s a good chance the establishment won’t be able to carry this guy across the finish line. He’ll be fine tonight. Just fine. Merely fine. What he needs to do is show some PUNCH, but he needed to do that last time, too. Don’t hold your breath.
3. Marco Rubio (9.0): Like Cruz, Rubio has seen a slow but steady climb over the last couple months. As the establishment gives up on Bush, and assuming Christie and Kasich never get going, its support will steadily consolidate around the Florida Senator. He’s the most likely nominee for a reason. With Fiorina, it’s generally agreed that they have had the best debating performances. Can he keep it up on an economy-focused night? He does have the advantage of growing up as part of the working class and even now not having much of a net worth. That can help him connect to the average voter more than Fiorina, Trump, and most of the others. It also positions himself as the ideal candidate to take on Hillary Clinton in November. To beat the Democrats, a Republican needs to appeal to the “47 percent” that the media swears Mitt Romney wrote off.
2. Ben Carson (22.0): Carson continues to close the gap on Trump nationally. In fact, just yesterday, it was announced he was up four points over Trump in a CBS/NY Times poll. In Iowa, meanwhile, Carson had already passed Trump. In the last five polls, Carson has had leads of 8, 9, 12, and 14, bringing his average Iowa lead to 8.6. Tonight, he’ll probably keep doing what he’s been doing — win people over with his calm, sleepy “charm.” The real question is…
1. Donald Trump (26.8): How will Trump respond? I’m giddy just thinking about it. His perch has never been this threatened. Since seeing these latest polls, he’s criticized the pollsters, he’s gone after Carson for his denomination (“I mean, Seventh-day Adventist, I don’t know about, I just don’t know about that”), repeated his attack on Carson’s “super-low energy,” and warned that Carson, “cannot do with trade like I do,” and is “just not going to be able to do deals with China.” What else does he have in store for us tonight? Will Trump go nuclear in his desperate attempt to hold onto his lead?
You know you want to watch.