How did they do? In short, they blew it.
- Five GOP candidates sparred at the third Republican debate that once more was missing the frontrunner: Donald Trump.
- How did they do? In short, they blew it.
- None of them managed to command the media attention needed to have a successful primary.
Primary elections matter for a lot of reasons. Sure, there's the election bit and the delegate math and all the actual things a candidate needs to win in order to become their party's standard bearer.
But for this phase of the primary in the year before a vote is cast, all sorts of other political skills are tested. The wheat is separated from the chaff. Either a candidate has the stuff they need to succeed in national politics, or they don't, and that mettle is tested and their talents are either revealed or they're not.
All the non-Trump candidates — there were five of them this time around — have had hours to reveal a talent for commanding media attention through the debates, including the third GOP debate in Florida. And not a single one of them has pulled it off.
In short: they blew it.
An important element of a primary is training candidates how to interact with the media and command attention
There are lots of skills that a person who becomes their party's nominee will need in order to win that general election.
They'll need to effectively disseminate their message. They'll need to understand how to make themselves known, and how to play the media to get free earned coverage. If they don't, the only way they'll be able to reach voters is by paying for it, and they'll probably run out of money faster than an adversary who can claim a lot of free media coverage, and an adversary who happens to be a sitting president.
They'll need to figure out how to communicate effectively with a national audience that is likely much larger and far more diverse than the state- or district-level constitute ncy they've previously appealed to. It's a leap that not everyone can manage.
One function of the debates, of the endless town halls, of the interviews, of all those state fairs, is to discern which candidates can actually make themselves compelling to a national audience. In the United States, people who are not telegenic do not get to be the president. That may or may not be the most effective way to operate a government, but nevertheless it's the one we've got.
Given two hours of prime time, a viable national politician should be more than capable of making news
One key finding of these debates so far is that none of the people attempting to supplant Trump as the nominee have demonstrated they have the ability to produce a news cycle, to steal a spotlight, and to force their name and their policies into the conversation.
Vivek Ramaswamy has succeeded in making somewhat of a name for himself, but it's cost him a fortune and he's losing ground in the polls. Tim Scott and Chris Christie haven't made much noise one way or the other, and DeSantis clearly hasn't been able to regain the momentum he had late last year.
Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley has managed to maintain a polished poise in each debate befitting her diplomatic past, but it won't be enough to be heard over the cacophony even an absent Trump generates.
None of these candidates have any delusions about their position in the race. They know the polling as well as anyone. They know that they need to get time in front of a national audience, and fast, if they're going to win them over.
They've certainly squabbled over time at these debates. One feature of debate in the modern era is the relentless playing of the refs, the asking if not demanding more time to respond, the need to get as much airtime as possible. That has been on full display, and all of the candidates have fought sincerely for air time.
None of these candidates have revealed any particular talent for attracting attention to their policies, intentions, or viability.
Despite that hunger for airtime, what's been surprising is how utterly inert they've been once they actually get it. They'll fight like hell for a thirty second response to Ramaswamy and spend it warming over talking points or defending their vague honor.
Even Ramaswamy calling Haley "Dick Cheney in three-inch heels" or Christie throwing out his best barbs, no one is landing any blows that actually break through, or — more importantly — have a chance at topping whatever insults Trump has in store for them. The candidates all fought for time and then squandered it, and the only message that's sending is that they're demanding and ineffective.
Haley, again, comes close to breaking through. Early on, she carved out a softer stance on abortion — that she reminded viewers on the debate stage — that her fellow candidates are starting to follow given the electoral mayhem the issue has been for the GOP. (See: Tuesday's election.)
But overall, the crop of candidates on stage have had hours in front of millions of Americans, and what have they done with it? Most have seen their meek polling crumble despite access to the airwaves. A presidential contender needs to know how to make news. This crowd has barely managed to make the stage.
If they can't pull that off in the primary, what chance will they have against an incumbent president in a general election?