Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Who Won the Republican Debate on November 9th?

Tonight's debate was very civil, with the candidates unwilling to attack each other and with the audience applauding almost every answer. In some ways, the debate preserved the status quo: Without candidates engaging each other, it is difficult to shake things up. Since Mitt Romney is the frontrunner, preserving the status quo is to his benefit.

Most of the candidates performed well. Rick Perry was the exception. In the most disastrous moment of any debate, Perry found himself unable to remember which federal agency he wanted to eliminate. He was able to name the first two, and then halted when trying to name the third. It is difficult to describe in words just how awkward this became. Even when prompted by his fellow candidates, Perry was unable to remember the third agency. The moderators incredulously asked Perry if he could not remember. Finally, Perry had to admit that he had no idea what it was. Perry only recalled the agency's name later on in the debate, when answering another question. But Perry's spectacular failure will undoubtedly be replayed endlessly on television. It feeds into every negative narrative that already exists about Perry. It may well be the final set of nails in Perry's coffin. It could become one of the most famous debate moments in American history--unless Perry does even worse in a future debate.

Herman Cain succeeded in remaining his usual charismatic self. When the debate moderators attempted to bring up the sexual harassment scandal, the audience booed. When the moderators asked Romney what he thought of the scandal, he wisely refused to play along. The audience cheered when the moderators changed the topic back to the economy. It's clear that most Republicans still do not believe there is any truth to the accusations against Cain. Rather than shifting to a "fall of Cain" narrative, the media may be forced to admit that Cain appears to be riding out the storm. However, what the audience at a Republican debate feels publicly and what the Republican voters actually feel as time goes on are two different things.

Newt Gingrich was expected by many political observers to have another good debate performance. While Gingrich gave good answers, he did not stand out among the other candidates, who also (generally) gave good answers. Gingrich was, once again, unwilling to challenge his opponents. Gingrich also repeated his longstanding habit of criticizing the moderators for their questions. He was unusually grumpy toward them during this debate.

Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann did well, but they did not have any means of knocking down a candidate leading them in the polls. They must hope that Perry's self-destruction helps them, but it may well send voters toward Cain or Gingrich by default. Meanwhile, Romney remains at the top of the pack.