Donald Trump was last night’s biggest loser in the first official GOP presidential debate heading into election season. That’s according to USF St. Pete political scientist and professor emeritus Darryl Paulson.
“People watch [debates] not to see who wins, but to see who crashes and to me the guy who hit the rail last night was Donald Trump,” Paulson said during an interview with this reporter on WMNF’s Midpoint political talk show.
Paulson described a long history of debate moments that wound up being make or break for various candidates. For example, in 1984 Ronald Reagan was facing an uphill battle earning a second term against Walter Mondale because some feared he was too old to take on another four years in the White House. He responded in a debate pointing out that he was not going to exploit the youth and inexperience of his opponent.
Mondale ended up losing by a landslide and Paulson points to that moment as one that led to the landslide victory.
More recently, and on the break side of debate moments, former Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink famously looked at her cell phone during a gubernatorial debate against now Gov. Rick Scott. The move was against the rules and many pundits in the state blame that moment for Sink’s narrow defeat against the Republican.
For Trump, the moment Paulson thinks may kill the real estate mogul’s chances at a Republican primary victory came during the two-hour debate’s very first question in which Fox News’ Bret Baier asked candidates to whether they would support the nominee and to promise they would not run as a third-party candidate.
The question was clearly directed most at Trump who has flirted with the idea of running as a third-party candidate if the GOP didn’t start treating him better. His answer to the question drew outrage from the audience in Cleveland.
“I will not make the pledge at this time,” Trump said. In the most “duh” statement of the night he added he would make that pledge if he were the GOP nominee.
“That raised quite a stir with the audience because your primary audience is hard-core conservatives,” Paulson said.
Turnout in primary elections tend to attract more ideological voters. As Paulson put it, primary turnout for Republicans is more conservative and turnout for Democrats is more liberal. But even those voters supporting the more devout of candidates ultimately want their party to win and tend to shift support for the eventual nominee.
If Trump runs as a third-party candidate, it would likely be a huge setback for the Republican nominee.
Ask George H.W. Bush about that one. When the senior of the Bush dynasty ran for a second term against Bill Clinton, he lost because Ross Perot, running on the Reform Party ticket, brought in 20 percent of the popular vote. Much of that support came from conservatives and ultimately forced Bush to share some of the votes he likely would have brought in without a third-party candidate.
But whether Trump will ultimately run as a third-party candidate is anyone’s guess. Perot dumped about $80 million of his own money into his presidential bid. Trump would likely have to do the same, but two decades later means that figure would be more like $150 million.
That’s a lot of money to spend on a long-shot campaign and one Paulson expects would boil down to a business decision for a man who prides himself on being the best in the world.
But there’s also what Paulson describes as the “Perot standard.”
“Trump is going to be judged on whether he did better than Perot,” Paulson said. If he doesn’t do as well as Perot, he’s going to be looked at as a loser.”
And Trump has made his position on “losers” quite clear. He doesn’t like them.
Trump’s performance last night also highlighted his political inadequacies. Where he is raw and unfiltered in comments about immigration and other hot-button topics, Trump left numerous questions either unanswered or just vaguely answered.
Trump claims the Mexican government is facilitating illegal immigration into the United States to get rid of the nation’s criminals. He didn’t back down from that claim during Thursday’s debate. When asked to explain what his “proof” is, Trump only answered that he had spoken with some members of border patrol.
And he likely axed a decent amount of the female vote by refusing to back down from past comments derogatory to women. Fox News’s Megyn Kelly asked whether statements about women being “fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals” as “the temperament of a man we should elect as president.”
Trump deflected the question by saying those comments were directed at Rosie O’Donnell. Kelly fired back that, in fact, they were not only directed at the TV personality.
Trump said people in this country have a problem with being politically correct and that he doesn’t “have time for total political correctness.”
While it’s clear his comments anger voters on the left, his comments were met by cheers in the audience, making the argument that perhaps anti-women statements are OK in the GOP voting base.
While Trump dominated the debate and the ensuing media coverage with his continued bombastic remarks, Paulson noted some other key takeaways from the debate.
He said Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who barely made the cut for the debate, did the most to improve his candidacy and used the time he had to speak the most effectively.
There were two issues Kasich weighed in on that could pose a problem. First, Kasich offered his acceptance of legal same-sex marriage, noting that it’s the law and he will accept that. He also said that if one of his daughters were to be gay, he would support them and love them.
That’s an unpopular stance for a party rooted in supporting traditional marriage.
Kasich also ushered in Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act for his state. That’s also an unpopular move within the more conservative sect of the GOP.
Monday morning quarterbacking of the debate has raised the question of whether Kasich’s moderate politics make him a viable candidate in a staunchly conservative GOP primary. But he’s not the only one facing that problem.
Jeb Bush too has been called a RINO – Republican in Name Only – and far too moderate.
But, if a moderate candidate can survive a primary, they could stand a better chance in the general election.
“You really have to play to two different audiences when you’re a primary candidate,” Paulson said.
And that’s why messages tend to shift once a candidate has gotten through the primary. They begin campaigns appealing to the party base and do little to stray from popular opinions. But when those candidates are up against an opposing party, the talking points shift more to the middle.
The joke now becomes, Jeb Bush has to lose the primary to win the general. And, of course, that can’t actually happen.