In late summer and early autumn of 1858, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas conducted seven debates around the State of Illinois. Thousands of people attended the contests, at which each speaker got 90 minutes to make his case. The result is among the classics of American political oratory. The style is folksy and occasionally silly. But the language is clear and honest, and the arguments are deadly serious.
Last night’s spectacle wasn’t like that. Although we call it a debate, it was really a group interview, with candidates answering questions from the moderators rather than developing and contrasting their positions. This was probably unavoidable, given the number of candidates and short attention spans of viewers. But the reality show format doesn’t inspire pride in American civic life.
Pious lament aside, however, the debate was vastly entertaining. I watched with a boisterous crowd of undergraduates at an ISI Honors Conference. They were, by turns, amused, provoked, and inspired. As the discussion continued late (too late) into the night, they also resisted any consensus about the winners. That’s important: pretty much all the candidates had at least one effective moment.
Rubio was probably the biggest surprise. Although he’s been overshadowed recently, he was the most likeable and relaxed man on the stage. John Kasich made a pretty good impression. He got tangled up in statistics and his dad’s resume, but many of conservative students I watched with were sympathetic to his faith-based argument for expanded healthcare. Huckabee also remains fantastic at doing what he does.
But the big story is still Trump. The Fox News commentators seemed pretty sure that his schtick turned people. We’ll get a sense from polling over the next few days whether that’s true. For my part, I thought his response to several attempted gotcha questions was pretty successful. Remember: a lot of Americans have had trouble with lenders or wavered in their party affiliations. What looks like irresponsibility to media and activist crowds might seem pretty normal beyond those circles.
The biggest losers were Bush, Walker, and Paul. They seemed uncomfortable and didn’t offer any memorable lines. Bush can afford a rope-a-dope strategy while the field clears. Walker and Paul need to provide justifications for their campaigns.
Last come the C’s. I thought Cruz and Carson made little impression. Carson’s a nice man who doesn’t belong in the race. And Cruz is expert at impressing his supporters… and no one else. Several people I spoke to thought Christie turned in a strong performance. Maybe. But I was not impressed by his hug-a-thon with Rand Paul.
The truth is, debates don’t matter much to election results, and early debates matter even less. So it’s not worth a lot of mental energy to analyze the details. As long as Trump remains in the race, he’ll be the center of attention, encouraging the carnival atmosphere. It’s the Donald’s world, we’re just living in it.
Samuel Goldman is assistant professor of political science at The George Washington University.