The GOP Debate: Who Won? Who Lost?

After spending the night pouring over focus group videos and transcripts from last night’s Republican debates, I have some conclusions:

  • The “junior varsity” debate mattered because Carly Fiorina was part of it.
  • Donald Trump was the big story – but not the big winner. In fact, he may be the big loser.

These unscientific conclusions are based on comments by focus group participants. The more follow-up comments and positive head-nods that a comment got, the more likely I was to be drawn to it.

Carly Fiorina was a big winner. She took command and impressed people with her intelligence, knowledge of the issues and delivery. Focus group participants had few negative comments about her (often a key to a candidate on the rise). A political consultant who is working for one of the top-tier candidates sent me a text during the preliminary debate:

 GOP nominee would be wise to have Fiorina for VP 

unless presidential nominee IS Fiorina.

Marco Rubio and John Kasich were winners. Many expressed surprise at Rubio’s performance and some said they would give him “another look.” Kasich impressed people with his handling of Donald Trump. People used words such as fresh, experienced, bright and organized to describe him.
Ben Carson surprised people. Words and phrases used to describe him were wise, sense of humor, refreshing, intelligent. Carson and Fiorina got the fewest negative comments

Scott Walker did a good but not spectacular job: His performance did not excite his partisans. One supporter said, “he was too low key.” Another used “workman-like” to describe Walker’s performance. They were expecting more. A participant who was leaning toward Walker before the debate said “he did OK but didn’t convince me. I’m still looking.”
Chris Christie did a better job than expected but did not change minds. Participants had low expectations for Christie. They gave the impression that they have written him off as an acceptable candidate. One participant commented, “If Trump had not been there with his sharp elbows, Christie would have filled the void.”
Ted Cruz impressed people but they worry that he is not a team player. Cruz has an image problem that was summed up by participants: “He isn’t a team player. It’s his way or no way.” “We can’t win or get anywhere with (candidates) like Cruz.” “He has his fans. He won’t be able to go much beyond that.”  “He’s not a builder. I don’t think he’s that good a politician. He’s just good with his followers.”
Jeb Bush did what he needed to do. One participant said, “Bush didn’t need to win. He’s got the money and contacts. All he needed was not to make big mistakes. He didn’t.” Another said, “I can see him as president.” Another: “Jeb Bush isn’t my first choice but he’s a good second choice. There’s less risk with him than with some of these other candidates.”
Donald Trump did not help his cause. One participant asked, “Is there a Dump Trump Facebook page I can go to?” Another: “He not running for president. He’s running for his ego.” Another: “Imagine him in a meeting with other world leaders.” That last comment triggered this response: “We’re in enough trouble already.”

My conclusion on Trump? He should not participate in debates if he wants to keep his poll ratings up. His disorganized, rambling comments work better when there are no thoughtful, prepared candidates around.

About Radnor Reports

Ken Feltman is past-president of the International Association of Political Consultants and the American League of Lobbyists. He is retired chairman of Radnor Inc., an international political consulting and government relations firm in Washington, D.C. Know as a coalition builder, he has participated in election campaigns and legislative efforts in the United States and several other countries.
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