The first official candidate debate of the 2016 presidential election cycle will be hosted this Thursday evening by Fox News, with the 10 Republican candidates with the highest poll numbers facing each other for two hours. (The rest of the pack will meet for an hour earlier in the day.) There hasn't been a debate quite like this in modern political history. How exactly does one win? First, a few points to remember:
- There is no official winner. No panel of journalists will officially declare one person the victor and everyone else the losers. Sure, there will be plenty of spin and interpretation, and maybe eventually some kind of consensus on who did poorly and who did well, but it's all quite subjective.
- This really isn't, by any reasonable definition, a debate. This is more accurately thought of as a joint press conference. Candidates won't be addressing each other or responding to each other's arguments so much as answering panelists' questions. I maintain that a reality/gameshow event more like the Voice is the way to go, but this will still give us some insights into the candidates' demeanor and thinking.
- Debates can rarely make a candidacy, but they can break one. If you do well, that could mean generating some excitement for your campaign and maybe a bit of money, but that's rarely sustainable. A poor performance, however, could send a signal that you're just not cut out for this, and donors and endorsers have plenty of other candidates from which to choose.
- If you're a participant in this debate, your opponent is not the nine other people on the stage with you. It's you, or, rather, the public's expectations of you. If you exceed expectations, that's as close as you get to a win. If you meet expectations, that's akin to a mild loss, in the sense that the event won't generate much press about your campaign. If you fail to meet expectations, that can actually hurt your campaign at this early stage. With so many people competing for funds and insider backing, someone who fails to impress at all may just drop further behind in the months to come.
That last point is key: Debate participants will ultimately be evaluated relative to their expected performances. Those expectations vary considerably across the field. Donald Trump has the somewhat difficult job of continuing to be as outspoken and outlandish as he's been over the past two months. Yes, he's good at that, but he's also used to being the only one with a microphone. He's also not usually criticized heavily by journalists or by other people on stage with him, but in this event he'll be a big target. Does he try to reach out to others by showing a new level of civility? Does he try to ramp up the crazy even further? Where do you go when it's already cranked up to 11? It will actually be very difficult for Trump to beat expectations, which puts him at somewhat of a disadvantage.
For the better-known (but still not well-known) other candidates, the debate presents an opportunity to steal some limelight from Trump and maybe score a few points by criticizing him. Trump's presence on the stage may be perceived as insulting or risky to some of them, but in many ways it's a great opportunity. Candidates can sound reasonable and principled by attacking Trump without having to take any controversial stances or anger any important interest groups. You can still be against immigration while bashing Trump's tone. You can still be against the Iran weapons deal while criticizing Trump's past.
You can still be against immigration while bashing Trump's tone. You can still be against the Iran weapons deal while criticizing Trump's past.
Rick Perry has largely pursued this path so far, referring to Trump as a "cancer on conservatism" and a "barking carnival act." We should expect him to continue this approach in Thursday's debate, should he end up among the top ten. But debates are somewhat dangerous for Perry, who committed a famous and unforced error at a candidate debate in 2011. So Perry has the advantage of lowered expectations: if he doesn't make a huge error, that's a win.
The debates are also an opportunity for the three most likely candidates for the nomination: Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Scott Walker. These are the candidates with the strongest credentials and widest insider support. In many ways, they have the most to lose at this event; most viewers really don't know what to expect, but the assumption is that these people know what they're talking about. A botched statement or a complete wallflower performance could undermine their efforts to gain support.
Most of the others will simply be trying to just be remembered (once they've gotten enough attention to even be at the debate in the first place). That may come in the form of saying outlandish but memorable things, calling out other candidates on their statements or pasts, or even dressing down the panelists for asking inappropriate questions. (Newt Gingrich attempted all of these in 2011–12, with some success.)
Regardless, this is not likely to be a dull affair, so be sure to tune in. Or don't—there will be plenty more.
What Makes Us Politic? is Seth Masket’s weekly column on politics and policy.