When Donald Trump announced his candidacy this summer and asserted that Mexican immigrants are rapists, the political class was sure the billionaire reality star would self-destruct long before Tuesday night’s debate in Las Vegas. What’s evolved is a surreal political season of full of Donald Trump steering the conversation and sucking up all of the oxygen. The last debate before the first GOP primary vote is cast and here are the top five takeaways before the Iowa caucus on February 1:
1. This is the final debate before the Iowa Caucus
Trump is teflon and Tuesday night’s debate will not likely have an impact on his standing as the frontrunner in Iowa, New Hampshire, or South Carolina. While a newly surging Ted Cruz attempted to stand out and look competent on national security issues and draw support from Iowa’s Republican evangelical base, Trump will emerge from the final debate of the year as the political story that defied prediction. No one came out of the debate as the clear winner, a result that helps Donald Trump and hurts the other candidates desperate to stand out in a still crowded field. The status quo is likely to remain.
2. Jeb Bush never got traction
While Jeb Bush managed to have some feisty moments against frontrunner Donald Trump, the former Governor of Florida isn’t looking like an underdog candidate primed make a run at the Republican nomination. On the crowded stage, Bush attempted to stand out by taking it to Trump directly, saying that he can’t “insult his way to the presidency,” but he mostly got knocked back down, with Trumps quick comebacks and boasting about his own high poll numbers.
Perhaps Jeb’s best line was, “Donald is great at the one-liners, but he is a chaos candidate. And he would be a chaos president,” but that isn’t nearly memorable enough to help Bush rise from his stingy single digit standings in the polls. The bottom line is that while Jeb Bush has the money to stay in the race through the early states, his candidacy has definitely not lived up to the hype.
The Republican base also doesn’t appear to be eager to elect another Bush or anyone in the “establishment.” Trump’s dominance in the polls, as well as the rise and fall of Dr. Ben Carson demonstrate a base looking for an outsider. Dr. Carson was able momentarily to pull some of Trump’s support in the early primary states but as he began dropping in the polls, after a series of bizarre statements, those supporters didn’t look to an establishment candidate like Jeb Bush or Ohio Governor John Kasich, that support is going to Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio who are attempting to be models for the next generation of the Republican party.
3. Donald Trump is not a fluke, but he still doesn’t lay out specifics
Here is a real Donald Trump quote from the debate: "I will build a wall. It will be a great wall."
This style of making grand pronouncements, without any specifics is basically how Trump has communicated his entire campaign and it’s to be proved very successful. His rhetoric is over the top, but he speaks to the visceral emotions that the Republican base, and thus has lead the polls throughout this primary. The question remains whether the media or Trump’s rivals will point out the lack of detail on Trump’s plans.
There were several questions about Trump’s so-called “Muslim ban," but only his rivals pointed out the obvious: that the ban isn’t a detailed plan or policy paper.
Trump’s campaign put out a press release expressing his support for the idea that there be a Muslim plan and he dominated the entire news cycles for a week leading into the debate. Jeb Bush and Ohio Governor John Kasich tried valiantly to make the argument that Trump isn’t a serious candidate, citing the lack of specifics and detailed policy ideas, but the base that supports Trump doesn’t seem to mind. They eat up lines Trump’s boastful lines like last night in his closing statement when he said, “Our country doesn't win anymore. We don't win on trade, we don't win on the military, we can’t defeat ISIS, we're not taking care of our great people, the veterans...we have to change our whole way...if I am elected president we will win again. We will win a lot. And we're going to have a great, great country, greater than ever before."
4. Senator Ted Cruz tried to show foreign policy chops in contrast to Senator Marco Rubio
After last night’s debate, Senator Ted Cruz is emerging as a possible spoiler to the rise of Senator Marco Rubio as the alternative to Trump. A key development in Iowa happened: Cruz got the endorsement of Bob Vander Plaats, an influential evangelical leader in Iowa, who helped Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee win the state’s caucus in 2012 and 2008 respectively.
If Cruz can inspire the evangelical base, he could prove dangerous in Iowa and come out the surprise victor in a race that’s been all about Trump. A big piece of this strategy is for Cruz to distinguish himself from Senator Rubio on the issues of immigration and foreign policy. Cruz talked tough about his plans to “utterly destroy ISIS” and defeat “radical islamic terrorism.” But the key moment was when Cruz avoided an opportunity to attack Trump on national security and pivoted to an attack on President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Everybody but Trump has to walk the dangerous line of criticizing the frontrunner without alienating his base of supporters who they need to switch teams. Cruz was also able to challenge Rubio on his support for the Senate’s failed bipartisan immigration bill (which the Republican base hates) a fight that will likely continue until the first caucus goers cast ballots on February 1.
5. Ben Carson falling and Chris Christie rising?
Just a few months ago, it looked like a surging Ben Carson could overtake Trump as the outsider candidate the GOP base would rally around. His short-lived spike in the polls is now allowing others in the field to flex. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie came into last night’s debate officially surging in New Hampshire as a Trump alternative.
Without a real standout moment in Tuesday's debate, it’s now up to each campaign’s field operation to determine whether the Trump poll dominance translates into electoral wins.