Currently, there are sixteen major candidates in the Republican primary. CNN hosted two debates on September 16 for fifteen of them. Having two allowed the candidates with higher poll numbers to be separated from those with lower numbers.
Originally, the main debate was going to have the top ten candidates in an average of national polls. However, the rules were changed to accommodate Carly Fiorina’s rise in the polls since the Fox News debate on August 6. Many argued that including poll results from before the first debate placed her at an unfair advantage since doing so would make her average significantly lower than what it’s been in the last month.
The eleven candidates who participated in the main debate were Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, John Kasich, Rand Paul and Chris Christie.
Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal, George Pataki and Lindsey Graham all participated in the other debate which took place just prior to the main one. Jim Gilmore did not qualify for either debate.
The format of the debate was problematic. It was three hours long. Those of us who watched both debates did so for five hours. Even many politicos admitted that it was exhausting.
Also, there were no bells to alert a candidate when time had run out. This left moderator Jake Tapper to the task of getting a candidate to quiet down. Often, the candidate would continue talking at least a little longer. The candidates were also allowed to interject themselves into answering a question too often. Debates generally ask one candidate a question, and anyone who is mentioned usually gets a chance to respond. This debate had that format, but candidates were repeatedly able to answer questions that weren’t directed to them at all simply by speaking up.
The format of the questions was also clearly designed to produce controversy among the candidates. Questions were often framed as, “Candidate A, Candidate B has said this. Why is Candidate B wrong?”
Now, debates are supposed to produce, well, debate between the candidates, but this particular format invited more petty arguments. Furthermore, the questions were often to respond to another candidate’s criticism.
The general lack of control and question formats led to a huge disparity in the amount of time each candidate received. Donald Trump, the provocateur and headline-maker received nearly nineteen minutes of response time. Scott Walker received about eight and a half.
Going through every candidate’s performance would take a much longer article, but there were a few major take aways. First, Carly Fiorina’s performance was almost universally lauded. Her arguments were pointed and aggressive. She also gave an excellent response to a statement by Donald Trump. In a Rolling Stones interview, he had said “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?!”
Trump defended the comment, saying he was talking about her persona. Fiorina was asked what she thought of the attack. She simply stated, “You know it’s interesting to me, Mr. Trump said that he heard Mr. Bush very clearly. And what Mr. Bush said. I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said.”
Marco Rubio and Chris Christie have also been praised. Rubio continued to give intelligent answers to questions that demonstrate his level of understanding of various issues, especially ones related to foreign policy. Chris Christie was aggressive and gave strong answers.
Donald Trump was heavily criticized. As always, he was rude. For instance, Carly Fiorina was asked if she would trust Trump with the nuclear codes. When he responded, he began with, “First of all, Rand Paul shouldn’t even be on this stage,” in reference to Paul’s low poll numbers. As Paul pointed out in response, that attack was a complete non sequitur.
Also, Trump was factually wrong in at least two moments. Bush talked about when Trump tried to use his money to get Florida to accept casinos. Trump denied that he ever did so, stating, “I promise, if I wanted it, I would have gotten it.” Well, the fact is, Trump did want to bring casinos into Florida, and he failed.
Also, he blamed Walker for creating a $2.2 billion deficit. When Walker tried to defend himself, Trump said it was just a fact. Politifact ranked Trump’s claim as mostly false because the $2.2 was not an actual deficit but just a projection for future years. Wisconsin’s constitution requires a balanced budget.
In general, most of the other candidates received some mixture of praise and criticism. The criticism was generally that they failed to make a major impression in a positive way. A shorter, more orderly debate would have helped these candidates.
The four candidates in the earlier debate received very little attention after the debate. Jindal had a decent performance. Graham focused heavily on national security, as he always does. He and Santorum also argued about immigration. Pataki generally had more moderate policies. In any case, it’s very unlikely that any of these four men will be able to win the nomination with such low poll numbers.