When primary debates really matter (and when they don’t)

Posted at 2:01 PM, Jun 25, 2019
and last updated 2019-06-25 16:01:00-04

The first debates of the 2020 Democratic primary season are nearly upon us. Over the course of two nights on Wednesday and Thursday, 20 candidates will hope for a breakout moment.

Sometimes a candidate hitting the right key at the right moment can turn a debate into a game changer. But a look at recent history suggests that key debate moments may not move the polls and when they do, said movements may only be temporary.

Rick Perry Oops

You may recall that one of the biggest debate blunders in recent years occurred when then Texas Gov. Rick Perry couldn’t remember the third federal agency he wanted to cut. (Ironically, it was the Department of Energy, which he now runs.) Upon realizing he couldn’t recall the agency, Perry uttered “oops”.

This debate moment became somewhat of a hallmark for Perry 2012. Perry actually led the primary fieldwith greater than 30% of the vote in September 2011. By the time, the primary was done Perry didn’t win a single primary contest.

At look at the polling reveals, however, that Perry’s problems began long before the debates. He had already seen his support decline 20 points to just 10% on the eve of the “oops” debate. Yes, forgetting the department he wanted to cut likely did Perry no favors. His cake though was mostly baked before uttering “oops” in front of a national audience.

“Was The Second Debate The Beginning Of The End For Donald Trump?” No.

The part in quotes is from an article I wrote after second Republican primary debate of the 2016 season. We know now that Trump went on to win the nomination and the presidency.

So why did I ask the question? It was because polls taken before and after the debate indicated that Trump stock had fallen. He had dropped 3 points in the polls.

Meanwhile, Carly Fiorina, who most thought had a good debate, saw her polling rise by 5 points. Not only would Fiorina not go on to win the nomination, she wouldn’t win a single primary.

Don’t be surprised if something similar occurs after the first primary debate this year. Candidates who jump in the polls may not be able to keep up their momentum. While others who fall may be able to recover from their stumble.

“There it is”

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio had a 3-2-1 strategy: come in third in Iowa, second in New Hampshire and first in South Carolina. Rubio did come in third in Iowa and looked to be heading towards a second place in New Hampshire. That was until he met New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in a debate three days before New Hampshire voted.

In a tangle between the two, Christie noted that Rubio would repeat lines. Rubio seemed willing to oblige and kept noting how Barack Obama “knows exactly what he’s doing”. Christie, in turn, pointed out that Rubio was doing exactly what Christie accused him of doing by saying “there it is”.

Rubio, who had jumped north of 15% in the New Hampshire polls, saw his stock fall overnight. By the time voting occurred just a few days later, Rubio came in with just over 10%. More importantly, Rubio finished in fifth place. Gone was the 3-2-1 strategy. John Kasich was able to claim the runner-up title in New Hampshire and was able to stay in the race untilMay 2016. Rubio, meanwhile, dropped out in March.

The Rubio episode shows that debates may change the course of history, but they have to happen at the right time.

For debates to really matter in the long term, they need to be followed up by a consequential event or events. That could be a primary as in the case of Rubio.

One though could imagine a debate this early mattering if candidates can take advantage of a good debate. Let’s say one of the lower tier candidates is able to do well and start a fundraising boom. That could matter.

The smart money though is for the primary debates this early not being determinative.