When my editor at The Daily Beast asked me to put together a list of things “we should watch for” in Thursday’s Republican debates, what he was really asking was this: “What will be the one thing that every columnist writes about on Friday?”—“What will be the thing every Sunday show talks about?”—“What will be the clip that is shown ad nauseam on cable news?”—in essence, “What will be the storyline?”
That’s the real question. And despite the predictable talk about the great ratings, few people will weigh their electoral decisions based on having studiously weighed all the evidence presented in a two-hour debate. We all know that more people will be influenced by the narrative the press settles on: “Nixon looked sweaty,” “George H.W. Bush looked at his watch,” “Who’s Admiral Stockdale??”
So what are some likely narratives to keep an eye on? Glad you asked…
1. Which Donald Trump shows up? They used to say that half the people who paid to see a Muhammad Ali fight were paying to see him win; the other half were paying to see him get knocked out. Like Ali, Trump is a master showman who knows how to talk trash and gin up excitement (if only there were a “weigh-in” before the debate). And like Ali, all eyes will be on him. Half of us will be rooting for him to give them hell; the other half will be hoping he gets a bloody lip. But what if he doesn’t live up to the hype? Some recent interviews suggest that Trump might be about to (to borrow a phrase from Ali) “rope-a-dope” his opponents. Or maybe the more likely analogy is when Rocky lost all that weight in Rocky III and completely changed his fighting style. Either way, it’s possible that while everyone on stage is counting on Trump the Entertainer to show up, what we’ll get is Trump the Statesman. (Or, you know, Trump’s impression of a statesman.) What if he now accepts his role as front-runner, pivots, and tones down the rhetoric a bit? It’s unclear whether or not Trump has the patience or inclination to pull that off. But he might.
2. Will the “kids table” be better than the “adult table”? Only the top 10 candidates will participate in the top-tier debate Thursday night. The rest will participate in a 5 p.m. ET debate. But it’s entirely possible that the narrative will be that the earlier debate was actually better. For one thing, you’ve got some serious candidates (Perry, Santorum, Jindal, Fiorina, et al.) who will be in this earlier scrum. These are formidable candidates. What if the big debate turns into a mess (thanks to Donald Trump), but the first debate is conversely serious and high-minded? That’s actually not an unlikely scenario. There’s also the possibility that something said in the earlier debate will be so newsworthy that the moderators at the second debate have to mention it or ask a question about it. “Earlier today, Carly Fiorina said such and such. How would you respond?” There’s also a chance for the beginnings of a comeback story. Rick Perry, who narrowly missed participating in the main event, has a chance to redeem himself from his disappointing 2012 debate performances. Just as Mike Huckabee was able to impress people in 2008 and propel himself into the top-tier, it’s entirely possible that some of the candidates who are relegated to the “kiddy” table this time around will get promoted in a future debate.
3. Protests or interruptions. Presumably, security will be tight, but it’s possible the big story will be that someone interrupts the debate. This could be Code Pink or #BlackLivesMatter or some right-wing group. If that happens, the response—from the candidates, the police, and/or the moderators—will be under close scrutiny. There’s also always a possibility that something will occur outside the event hall itself that might overshadow the main event.
4. How does Jeb do? Let’s not forget that Jeb Bush is, in many ways, still considered the front-runner (despite Trump’s poll numbers). This will be a huge test for him. Does he come across like the serious adult next to Trump? Or does he come across looking like a weak scold? Either option is entirely possible. One thing Jeb does have going for him is his imposing physical stature, which might serve to counter the “wonky,” “RINO,” “wimp” factor—especially depending on how the camera shots juxtapose the candidates when they shake hands before the fight, err, debate.
5. Do the candidates go after Trump? Of course, it’s entirely possible Trump comes out throwing elbows and the debate descends into chaos (like that time Rocky fought Thunder Lips, the wrestler played by Hulk Hogan). Based on my reading of the debate rules, a candidate who is mentioned by name gets to respond. This is an important rule, because one assumes that “time of possession” (the amount of screen time each candidate receives) is a large factor in terms of his ability to “win” the debate. In a rational world, where the other non-Trump Republican candidates would cooperate, they might agree to simply not mention Trump’s name—thereby depriving him of any extra time. The problem is that several of the candidates will have an incentive to pick a fight with Trump. The downside, of course, is that Trump might embarrass them. But the upside is there’s no better way to ensure your video clip gets played on a loop the next day than to tangle with Trump. For obvious reasons, the cable news networks will be biased toward showing that kind of footage. And, you don’t get knocked out by Trump, the assumption is that all publicity is good publicity. In other words, the worst thing that can happen to you in this debate is to be an afterthought (this could be a danger for someone like Scott Walker, a top-tier candidate who’s not known for his charisma). Getting into a skirmish—even if you don’t necessarily win—guarantees attention and press coverage.
6. Unholy alliances? While it’s unrealistic to think that all the non-Trump candidates would conspire to refuse to take his bait, it is entirely possible that we will once again see some unofficial alliances emerge. Sometimes, debates create strange bedfellows. In 2012, for example, it seemed quite obvious to me that Michele Bachmann was actually helping Mitt Romney—by virtue of attacking candidates like Tim Pawlenty and Rick Perry from the right. Now, these alliances are marriages of convenience. Eventually, should both candidates in the marriage remain in the race, they will have to turn on each other—like Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant, Hulk Hogan and Randy “Macho Man” Savage, Hulk Hogan and Gawker. You get the idea. Eventually, this becomes a zero-sum game. But, for now, there are a lot of variables and a lot of candidates—and having someone carry your water and do your dirty work is a plus. And one interesting thing to keep an eye on will be the budding “bromance” between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Keep an eye on that.
7. Zingers? “I paid for this microphone!” “You’re no Jack Kennedy.” Every once in a while, someone rises to the occasion in a debate and lands a terrific sound bite—or even a knockout punch. The interesting thing is that there are numerous candidates who are capable of this. Let’s take Chris Christie for example. We’re not talking much about him, but it’s entirely possible that we’re talking about him on Friday. Or let’s refer to the Cruz/Trump alliance. What if someone were to ask Trump if he thinks Cruz (who was born in Canada) is eligible to be president?
8. Surprises. Let’s be honest, this first debate is actually quite exciting. Nobody knows what’s going to happen. There are a million possible narratives. “Cruz hits Rubio over immigration,” “John Kasich shines,” “Lindsey Graham falls off stage, “Ben Carson wows them.” Other things to look out for—things nobody thinks about—are body language and camera response shots. Candidates seen subtly rolling their eyes, heard sighing, spotted looking at their watches—all these things matter.
9. Gaffes? “You’re likable enough.” “Binders full of women.” There’s always the chance for someone to say something stupid.
10. Will candidates break the debate rules? It’s almost a fool’s errand to complain when someone breaks the debate rules. Complaining is the kind of thing Mitt Romney did—and it doesn’t tend to work. The only way to stop it is for the moderators to step in.
11. How will Fox News do? Speaking of the moderators, this will be a big test for the network. My guess is that they will do great. It would be a mistake for candidates to assume that—because Fox is ostensibly “conservative”—they won’t get asked tough questions. Expect hardball questions and questions that make the candidates think on their feet. On the other hand, in their quest to demonstrate that they are willing to be tough on Republicans, it’s possible they might overshoot. Conservatives are tired of the kinds of wedge issue questions that make Republicans look bad and put them on the defensive. What if the attitude coming out of the debate is: “We might as well have just had Chris Matthews moderate?”
12. Are the debates a net plus for Republicans? At some point, debates quit being like internal practice rounds and became public scrimmage games. The point of a primary debate might be to help select the party standard bearer, but it’s also a nationally broadcast “game” that will influence how viewers perceive the team. The RNC has taken special care to limit the number of debates and select appropriate media outlets to mitigate the damage that could be done by some ugly on-field behavior. But when the clock strikes 11 on Thursday night, will they be better off than they were two hours before? Will the candidates focus their ire on Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, go after Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, and the “Washington Cartel”—or will they turn on each other?
In short, will it be a clown car?
Disclaimer: The author’s wife advises Rick Perry, and previously served as a consultant on Ted Cruz’s Senate campaign.