Last night during the debate I tweeted, “If you can’t decide who won, that means Trump probably did.” That was a half-joke aimed at media people who are constantly declaring Rubio or Cruz the winner at these things only to see Trump’s numbers rise the next week. But there’s truth to it too: If, by the end, no one has made a striking impression of the sort Carly Fiorina did after the second debate, then by default viewers’ thoughts will turn to the 800-pound celebrity gorilla in the room. Trump’s leading most of the polls and Trump didn’t hurt himself last night. Advantage: Trump.
You could, though, make the argument that Cruz is the winner based on these numbers. Thirty-five percent for Trump and 14 percent for Rubio are about equal to what each of those candidates is pulling in national polls lately. Maybe all the Trump fans thought Trump won and all the Rubio fans thought Rubio won, in which case neither of them gained much from the debate. Ted Cruz has never reached 25 percent in a national poll tracked by RCP, though. Apart from last week’s WSJ/NBC survey, he’s never hit 20. The fact that he came a strong second to Trump suggests he made a good impression. And it also suggests who won those exchanges between him and Rubio on immigration and national security.
That fourth-place showing for Christie, just five points behind Rubio, is an encouraging result for him. As is this:
That was the widest margin in favorables gained rather than lost of any candidate onstage. Ted Cruz was a close second at 58/22 but no one else was quite at that level. Rubio, who’s built the field’s best favorable rating across many polls partly by performing well at debates, had a relatively weak night in that 46 percent said they have a more favorable opinion of him now versus 31 percent who said they had a less favorable one. Christie, Cruz, and even Trump had a wider positive gap in their numbers than that. If you’re looking for reasons to think Christie might gain on Rubio in New Hampshire, there you have it.
Two questions, though. How many people who view Rubio less favorably today are border hawks who are already committed to Trump or Cruz? If you’re backing Trump because you support mass deportation and only discovered last night that Marco Rubio supported an amnesty bill two years ago, you haven’t cost Rubio any votes. (Yet. If the race narrows to Cruz/Rubio, that may change.) Also, if Christie’s a major gainer here, how come he didn’t show more strength in Gravis’s overall poll of the race last night? The top three when people were asked who they’re supporting lined up almost exactly the way the top three on “who won the debate?” did: Trump 35, Cruz 23, Rubio 14. This time, though, Christie’s a ways behind at just five percent. Maybe I’m overestimating how much he helped himself. Or maybe those national polls don’t much matter because Christie’s game is all about New Hampshire. (This was a poll of registered, not likely, voters too, which usually favors Trump.)
As for the biggest losers, 26 percent say Jeb Bush lost the debate while 19 percent say Rand Paul did. Both men also did terribly when people were asked whether they viewed each one more or less favorably afterward, with Bush splitting 22/56 and Paul splitting 20/56. You can spin Rand’s numbers by chalking them up to him being out of sync with the GOP’s hawkish mood, but Bush’s only sin last night was throwing punches at Trump. And obviously it’s not just Trump fans who gave him thumbs down here; it’s a majority of viewers who say they like him less today than they did yesterday. If you’re a Trump-hater who’s been itching for someone to really take it to Trump at the debates, here’s more evidence that there’s not much to be gained by that. Especially, I’d bet, when it’s the establishment’s favorite son who’s doing it.
In lieu of an exit question, here’s part of a Frank Luntz focus group last night showing people responding well to Christie. (Cruz also received high ratings from them.) Two of my three predictions in yesterday’s preview post panned out: Cruz and Rubio went at it and Cruz and Trump didn’t go at it, but the third prediction, that Christie would come after Rubio to try to pass him in NH, didn’t happen. I wonder why not. Maybe Christie figured that with Cruz swinging at Rubio all night, he was essentially doing Christie’s dirty work for him.