As I wrote after the previous debate, political reporters are in the “fog of war” phase of the campaign where our reactions aren’t necessarily good matches for those of voters at home. Some of the reason we reporters thought Rubio’s answer was so awful is because it confirmed some of our gossip about Rubio, namely that he tends to give pat, repetitive answers. But we tend to be more sensitive about that stuff, because we watch every debate from start to finish, and then we see lots of the candidates’ stump speeches and town halls on top of it. There’s a fine line between a candidate who seems stilted and repetitive and one who seems “on message” instead.
Is there any evidence that home viewers saw Rubio’s performance differently? Well, maybe. On Google Trends, there was a huge spike in searches for Rubio during the debate — but it came not during his glitchy moments but instead after an effective answer he delivered on abortion about two hours into the debate. Meanwhile, a Google Consumer Surveys poll conducted midway through the debate found respondents thought that Trump, Rubio and Cruz (in that order) were winning the debate. Undoubtedly, this mostly just reflects the fact that Trump, Rubio and Cruz are the most popular Republican candidates to begin with, but it’s also a reminder that one bad answer, or one bad evening, may not weigh all that much on voters’ minds.
The other good news for Rubio is that most all of this will be forgotten about if he performs well in Tuesday’s primary.