Breaking Down the Second GOP 2016 Debate: A Complete Summary and Analysis

Breaking Down the Second GOP 2016 Debate: A Complete Summary and Analysis

By Alex Brinkman

With primary voting in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire still four and a half months away, it has already become apparent that political season has most definitely begun. Thus far, the campaign has centered on discussions about e-mails, immigration, national security, and a great degree of inflammatory rhetoric. On the evening of September 16th, major cable news network CNN hosted the second Presidential debate of the Republican Party at the Reagan National Library in Simi Valley, California. The event featured fifteen of the sixteen candidates at the time, divided into two groups based upon their standing in the polls. The main debate, which aired at 8:00 PM on CNN, featured the top eleven candidates, and was watched on television by 23 million people. These candidates, and their debate goals, were, in order of polling:

  • Billionaire businessman Donald Trump was attempting to defend his front-runner status in the polls.
  • Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush was expected to be a front-runner in this election, but has lagged behind both Trump and Carson in recent polls and attempted to regain momentum at the debate.
  • Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker had been leading initial polling in Iowa, but after a weak performance both at the August debate and this debate, he officially dropped out of the race last Monday night.
  • Pediatric Neurosurgeon Ben Carson is surging in recent polls following a strong performance at the first debate.
  • Texas Senator Ted Cruz is a favorite among conservatives and has been holding steady, both in the debates and in recent polling.
  • Florida Senator Marco Rubio has been attempting to carve out a place for his fresh, optimistic conservatism, and saw a slight rise in the polls after a strong performance in this debate.
  • Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee sought to extend his appeal beyond his small bloc of conservative Christian voters.
  • Ophthalmologist and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul has garnered support from only a small bloc of Libertarian voters, and has been attempting to gain attention through pugnacious appearances in both recent debates.
  • Ohio Governor John Kasich gained a boost in the polls after his initial campaign announcement, but has since fallen; he too was attempting to use the debate to regain momentum.
  • New Jersey Governor Chris Christie also sought to have a strong performance to boost his polling numbers.
  • Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina was not present at the high-tier level of the first debate in August. However, at the CNN debate she presented herself as an alternative to both Trump and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton. Her strong performance led to a significant surge in post-debate polling as a result.

The secondary debate that aired earlier that day on CNN featured four candidates:

  • Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum was a strong contender in the 2012 election, but is failing to gain momentum in 2016. Many political experts believe that his campaign may be grinding to a halt, and thus a massive performance was needed at the debate. This, however, did not occur.
  • Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal recently launched a series of ferocious attacks on Trump at a press conference and continued to do so at the early debate in an effort to gain media attention and support.
  • Former New York Governor George Pataki has frequently been criticized for his governance of New York and thus far has failed to achieve any major victories or support in the polls.
  • South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham has based his campaign entirely around foreign policy and sought to defend his aggressive foreign policy plans at the early debate. Graham has been a strong supporter of intervention and war abroad for years but has remained low in the polls for 2016.

It is also important to note that former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore was not present at either portion of the CNN debate, as he registered at zero percent in all national polls.

The debate was expected to be centered around Trump, with several candidates vowing to challenge the billionaire on social media ahead of the debate itself. Days earlier, Senator Paul went on record as saying, “I’m not going to sit quietly by and let the disaster that is Donald Trump become the nominee.” The night before the debate, Paul told Megyn Kelly of Fox News, “I’m going to mix it up because I like to rumble and I like to make sure people know the differences between their candidates,” as he described his debate strategy. Bush, Walker, and Fiorina also made similar comments prior to Wednesday’s debate.

Within the first minutes of the debate, conflict broke out as Trump openly attacked Paul, after being asked to respond to a comment by businesswoman Carly Fiorina alleging that his low standing in recent polls should disqualify him from participating in the top-tier event. This pattern continued throughout the night, with Trump and others sparring over various personal and political comments made by the billionaire and his rivals, while chief moderator Jake Tapper of CNN remained powerless to redirect the candidates to matters of policy. In one such personal exchange, Bush demanded that Trump recant a statement about the former governor’s wife and formally apologize. Trump refused to do so, instead noting, “[…] I’ve heard she’s a lovely woman,” and claiming he said nothing wrong. In yet another such incident, businesswoman Fiorina was asked to respond to a recent comment by Trump about her face, and she replied with what some political analysts consider one of the most powerful lines of the debate, “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,” to thunderous applause. As a result of retorts such as this, as well as her precise and knowledgeable appearance, Fiorina has soared to second place in recent polls following the debate.

Those candidates who did not engage in personal attacks, including former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, received much less speaking time as a result of their refusal to attack other candidates. However, this will likely not cause a lowering of their poll numbers, as both of these men, as well as Ohio Governor Kasich, did not see a decline after taking a similar course of action in the first debate. Others, including Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, criticized both CNN and the other candidates for turning the debate into nothing more than a series of insults and jabs, with not enough focus on governance and policy. Christie, for instance, interrupted Trump and Fiorina both in an effort to redirect the debate. “They could care less about your careers, they care about theirs,” he noted, as he argued that the American populace is unconcerned with the business records of either candidate.

On matters of policy, however, there were no major shifts or new, unexpected ideas from candidates in either the high-tier debate or the earlier event. Trump continued to push his hardline immigration policies and push for a stronger military. Trump also engaged in a debate with Dr. Carson, Senator Paul, and Governor Huckabee on the issue of federal taxation. Trump, in contrast with many Republicans, advocates a tax hike on the rich that Carson compared to socialist doctrine. Unlike Trump, both Carson and Paul support a flat tax in which all individuals pay the same tax rate regardless of their income. In a recent campaign video, Senator Paul destroyed the entire tax code and replaced it with a single rate of 14.5% for all Americans regardless of income. Huckabee, on the other hand, has proposed an entirely different tax system, in which individuals are taxed on consumption rather than on their income, supposedly eliminating all loopholes.

Aside from taxes, the candidates focused extensively on foreign policy and national security, with Senator Lindsey Graham presenting the most aggressive foreign policy in the earlier debate. Graham called for the deployment of American ground forces to Iraq and Syria to fight against ISIS. This directly contrasts the views of Trump and Paul, both of whom stood in firm opposition to the Iraq War of 2003. In doing so, the senator attempted to set himself apart from the field, noting, “There will always be a Bush or a Clinton for you, if you to go back to war in Iraq,” thereby hitting at both fellow GOP candidate Jeb Bush and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton simultaneously for their prior support of the war. In addition to discussing ISIS and terrorism, the eleven main candidates also discussed the controversial nuclear agreement with Iran. Senator Ted Cruz took a particularly strong stand on Iran, in contrast to Governor Kasich of Ohio. Kasich had accused Cruz and others of, “playing to the crowd,” by vowing to do away with the recent nuclear deal with Iran before giving the Iranians a chance to cooperate, and punishing them if they do not. However, the response by Cruz that he would, “[…] rip to shreds this catastrophic Iranian nuclear deal,” received significant applause from the audience. In addition to Cruz and Kasich; Huckabee, Rubio, Fiorina, and Walker weighed in on the deal, with Huckabee calling it, “[…] about the survival of Western civilization.” Fiorina and Rubio also made strong and precise arguments about the Iranian deal and other aspects of American policy in the Mid-East that sat well with voters, and contributed in pushing both of them up in post-debate polling. With regard to domestic policy, the debate turned to immigration, as well as social issues. Trump’s highly disputed immigration plan calling for the deportation of all individuals residing in the United States illegally was attacked harshly for its near-impossible scale and impracticability by several of his opponents. However, no other candidate was able to present a specific immigration approach of their own, leaving few to capitalize on the damage potentially dealt to Trump.

On social issues, the key topics were same-sex marriage, abortion, and the legalization of marijuana. On all of these issues the candidates split between defending the laws and appealing to morally conscious Christian Republican voters. Bush had a possibly humiliating, though likely not damaging, moment in which he admitted to using marijuana as an adolescent before a large audience and 23 million television viewers that proved one of the debate’s more light-hearted moments. In addition, the event ended on a lighter note, with each candidate asked to name what woman they would put on the ten dollar bill, and what Secret Service codename they would select if elected. With both personal and policy-based topics covered, only one question remains. Who won and who lost?

The winners of last week’s debate were Dr. Rand Paul, Senator Marco Rubio, and Carly Fiorina. While Senator Paul has yet to see a rise in the polls, he was able to present more discussion of his platform and policy at the debate than any other candidate, while still fielding attacks from other candidates. Both Fiorina and Rubio have gained a boost in recent polls after their sharp, informed performances that led them to appear far more qualified to hold the office than others on the stage last Wednesday. As for losers, Scott Walker was forced to drop out of the race entirely after a weak performance at the CNN event, Donald Trump has witnessed a severe slump in the polls (nearly eight percent), as candidates such as Rubio and Fiorina rise, and Mike Huckabee may simply have been too nice to get any attention, as his refusal to engage in any personal attacks left him with nearly no time to field any questions in a very aggressive overall debate.

Image: Chris Carlson, AP 

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