What the polls tell us after the first debate on the second round | ET REALITY


In retrospect, there was one big winner of the first Republican presidential debate: Donald J. Trump.

He has garnered more support in post-debate polls than any other candidate, even though he did not appear on stage last month. He is up 3.5 percentage points in a direct comparison between polls conducted before and after the debate by the same pollsters. Only Nikki Haley (up 1.5 points across all seven national pollsters) can also claim that she has gained any appreciable amount of ground.

This basic lesson from the first debate might be the most important thing to keep in mind heading into Wednesday night’s second Republican debate. The candidates can be flashy. They could be very attractive. They could hit MAGA notes. But after the last debate, there is much less reason to think this one will make much of a difference in the race. It could even help Trump by dividing his potential opposition.

Here are some lessons from the last debate and what they mean for the next one.

No one seemed to attract more attention during the debate than Vivek Ramaswamy. Perhaps no one should be more disappointed with the post-debate polls.

Despite garnering his fair share of headlines, Ramaswamy failed to garner additional support. He has even lost ground in Republican poll average FiveThirtyEight from the debate.

Why didn’t it come up? Is it because it was “annoying,” as Times opinion columnist Michelle Goldberg put it? Or maybe it’s because it appealed primarily to Trump supporters, who weren’t going to turn to the young upstart?

Either way, his inability to turn a standout performance into a surge in the polls raises questions about his upside potential. It could also raise questions about everyone else’s benefit, at least as long as voters remain loyal to Trump.

If any of the actual participants “won” the debate, polls say it was Ms. Haley.

Its advances have been quite modest throughout the country, but have been clearest in the early states. She has re-established herself as a relevant candidate by overtaking Ron DeSantis in New Hampshire and overtaking her South Carolina colleague, Tim Scott, to move into third place in Iowa.

Haley won the old-fashioned way: She vigorously defended the Republican Party’s traditional, neoconservative foreign policy views in a high-profile showdown with Ramaswamy. And she was modestly rewarded by the party’s moderate establishment voters, a group distinguished by its committed opposition to Trump.

It’s hard to see a moderate establishment person like Haley seriously competing for the Republican nomination in a populist-conservative party, much less with a giant like Trump in the race. But it’s easy enough to imagine her adding to the challenges faced by DeSantis or other traditional conservatives, winning over many moderate voters who might otherwise represent the natural base of a broad anti-Trump coalition.

Their re-emergence as a relevant faction was probably the most important thing to come out of the debate and, at least for now, helped Trump’s chances by further dividing his opposition. If he builds on his latest performance in the upcoming debate, Trump could count as the winner once again.

There are pretty strong arguments that DeSantis had a decent debate. He promoted a conservative message with fairly broad appeal across the party and stayed on the sidelines. In the end, a plurality of republican votersas well as many experts, said that it was the one that had the best performance.

However, they have since lost another two points. Of course, she’s been falling in the polls for months, so there’s not necessarily any reason to assume that her debate performance was the cause. But, at best, she failed to take advantage of a rare opportunity to regain her balance. At worst, Haley’s appearance created an additional threat to her left flank.

There is a lesson in DeSantis’ failure to turn a reasonable performance into gains in the polls: It’s hard to be a broadly attractive candidate in political primaries. Of course, broad appeal is necessary to win the nomination. But it is often easier to garner support by catering to the wishes of a major faction, as Haley did when he criticized Ramaswamy’s anti-interventionist foreign policy.

Generally, broadly attractive candidates overcome this problem with brute force: superior name recognition, resources, media attention, etc. If Trump were not in the race, perhaps DeSantis would run a broadly conservative campaign and win the nomination based on many of these attributes. But right now, it’s Trump, not DeSantis, who has the makings of a winning conservative with broad appeal. Not only could Trump hang out with broadly appealing platitudes if he wanted to, he doesn’t even need to introduce himself.

In August, someone might have wondered if Trump might lose support because of the first debate. Perhaps the voters would have reproached him for his lack of participation. Maybe his opponents had gone after him. Perhaps some voters would have decided they liked one of the other candidates after seeing that person for the first time.

Maybe not. In the end, Trump emerged unscathed. No one actually punched him, either for the issues or for being too “cowardly” to debate. More importantly, the candidates did not withdraw their support from the former president.

After the last debate, we can probably cross “some voters might decide they like one of the other candidates” off the list of “maybe this will hurt Trump” possibilities. But there is still an opportunity for candidates to try something new, vigorously attacking him for his recent comments on abortion or for not running. There’s no reason to expect any of these tactics to produce much of a shift in the race, but it would at least give some reason to wonder if maybe, just maybe, Wednesday night’s debate will have a different outcome than the first one.

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