I attended the Republican candidates' debate in Cleveland Thursday night, and I came away with some different impressions than I heard and read from the morning-after pundits on TV, radio, newspapers, social media and websites.
One of the advantages of actually being in the Q Center arena seats was that I could hear where applause and cheers were coming from. You see, the tickets to the event were all assigned seats, and, not surprisingly, they were in blocks. I hadn't really expected the insight that being able to identify the audience blocks would bring to understanding audience reactions, but it was one of the major impacts on my understanding of the debate, and it was obvious right from the start. I was curious to compare audience reactions as each candidate was introduced. The first surprise there was the reaction to Jib Bush.
The most enthusiastic applause came from the seats facing the stage across the floor — seats that were held by the members of the Republican National Committee who were meeting in Cleveland over several days — and whose meeting was in fact part of the reason why the debate was in Cleveland. You see, the RNC always holds its summer meeting in the year before a Presidential election in the city that will host the Presidential nominating convention the following year. There was polite applause from the rest of the arena, but the enthusiasm for Jeb Bush seemed to come primarily from the RNC block. That's telling.
If you were watching on television or listening on radio, you may have noticed and possibly been surprised by the very positive reaction to Ohio Governor John Kasich. You may have thought that it may have been a kind of home field advantage, and I'm sure that was a big part of it — but the most curious thing to me was that the loudest applause and cheers for Kasich were almost all from one large section in the upper seats — and that pattern held for the next two hours. My guess is that those were the seats whose tickets were given out by the Ohio Republican Party. So when you hear commentators refer to how well received the Ohio Governor was — keep this context in mind. It will be interesting to see if it's very different at the next debate, on September 16 at the Reagan Library in California.
The positive reactions to Senators Rubio and Cruz and Governors Walker and Huckabee, by contrast, were much more evenly distributed. My guess is that their support is more durable and more national than Kasich's.
Speaking of positive reactions, the clearest winner of the night wasn't in the 9 o'clock debate — it was Carly Fiorina in the 5 o'clock debate. I watched that from my hotel room, since for some bizarre reason it was closed to the public in that cavernous arena. I then walked through the lobby of the hotel towards the end of the first debate, and everyone, and I mean everyone, was talking about Carly Fiorina. She actually benefitted from not making the cut for the top ten, because she stood out so clearly from the other six in the so-called Happy Hour Debate. The TV's in the lobby and lobby bars were almost all on the debate, not sports or local news, and folks were engaged and enthusiastic. It's also noteworthy that hers was the only early debate clips that were shown in the main debate later.
And now, what about Donald Trump? I was shocked to hear several pundits say that they think he didn't hurt himself with his performance. Eugene Robinson on MSNBC even said that he thought Trump's numbers would go up after the debate. I couldn't disagree more. I believe that we saw the beginning of the Trump flameout. I'd be happy to bet Mr. Robinson a steak dinner at the restaurant of his choice anywhere in the United States that he'll go down, maybe slowly but steadily, and that soon he'll be in the same category as Ross Perot.
So there you have it — a sparkling performance by Carly Fiorina, good solid performances by Rubio, Walker, Cruz, Huckabee and Kasich, and comparatively weaker performances from all the others in both debates, except for Trump and Paul, both of whom hurt rather than helped their candidacies.
And if any of the listeners to American Radio Journal know how to pass on my challenger bet to Eugene Robinson, please pass it on!