If you’re a close follower of politics, you may have tuned in to the first GOP Presidential Primary Debate hosted by Fox News on August 23 of this year. If you’re not, you likely came across some of the more explosive moments clipped on social media or sent to you by your friends. With 8 contenders on stage, it proved to be a high-energy night that revealed the growing divides in the Republican base on issues like Ukraine, abortion access, and more. However, everyone inevitably felt the absence of the frontrunner, with former President Donald Trump, amidst the chaos of his many recent indictments, opting for a softball interview with Tucker Carlson on X. Amazingly, in true Trump fashion, the most recent post-debate polls still show him up 46 points despite skipping the debate and the recent release of his mugshot. At this point, it’s still Trump’s race to lose.
The debate was still an enlightening look into the views of those who think they can threaten the former President’s comfortable lead, with Mike Pence, Vivek Ramaswamy, Chris Christie, Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, Tim Scott, Doug Burgum, and Asa Hutchinson. Of the other 4 candidates in the running who did not qualify for the debate stage, 3 claimed they actually did qualify, demonstrating a tendency for GOP candidates to allege any process that failed to operate in their favor must have been rigged. According to a variety of polls, including Pew Research, the primary concerns of GOP voters include the economy and inflation above all, with issues like addiction and violent crime, border security, and ‘moral values’ all also polling at around or above 70% with the Republican base. Unfortunately, Fox News didn’t seem to get the memo of these concerns when crafting their debate questions. Notably, only one question in the entire debate focused on the economy, and there was no mention of the recent hot-button issues of cutting entitlements (Medicare/Social Security) or combating ‘woke’ ideology. It’s especially interesting to note the lack of focus on ‘wokeness’ from candidates like Ramaswamy or DeSantis, who launched their campaigns on the issue. They’ve likely made this pivot due to recent polling like the NYT Siena poll from July 31 showing that only 24% of Republican voters said they would choose “a candidate who focuses on defeating radical ‘woke’ ideology in our schools, media, and culture” over candidates geared towards other issues. With these issue highlights in mind, let’s take a look at the night’s winners and losers.
Winners: Ramaswamy, Haley, DeSantis
As someone with minimal name ID and no political experience, Ramaswamy had to see this night as a chance to introduce himself to the GOP base and prove himself as a qualified candidate. He played the night aggressively and took lots of risks, hitting high highs and low lows throughout the debate. Nearly everyone on stage borderline despised Ramaswamy, taking every opportunity to attack him– Christie on his Trump sycophancy, Haley on his foreign policy positions, and Pence on his lack of experience: “It’s not the time for on the job training!” Despite these attacks, Ramaswamy held his own and responded strongly to many of the criticisms; in fact, some of the only points that didn’t land with the audience of voters and donors involved his relatively extreme foreign policy positions and his now-famous position that the climate change agenda is a ‘hoax,’ and he’s the only candidate uncorrupted enough to admit it. Ramaswamy did himself some favors with his extreme positions, neatly filing himself in as the ideal candidate to replace Trump should something go wrong– say, him finding himself in federal prison. It’s likely that Ramaswamy’s strong allegiance to Trump didn’t impact his likely voters, however; those who really enjoyed what he had to say have one candidate as their number one: Donald J. Trump. At some point, the dedication to the former President has to deal some damage to his campaign. After all, if, as he said, “ Donald Trump was the greatest president of the 21st Century,” then it begs the question: why is Vivek even running?
Nikki Haley shocked many with her surprisingly strong debate performance; she’s been relatively absent from public media appearances, and has drawn sharp criticism for her Hillary Clinton-style “girlboss” comments. However, after the debate, many voters decided to give her a second chance, with her experiencing a sharp increase in favorability following the debate. Her strongest moments were her moderating comments on abortion, making her far more appealing in a general election for taking the radical stance that we should not incarcerate women who receive an abortion. The other moment that caught eyes was her dressing down of Vivek Ramaswamy’s foreign policy positions, dramatically accusing him of irresponsibly using his lack of foreign policy knowledge and experience to advocate for policies that make America less safe. She has a solidly neoconservative lean to her foreign intervention positions, including her takes on Israel and Ukraine, but they played quite well with the audience and donors despite recent divides within the party on these issues.
Ron DeSantis is one of the more puzzling figures of the evening: he didn’t have many particularly strong moments, but he was able to play it cool, get his planned talking points across, and remain above the fray by not attacking and not being attacked very strongly. As someone whose awkwardness and social ineptitude has been played up in the media for months, he was able to come across as normal, qualified, and confident, doing him lots of good with the GOP base. During the hand raising segments, there were multiple moments when DeSantis seemed to survey the positions of other candidates before deciding his own, but overall, he had a positive evening by not doing any more damage to his campaign than he already has done.
Losers: Christie, Pence, Scott
Chris Christie, former Governor of New Jersey, is someone the American people have come to expect a great debate performance from, regardless of whether they agree with him or not. But aside from a few great zingers– the ChatGPT attack on Ramaswamy got a strong reaction– Christie had a very middling debate performance. He was definitely walking into the Trump-supporting lion’s den, and didn’t maintain that sense of bravado and confidence people have come to expect from him. Christie’s been angling himself as the ‘kamikaze-esque’ candidate there to attack Trump and his conduct, and that won him no favor at all with the audience. One of the most embarrassing moments of the night was the chorus of boos and disapproval from the audience towards Christie that went on for so long that the moderators had to scold the viewers as if they were school children misbehaving. In fact, one of the only moments Christie was able to [grudgingly] get the audience on his side was his insistence that Mike Pence did the right thing by upholding his constitutional duty on January 6, 2021. He had few other strong moments, but let’s be serious: there is no way Chris Christie will win the GOP primary if, as Ramaswamy noted, he’s contributing on MSNBC and CNN multiple times a week to attack the party’s frontrunner.
Mike Pence, despite having the most talk time in the debate at 12 minutes and 26 seconds, did nothing to distinguish himself and dug further into his evangelical roots, cementing his small portion of the base further by maintaining his extreme position on a national abortion ban and his support for criminal penalties for anyone who receives or performs an abortion. Pence had a testy exchange with Haley about the actual viability of a national abortion ban, but he stuck to his moral supremacist position, solidifying his spot as the most extreme evangelical candidate in the running.
Senator Scott did not hold up well in the debate at all; as a politician who’s better known for being affable and interpersonally skilled, he didn’t shine in this format and came off as a genuinely boring, quiet debater. Though he competed a bit with Pence for the evangelical vote, particularly by supporting a 15-week federal abortion ban, he hardly appealed to the majority of the GOP base who wanted to see conflict and bold statements from their candidates.
Why are you here? : Burgum, Hutchinson
Burgum and Hutchinson both felt as though they were from a different era of GOP presidential politics, harkening back to classic conservative views on limiting government and assuming hawkish foreign policy positions. Burgum had no memorable moments; all most people know about his campaign is that he is the governor of a flyover state, is staunchly anti-China, and has quite expressive eyebrows. In fact, the only thing headlines and major news articles had to say about him post-debate was that he had suffered an Achilles tendon injury the night before, landing him in the hospital.
Last but not least, we have Asa Hutchinson, a man who experienced boos and heckling from the few audience members that knew who he was– likely due to Trump’s continued attacks on him for his disloyalty. Hutchinson’s most memorable moment was shared with Chris Christie, when the two were the only candidates to verify that they would not support Donald Trump as the GOP nominee for President should he be convicted of a serious felony.
The performances of each candidate make one thing crystal clear: without a massive event to shift GOP base opinion, Donald Trump will likely become the party’s nominee for president, while appearing in court for various trials related to the 91 counts against him spread across 4 criminal indictments.