GOP Debate Recap: Who was the best debater?

The after-action reports are rolling in on last night's GOP debate, and the search for a winner has been as much about narratives and expectations as about what happened on stage.

Here, the team at Speech Labs gives their answers to a more tangible question: On Wednesday night, who did the best debating?


Seth Gannon: Fiorina, Rubio

Going into last night's debate, there seemed to be two contenders: Donald Trump and the field. To some extent that remained true, particularly in the large proportion of questions that cited criticism by or about Trump. But over the course of a marathon three-hour debate, some in the field distinguished themselves by their debating.

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Public speaking is most effective when its form and content fit the persona the speaker is putting forward; what works for one person is mismatched to another. Carly Fiorina's clear, bullet-point plans for her first days in office worked because they match her public identity as a results-minded, no-nonsense businesswoman. She passed the Jeb Bush Test (i.e., can you manage Donald Trump?) with the night's biggest applause line, that American women heard Trump's statements about her "very clearly." Later in the debate, discussing drugs, she hit a somber note recounting family tragedy and, in the same answer, relieved the tension with a safe, low-key joke about Jeb Bush's marijuana use 40 years earlier.

Of all the candidates, Fiorina most effectively integrated what others said into her own responses, participating in a fluid discussion and not simply working from a script. She turned Trump's "You said it" refrain to Jeb Bush back against him, and when Christie accused her of bickering with Trump over old business deals, she reminded the audience that Christie had been citing his own track record only minutes before.

Marco Rubio had some memorable moments as well. Even early, when I occasionally found him too insistently emphatic, he seemed to connect with the crowd; in fact, with a relatively quiet presidential library audience, no one received more consistent applause. His delivery was smooth and sincere, particularly when he spoke earnestly and movingly about his Spanish-speaking grandfather and his family's immigration history.

One unavoidable conclusion, echoing the first debate and despite a moment of joking camaraderie at the debate's end, is that Jeb Bush matches up poorly with Donald Trump. Compare their interaction on special interests and campaign contributions, in which Trump shut down Bush's attack by saying, "More energy tonight!" to Fiorina's left hook, or to Walker quieting Trump ("Just because he says it doesn't make it true"). Interpersonally Trump seems to push Bush's buttons, and Trump's lasting imprint on this race may be reducing Bush's big-money momentum to frustration.


Jonathan Paul: Trump

While it’s tough to disagree that Fiorina and Rubio had the best performances last night, it’s worth countering the popular meme that Trump “lost” the debate. His performance was certainly not without faults, but Trump displayed three strengths that explain why I don’t believe this debate will hurt his standing in the GOP field.  

First, he controlled the terrain of the debate. Trump knows his weaknesses and effectively avoided wading into issues where other candidates have an edge. He was most active in the discussion on immigration policy and the economy—the two issues that appear to drive his base. By punting questions about policy minutiae, Trump avoided a Rick Perry level gaffe that could sink his campaign.  As the frontrunner in a crowded field, avoiding a serious misstep was all he needed to accomplish tonight to walk away as a winner.

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Second, he showed resiliency. The exchange that will surely get the most coverage was Fiorina’s brilliant counter-punch to Trump’s comments in Rolling Stone about ‘her face.’ It was not a great moment for Trump, but a few exchanges later he stepped in to eviscerate Fiorina’s track record as CEO of Hewlett Packard--the entire basis for her candidacy.

Finally, Trump is one of the best candidates at staying on offense. In nearly all of his answers, he blends in one of the core rationales for his candidacy (his business record, judgment, and refusal to be bought by donors). The Trump we saw last night was more subdued than the one we typically see on Twitter, but he still went after other candidates in a way that displayed his independence and ensured the media spotlight will remain focused on his campaign.

If I were coaching Trump, the first thing I’d encourage him to do is to get into the weeds on policy and develop some more detailed answers, particularly on foreign policy and health care. The fiery rhetoric and sheer force of his persona works now, but the act could wear thin when his lack of policy expertise is exposed as the field narrows. Second, I’d encourage Trump to keep attacking! I was disappointed that he ignored, in one of his exchanges with Bush, the obvious retort to the claim that his brother “made us safe.”


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Andrew Markoff: Kasich

First of all, snaps to Jake Tapper, Dana Bash, and Hugh Hewitt. They perfectly toed the line between facilitating back-and-forths and controlling the flow of the debate. They gave us a chance to see how each candidate responds to pointed refutation of their ideas.   

I was hesitant, then, to choose Governor Kasich. In an evening filled with fascinating exchanges between rivals, Kasich had few of these moments. It is not clear who his rivals are. The other candidates showed little interest in going after him. His ability to withstand direct scrutiny while re-emphasizing his own narrative wasn't tested as much as, say, Donald Trump's. And that ability is critical for success in a Presidential debate.

Nevertheless, Kasich registered an extremely solid performance. He made his moderate conservative ideology sound exciting. He found a workable, differentiating style and made a compelling case for the nomination centered on his executive experience.

Kasich's speaking style last night was fantastic. Consider this: on the substance, Kasich and Jeb Bush are quite similar. The two swing state governors were likely the most moderate candidates on last night's stage. Bush, though, is being tormented by questions about his 'energy' and engagement while speaking to the public. He struggles to make high growth rates and low taxes sound compelling when Trump discusses border walls and mass deportations. To improve, he may want to watch some tape of Ohio's governor.

Kasich brought a fervor to his rhetoric that cast his moderate ideas as incredibly, urgently important. This was clear when Ted Cruz said he would "rip" the Iran deal "to shreds" on January 1, 2017. Kasich joined Bush and Rand Paul in denouncing Cruz as too radical. Kasich argued that reneging on the deal would isolate the U.S. diplomatically, and that the deal allows sanctions to be quickly snapped back. He was strong on the substance, but so was Bush. Kasich really excelled in his delivery. He was loud and clear from the outset. At points he was practically screaming. He was so hurried that he verged on slurring. By the end of the Iran exchange, Kasich was red in the face, showing real physical exertion. The approach worked. His rhetorical passion made the maintenance of the status quo sound truly imperative. This was not an easy task: neither Rand Paul nor Jeb Bush could pull it off.

Throughout the night, Kasich displayed a controlled but thorough intensity. This was most obvious in his gestures, which at times bordered on hysterical (watch, for example, him pointing across the stage at Ted Cruz during a cross-fire on Planned Parenthood). In general, though, this worked. He was an animated speaker, drawing in the audience and television viewers with his body language. He started speeches slowly and clearly, and built up to flourishes where he would raise both hands and point at himself (to emphasize his leadership) or point at the audience (to appeal to their desire for a strong leader).

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To some degree, last night's deck was stacked against Governor Kasich. Viewers, and perhaps the moderators, were focused on Trump versus Bush and the rise of the outsider candidates (Trump, Fiorina, Carson). Kasich had the third-lowest amount of air time last night. But he used it effectively, making his brand of moderate conservatism seem exciting.