Tuesday's Debate Could Be Last Chance to Knock Out Trump

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at the Republican Jewish Coalition Presidential Forum in Washington, Th
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at the Republican Jewish Coalition Presidential Forum in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 3, 2015. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

The fifth Republican presidential debate of the 2016 election cycle will take place Tuesday night. With less than two months to go before the voters finally get their chance to weigh in, this may be the last chance any of the other Republican contenders have of knocking Donald Trump out of first place. For many of the candidates on stage, Tuesday may be their last chance at remaining even slightly relevant to the race. There will also be a fierce battle for second place between Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. All of this adds up to a fairly important night, and with Donald Trump at center stage once again, also likely an entertaining one.

Let's take these dynamics one at a time, beginning with the man who has led the Republican polling for six straight months, and then work our way down to the candidates in the depths of desperation.

Trump approaching unstoppable status

The most recent national poll just out is probably an outlier, but even so it has to be sobering for Republicans everywhere. Donald Trump -- if the poll can be believed, of course -- now holds the support of a commanding 41 percent of the Republican electorate. His closest competitor is Ted Cruz, with only 14 percent support. That is barely over one-third of Trump's support, and only one other candidate (Marco Rubio) even managed to break 10 percent.

Other polls put the national race much closer, however. The previous poll released (by a different organization) showed Trump at only 27 percent support, with Cruz nipping at his heels with 22 percent. That is one heck of a lot closer, obviously. But both of these polls are likely that the two ends of the margin of error. Trump's support is probably somewhere in the low 30s right now, and Cruz likely lands in the high teens.

No matter how you slice the numbers, Trump still leads the pack by a goodly margin. But a closer examination of the polling done over the last six months or so (using the chart from the Real Clear Politics Republican tracking page) shows something interesting which hasn't gotten much attention yet. Trump's polling average almost always goes down right after a debate. And this is pretty much the only times his average has gone down. To put this into strategic terms, the best possible chance of knocking Trump off his game will come tomorrow night.

To be sure, there will be other debates. The next one comes mid-January, less than three weeks before Iowa, and then there will be another debate in early February just before New Hampshire votes. But if Trump has locked in a hard core of supporters before then, it may not matter if the next two debates do him a minor amount of damage.

Trump's track record, so far, is that he loses a chunk of support immediately following almost every debate. This slump continues for a few weeks, and then Trump's support climbs back up, often higher than where he started from. After the first debate, in August, Trump went from 24.3 percent support down to 22.0 percent. The second debate was Trump's worst night of the campaign so far, as he saw his polling slide from 30.5 to 22.8 percent (a loss of 7.7 percent) after his performance. This was the biggest polling loss Trump has yet seen during the entire campaign.

The third debate wasn't as rough for Trump, as his numbers only slid from 27.0 down to 24.6, but it also represented the biggest threat to Trump's dominance, as Ben Carson -- very briefly -- actually led Trump in average polling, in the aftermath of the debate.

The fourth debate, however, had little or no impact on Trump's numbers. He only went down a half a point, from 24.8 to 24.3. The fourth debate absolutely devastated Ben Carson, though, whose numbers tumbled from 24.4 down to 12.6 (today's average) -- and still falling.

Right now, Trump is polling at his highest point of the entire campaign. His average is 31.4 percent. That's got to be scaring the daylights out of all the other candidates in the race. But the takeaway point for them is that pretty much the only time Trump's numbers fall a significant amount is right after debates. Until two weeks ago, the only downward spikes anywhere on Trump's chart were happened in the aftermaths of the debates.

The other campaigns are likely aware of this, which is why Trump is going to be the number one target Tuesday night. Whether it'll inflict major damage on Trump or not remains to be seen. At this point the only way the Republican Party avoids Trump as nominee is to have Ted Cruz win Iowa and then someone like Chris Christie or John Kasich win New Hampshire. If Trump wins either of the two first states, he may well become unstoppable. Which is why Tuesday night is going to be so important. The next two debates may be too late to inflict any meaningful damage on Trump. If Trump's numbers don't dip significantly and then continue to rise after Tuesday night, the nomination race may be pretty much over, folks.

Cruz versus Rubio

If you look at just the past couple of polls, it would seem there are three serious contenders for second place. But, alas, Ben Carson's position is not static, as his poll numbers have been falling off a cliff since the focus turned to foreign policy. So whatever residual support Carson still holds is precisely the target of the two men who actually do have a shot at becoming the "anti-Trump" in the race. As Carson's audience bleeds away, they are migrating to both Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio; although at this point (especially in Iowa), it seems that Cruz is doing a much better job of picking them up than Rubio. But both candidates are wooing the voters deserting Carson, so neither one of them is likely to attack Carson openly -- if they're smart, they'll largely ignore Carson altogether. Either that, or offer Carson a helping of pity (which would be even more subtle than ignoring him).

We've already had some sniping between the two real second-place competitors. Rubio and Cruz are both trying to make the other look weak on national security. Rubio is hitting Cruz for his "party outsider" stances on things like N.S.A. phone surveillance and military budgets. Cruz is hitting Rubio for his stance on immigration, among other things.

Other than attacks on Donald Trump, these two are going to be the biggest targets of Tuesday evening. In fact, the other candidates on the stage might choose to attack Rubio and Cruz rather than face the furnace-blast of Trump's disdain. Cruz and Rubio are two of the only candidates who have been helped by their past debate performances, though, so it'll be interesting to see which one of them emerges victorious from a head-to-head competition.

Everyone else exuding the sour stench of desperation

Everyone else on the stage Tuesday night will be desperate. None of their campaigns has caught fire, and two of the remaining candidates (soon to be joined by Ben Carson) have watched their poll numbers sink from respectable status to below five percent support nationally. Carly Fiorina was a flash in the pan, reaping a big spike of support for two good debate performances only to see it then wither away, perhaps when voters realized that "I can be the angriest towards Hillary Clinton" was the only arrow in Carly's quiver. For whatever reason, she's now an afterthought or a sideshow, at best.

And then there's Jeb Bush. For all the arguments about how corrosive money is on American democracy and politics, sometimes all the money in the world isn't worth a thing when the voters just flat-out reject your candidate. Actually, Carly Fiorina's Senate campaign was another good example of this. But Jeb Bush seems destined to be a textbook example of how sometimes throwing a bunch of money at a campaign does no good whatsoever.

Bush has spent an obscene amount of money on the race so far -- his super PAC alone has laid out 50 million dollars, while watching Bush's poll numbers sink below the waves. Tuesday night may be Bush's last chance at even having a small influence on the nomination race. At this point, he truly has nothing left to lose, so we'll see what the flopsweat of desperation leads Bush to attempt in the debate. Maybe he'll come out swinging for Trump, Cruz, and Rubio! Then again, maybe he's simply incapable of successfully doing so. His previous debate performances certainly didn't do him any good, whether he was trying to attack or trying to play nice. But Bush knows this is really his last shot, so it'll be interesting to see what he comes up with. Even if he does score some major attacks against those with much better polls numbers, though, it's hard to picture Bush doing much better in the polling himself afterwards. Stranger things have happened in politics, but I'd be surprised if Bush suddenly sprang back into contention, personally.

Pretty much everyone else on the stage will be irrelevant to the nomination race, although they'll all be striving hard to utter that one memorable line that will boost their candidacy back to life. There's a pack of desperate candidates that somehow weaseled their way back onto the main stage, all of whom truly deserve to be relegated to the "kids' table" pre-debate. Chris Christie, John Kasich, and Rand Paul will all be on the main stage, and they'll all be wildly punching at the top three frontrunners. Will any of them land a blow? Well, that's what everyone will be watching to see, of course. But all three candidates are in the same unenviable position as Bush, since no matter how cleverly they take down one of the frontrunners, it's highly unlikely that they reap a big bonanza in the polls for doing so.

Christie and Kasich will be fighting for one reason alone: because they think they have a shot at winning New Hampshire, which will then launch them nationally into the frontrunner ranks. Both have concentrated on the state with laser-like focus, and both will likely do much better there than their national polling would indicate. Longshots do win in New Hampshire, and sometimes this does begin to snowball with voters in other states. So look for both Christie and Kasich to focus on issues important to New Hampshire voters (like heroin addiction, for instance).

In conclusion, the debate will have three clear targets: Trump, Cruz, and Rubio. Ben Carson will likely be ignored (since he's not much of a threat anymore). Cruz and Rubio will likely spend much of their time attacking each other rather than Trump, and the rest of the pack is so desperate that they could attempt just about anything. If Trump isn't damaged significantly, however, he's going to become the clear favorite to win the Republican nomination outright.

Chris Weigant blogs at:

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