When Candidates Attack

If you read this blog you know all about Kamala Harris taking Joe Biden to the proverbial woodshed in the recent debate. In real time, she won the exchange. In the direct aftermath, she won the exchange. But now that we’re a couple days down the road, what was the immediate impact, and how might things develop over the next couple of weeks?

There are three ways this can go:

Hurt the loser without helping the winner

In the Republican debate right before the 2016 New Hampshire Primary, Chris Christie took Marco Rubio apart. Pushing him for specifics and riding him for regurgitating talking points, Christie pushed Rubio into repeating himself on a seemingly endless loop.

Rubio’s post-Iowa momentum stopped cold. He finished fifth, after entering the debate second in the polling average. The distance between second and fifth was five points. This is the ultimate Sliding Doors moment of the 2016 campaign.

I’ve argued before and will many times more that had the Christie-Rubio exchange not happened, Rubio would have finished second with approximately 18-20% of the vote. John Kasich would have dropped out. Jeb Bush likely would have dropped out.

Even with the disappointing New Hampshire result, Rubio finished second in South Carolina, finishing 10 points behind Donald Trump (32.5% to 22.5%), just ahead of Ted Cruz. Bush and Kasich combined for 15.4%. It really doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see how a surging Rubio could have won.

In reality, Trump won New Hampshire, South Carolina, and the Nevada Caucuses in a row, setting him up as the big winner heading in to Super Tuesday on March 1. Cruz had won Iowa, with Trump and Rubio following him.

Rubio finished ahead of Cruz twice, and the reverse happened twice. But Cruz had a win and Rubio didn’t. Anti-Trump voters didn’t rally around either on Super Tuesday, and Trump won the majority of states, with Cruz getting three wins, and Rubio one.

Rubio missed by three points in Virginia. Less than ten in Oklahoma and Arkansas. Even the fifteen point gap in Georgia likely goes a different way if Rubio is stronger, Cruz is weaker, and Trump doesn’t have his winning streak.

At this point, the counterfactual contest turns into a virtual one-on-one between Rubio and Trump, at a time before Trump was regularly clearing 40% in primaries and caucuses. The outcome here isn’t certain. Trump may have won anyway, but I think Rubio would have consolidated enough support to win the nomination.

Instead, he was out of the race after losing his home state of Florida to Trump in mid-March. This is the maximum impact a debate incident like this can have for the loser.

Oh, and Christie? Dropped out of the race after finishing 6th in New Hampshire. His final result of 7.4% was slightly lower than his polling average at the time he took out Rubio.

Help the winner while also hurting the loser

In the third debate of the 2016 GOP cycle, Jeb Bush attempted to criticize Rubio’s attendance record in the Senate. Unfortunately for Jeb, Rubio’s team knew this was coming, as the candidate telegraphed the punch by running ads on the topic.

Marco ducked and counterpunched. Jeb went down. Nobody remembers this happened now. Bush wasn’t going to win the nomination anyway. Rubio, as we know, didn’t either. But at the time it was statistically significant and helped put Rubio in position for his New Hampshire short circuit to matter.

Prior to Trump’s entry, Bush was the polling leader. None of the debates helped Jeb. This is part of the danger for Biden, that Thursday wasn’t a fluke, and he’ll look a bit worse after each of them. He dropped a little after the first contest on August 6, 2015. Ben Carson moved into second place, with Jeb still the traditional candidate leader.

“Low Energy Jeb” took on more water in Debate #2 on September 16. Carly Fiorina did well and joined Trump and Carson in a group ahead of the candidates who actually previously won elective office. Rubio outperformed him for a second time. The gap between the dueling Floridians completely closed. Then Marco moved ahead.

Rubio led Bush in poll averages for the entire month leading up to the third debate on October 28. Not by much though. A couple of points. 10% to 8% on balance. So you can see why Jeb was motivated to swing at Marco on stage.

After the plan backfired, Bush was never heard from again. Within a month, he dropped below 5%, while Marco exceeded 15%. For much of 2015, there was somewhere between 18 and 25 percent support for Rubio and Bush to split. Prior to their exchange, momentum was already going in Rubio’s direction. This completed the shift.

Large amounts of institutional support, and well over $100 million in funding kept Jeb going until South Carolina, aided in part by Rubio’s gaffe in New Hampshire. But Jeb’s fundraising stopped dead. Pundits stopped expecting him to recover. Trump’s characterization took hold as conventional wisdom.

Help the winner without hurting the loser

That September 16 debate is an example of this scenario. Fiorina performed well overall, her crowning moment being a takedown of Trump over the issue of her appearance.

Prior to the debate, Trump was interviewed for a Rolling Stone piece. In it, he was quoted as saying “look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next President?”

From the hindsight of almost four years, of course that wasn’t going to harm Trump. However, at the time, many thought he would finally wear out his welcome with the electorate. All the more so, when Fiorina cowed him in to saying “she’s got a beautiful face, and she’s a beautiful woman.” The pundit class declared her the runaway victor of their face off.

Instantly, Fiorina rocketed ahead in polls, moving from a 3% average on the eve of the debate, to 12% a week later. From barely qualifying for the big kids table to third place. Trump took a short-term polling hit, dropping from just over 30% to the 23-25% range for a few weeks. He wouldn’t rebound to 30% plus until the beginning of December.

So he was impacted in the short-term, but even at that, never lost his first place position. And eventually his entire support was restored. Meanwhile, Fiorina faded, though she qualified for the next several debates and made enough of an impression to spend a few days as Ted Cruz’s official VP choice.

Still, Fiorina did better than the majority of 2016 GOP aspirants. Several, including the high-profile Scott Walker, left the race before voting even began. It’s likely Carly would have faced the same fate if not for her successful duel.

What about 2020’s Round One battles?

In the lesser of the two main debate scrums this week, Julian Castro took out after Beto O’Rourke on immigration. We only have tracking polls from Morning Consult as post-debate evidence.

Using their pre-debate poll, taken 6/19-6/26 as a control, we saw Beto at 4% and Castro at 1%. They took another survey from 6/26-6/27, meaning half was taken before/during their debate, and the other half the next day.

Castro moved up to 3%, O’Rourke down to 3%. A continuation of this trend would argue for the winner gets helped, loser gets harmed scenario. However, the 6/27-6/28 survey showed each candidate at 2%. The 6/28-6/29 measurement has Beto at 2% and Castro back to 1%.

We’ll need to see more data and have more time pass to make a final determination, but this is now looking like hurt the loser, but didn’t really help the winner.

You’re more likely reading this to find out about Harris-Biden. There’s immediate positive evidence for Kamala. She was at 6% from 6/19-6/26, and 7% for 6/26-6/27—remember, she didn’t clobber Biden until the late evening of 6/27.

The 6/27-6/28 numbers had her leaping to 17%. The follow-up 6/28-6/29 showed her at 12%. It’s dangerous to use a couple days of surveying from a single pollster as an absolute. If this is representative (and it’s all we’ve got at the moment), she had a great initial result, but is already losing some of the bounce.

I’m comfortable predicting her numbers a few days from now will still be higher than pre-debate. And even if she doesn’t retain all of what’s left of the bounce, she left a positive imprint on the analyst class, plus a meaningful chunk of voters. We can eliminate the scenario where the winner isn’t helped.

Contrary to what you’re hearing from many news sources right now, Biden wasn’t severely damaged. At least not yet:

6/19-6/26: 35%

6/26-6/27: 33%

6/27-6/28: 32%

6/28-6/29: 33%

He’d need to lose another 5-6 points to match Trump’s temporary drop. If that were to occur, he’d still find himself in first place, though more precariously. Rubio dove several points instantly. Jeb lost 30-50% of his support within a week.

If Biden crashes and burns before Iowa, people will look back on this moment as the beginning of the end. But it doesn’t even look like the end of the beginning. While Harris revealed several weaknesses in the front-runner, she appears not to have dented his support.

For now this looks like helped the winner, without hurting the loser.

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