Vivek Ramaswamy and Nikki Haley had a debate within the debate. Credit…Kenny Holston/The New York Times
With the benefit of hindsight, there was one big winner of the first Republican presidential debate: Donald J. Trump.
He has gained more support in the post-debate polls than any other candidate, even though he didn’t appear onstage last month. He’s up 3.5 percentage points in a direct comparison between polls taken before and after the debate by the same pollsters. Only Nikki Haley — up 1.5 points across the seven national pollsters — can also claim to have gained a discernible amount of ground.
This basic lesson from the first debate might just be the most important thing to keep in mind heading into the second Republican debate Wednesday night. Candidates might be flashy. They might be broadly appealing. They might hit MAGA notes. But after the last debate, there’s that much less reason to think this one will make a big difference in the race. It might even add up to helping Mr. Trump, by splintering his potential opposition.
Here are some lessons from the last debate — and what they mean for the next one.
Being center stage isn’t enough
No one seemed to command more attention during the debate than Vivek Ramaswamy. Perhaps no one ought to be more disappointed in the post-debate polls.
Despite gaining a fair share of the headlines, Mr. Ramaswamy failed to earn additional support. He has even lost ground in the FiveThirtyEight Republican polling average since the debate.
Why didn’t he surge? Is it because he was “annoying,” as the Times Opinion columnist Michelle Goldberg put it? Or maybe it’s because he mostly appealed to Trump supporters, who weren’t going to flip to the young upstart?
Either way, his failure to turn a breakout performance into a polling breakthrough raises questions about his upside. It could also raise doubts about everyone else’s upside — at least as long as voters remain loyal to Mr. Trump.
Standing up for a faction still pays
If any of the actual debaters “won” the debate, the polls say it was Ms. Haley.
Her gains have been fairly modest nationwide, but they have been clearer in the early states. She has re-established herself as a relevant candidate by leapfrogging Ron DeSantis in New Hampshire and overtaking a fellow South Carolinian, Tim Scott, to move into third place in Iowa.
Ms. Haley won the old-fashioned way: She vigorously defended the traditional, neoconservative foreign policy views of the Republican Party in a high-profile showdown with Mr. Ramaswamy. And she was modestly rewarded by the party’s moderate establishment voters — a group that is distinct for its committed opposition to Mr. Trump.
It’s hard to see a moderate-establishment-type like Ms. Haley seriously contending for the Republican nomination in a populist-conservative party, let alone with a juggernaut like Mr. Trump in the race. But it is quite easy to imagine her adding to the challenges facing Mr. DeSantis or other mainstream conservatives, by winning over many moderate voters who might otherwise represent the natural base of a broad anti-Trump coalition.
Her re-emergence as a relevant factional player was probably the most important thing that came out of the debate, and, at least for now, it helped Mr. Trump’s chances by further splitting his opposition. If she builds on her last performance in the next debate, Mr. Trump might count as the winner yet again.
Broad appeal isn’t enough
There’s a fairly strong case that Mr. DeSantis had a decent debate. He promoted a conservative message with fairly broad appeal throughout the party and stayed out of the fray. In the end, a plurality of Republican voters, as well as plenty of pundits, said he performed the best.
Nonetheless, he has slipped another two points since then. Of course, he has been sliding in the polls for months, so there’s not necessarily any reason to assume that his debate performance was the cause. But at best, he failed to capitalize on a rare opportunity to regain his footing. At worst, the emergence of Ms. Haley created an additional threat to his left flank.
There’s a lesson in Mr. DeSantis’s failure to turn a reasonable performance into gains in the polls: It’s hard to be a broadly appealing candidate in primary politics. Broad appeal, of course, is necessary to win the nomination. But it’s often easiest to build support by catering to the wishes of an important faction, as Ms. Haley did when she blasted Mr. Ramaswamy’s anti-interventionist foreign policy.
Usually, broadly appealing candidates overcome this problem with brute force: superior name recognition, resources, media attention and so on. If Mr. Trump weren’t in the race, perhaps Mr. DeSantis would run a broadly conservative campaign and win the nomination by relying on many of these attributes. But right now, it’s Mr. Trump, not Mr. DeSantis, who has the traits of a winning conservative with broad appeal. Not only could Mr. Trump skate by with broadly appealing platitudes if he wanted — but he doesn’t even need to show up.
Trump isn’t beating himself
In August, someone could have plausibly wondered whether Mr. Trump might lose support because of the first debate. Maybe voters would have held his nonparticipation against him. Maybe his opponents would have gone after him. Maybe some voters might have decided they liked one of the other candidates after seeing that person for the first time.
Maybe not. In the end, Mr. Trump emerged unscathed. No one really landed a punch on him, whether on the issues or for being too “chicken” to debate. More important, the candidates didn’t draw support away from the former president.
After the last debate, we can probably cross “some voters might decide they liked one of the other candidates” off the list of “maybe this will hurt Trump” possibilities. But there’s still an opportunity for the candidates to try something new by attacking him vigorously on his recent abortion comments or for failing to show up. There’s no reason to expect either tactic to yield a huge shift in the race, but it would at least give some reason to wonder whether maybe, just maybe, Wednesday night’s debate will have a different outcome than the first.