Conventional wisdom holds that the early front-runner in a wide-open primary, especially a crowded one, rarely turns out to be the nominee. It’s probably one of those “rules” that will be true until it isn’t, but at the moment there is ample evidence from past contests to back it up.
The reason that rule holds up is that elections are a process, and a rather long one at that, compared to the rest of the world’s democracies.
It’s not an entirely linear progress, as climbing a ladder is. It’s more like a dance with five steps, with a good deal of forward, backwards, and sideways motion. Carly Fiorina’s big night at the second Republican primary debate demonstrated she has mastered all of them. Everyone else had a stumble or two, although there’s still time for most of them to learn the moves.
Time is running out for a few of these candidates. The first step in the primary dance is plausibility. It’s impossible to get a campaign moving without it, and difficult to stay in the race past the early everything-goes months without doing the Plausibility Shuffle. Some candidates have so much money, political influence, or star power that they don’t have to worry much about proving they belong in the race during the early stages, but it can come up again later.
Debate Two began with a striking performance from Donald Trump, as he riverdanced across the stage and tried to throw Senator Rand Paul off it, snorting that Paul’s piddly one percent in the polls didn’t rate a position in the main event. Trump does this sort of thing a lot, invoking poll numbers to attack the plausibility of his competitors. He even cuts them off while they’re speaking by saying they lack the campaign stature to compete with him for attention… and sometimes it works. If Donald Trump tells you to shut up because your campaign is going nowhere, and you do indeed shut up, you should spend some time after the debate contemplating the possibility that he’s right.
Trump himself tap-dances around the question of plausibility by citing his popularity and great personal wealth, and he’ll probably need no other strategy for a while to come, but he will have to revisit the question again. Carly Fiorina shrewdly understood that plausibility is the first hurdle for an outsider to overcome, especially when her previous political experience involved losing a high-profile election. It’s interesting that not even Trump ever brings that up, preferring instead to brawl over their relative business experiences. In this year of the game-changing outsider, no one is holding it against her. (However, I have a personal request for Fiorina: I want to see the Demon Sheep again, just one more time, before all this is over.)
Fiorina became plausible the way all outsiders hope to, by mastering the next two steps of the Primary Dance: she became extremely interesting and exciting. Those aren’t the same thing. Exciting candidates who aren’t interesting burn out. Interesting candidates who aren’t exciting fade into the background, leaving pundits and party insiders to wonder how someone with such a dazzling resume could fail to make a ripple in the campaign.
Trump and Ben Carson seem to be riding the crest of excitement waves that could break at any moment. (In Carson’s case, being extremely likable and respectable produces a unique blend of excitement. No hordes of reporters follow him around, he doesn’t barge into the headlines twice a day like Trump, and yet he entered Debate Two right behind the incandescent mogul in most polls.)
In this long debate, both of them got in trouble by failing to offer much in the way of policy specifics. Trump demurs all such questions by saying he will hire a team of experienced geniuses to handle the details while he focuses on the big picture, while Carson is a bona fide genius who repeatedly demonstrates a great capacity for careful observation, understanding, and common-sense wisdom. Beneath all the verbal pyrotechnics, Trump is actually conveying a fairly accurate sense of how the presidency works, but the voting public eventually reaches the point where they doubt anyone can have a solid Big Picture vision without mastering any of the details.
Both Trump and Carson would have benefited enormously from just a dash of wonkishness last night, perhaps the announcement of a major policy position. This would have been a great moment for Trump to unveil the tax-reform proposal he’s always alluding to, perhaps with a stack of brochures to pass out later in the Spin Room. Instead, he had yet another round-table chat with the other candidates on how various reforms all sound great, and he’s going to have some top people consider them all and write up the best tax reform you ever saw. Carson made some solid observations about physical border security, but otherwise chose some odd ground to stand upon with an unusual idea about creating an automatically-indexed two-tier minimum wage.
Carly Fiorina, on the other hand, has a detailed response for everything, and she’s usually good at avoiding the pitfall of sounding like a human Power Point presentation. I would suggest, in future, being slightly more conversational about certain topics. When you’re planning to make two phone calls in your first hour in the Oval Office, you don’t have to say “I would make two phone calls” and then list them like bullet points. But I’ve seen well-prepared wonky politicians do a far worse job of reading position papers while the audience’s eyes glaze over. Fiorina is, to put it simply, good at being interesting without sacrificing excitement.
As for the technically impressive candidates who ran out of excitement gas for their interest-mobiles… did you know Governor Scott Walker recently proposed a bold labor-reform plan that would change the face of both the federal bureaucracy and national politics? He seems to have forgotten about that, too. I suspect he assumed the moderators would bring it up, and he was probably ready to hold forth at length on the subject of union corruption and Democrat politics, a personal specialty of his. They didn’t, and Walker became a ghost haunting the edges of the debate stage.
It’s necessary to grab control of these debates and steer the discussion in your direction, as Trump does constantly – his challenge made easier by the fact that he was the topic of discussion in so many of the questions – while Fiorina did it gracefully when she introduced the Planned Parenthood organ-harvesting outrage and linked it to, of all things, the Iran nuclear deal. And she made it work! It was like watching a Marine assemble a rifle while blindfolded.
Fiorina was very sharp to understand that many people watching that CNN debate have no idea what those Planned Parenthood videos show, because the media has so thoroughly embargoed them. She used her position as a candidate to force the media to cover a story that scares it to death for ideological reasons, and wrote one of those Narratives they love so much for them.
The last two steps in the Primary Dance are a tricky tango: the successful candidate must seem both electable and presidential. Those are two different moves, although confusing them is a common mistake. Electability is an important concern of insiders, big donors, political allies, and the media. Outsider candidates are prone to mistakenly dismissing its importance because they don’t like any of those groups, but it does matter. You can be an interesting, exciting, plausible candidate who nevertheless lacks a believable path to the presidency.
Looking presidential, on the other hand, is a vital part of sealing the deal with voters, especially persuadable swing voters. They have to be able to imagine this person sitting in the Oval Office. Sometimes voters have a hard time taking that final step with candidates they like and respect.
You could say electability is a reflection of how the political world sees voters, while looking presidential reflects the way voters see the political class. Clearing both of those hurdles can be tough. However, clearing them is not a substitute for being light on your feet during the other steps of the Primary Dance. It’s an even more common stumble during the general election, as every losing candidate who looked great on paper and his frustrated supporters can tell you.
Fiorina definitely looked presidential in her first major-debate appearance. She convincingly demonstrated that she can handle the job. Handling Trump was a big part of that. A big part of Trump’s appeal, misunderstood by those who dismissed him early as a buffoon, is that many voters see him as a “no-nonsense” guy: he barges into the boardroom and gets things done. He doesn’t dither, he won’t back down, he defies the normal rules of political correctness. Fiorina looked truly no-nonsense compared to him last night, especially when she shot him down with that regal sideways glance during the business about his insulting her looks. It matters that she handled that so well. It matters so much that he probably did her a favor by attacking her.
This is a dance marathon, so there is time for the plausible candidates to adjust and grow. Those with deep financial and political resources can hang on until excitement matters just a bit less, and the field narrows. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are still doing well in all five categories. Rubio probably did well enough last night to help himself a bit.
But there is nearly universal consensus that it was Carly Fiorina’s spotlight dance, and now every candidate who survives the coming weeks needs to think about how they’ll take her onto the floor during the next debate… especially since we’re approaching the point where asterisk candidates drop out, and there will soon be time for the remaining contenders to engage each other with more than quick stingers and zingers.