It’s pretty clear what the most talked-about segment of the GOP New Hampshire debate was.
When Chris Christie treated Marco Rubio like an accused murderer on the witness stand, alternatively badgering and mocking the witness’s alibi for where he was the night of the crime. The witness, though, would not be shaken from his story.
It’s his story, and he’s sticking to it.
Needless to say, Chris Christie is trying to portray this as a game changer in the trial known as the Republican primaries:
“I think that the anointment [of Rubio] is now over, so that changes the entire race… I am ready to roll right into South Carolina,” he later told reporters. “I have my reservations made. We have staff down there. And we’re ready to go to South Carolina. So I want the results here on Tuesday to be as good as they can possibly be. We’re going to work hard to make sure they are as good as it possibly can be, and last night we took a big step towards it.”
Democrats are all too happy to join in the chorus of mocking Rubio, with David Brock’s pro-Hillary Correct the Record tweeting out the meme that Rubio is a robot:
— Bridge Project (@BridgeProject21) February 7, 2016
Loops of the repetition were everywhere.
The potential damage to Rubio is significant because it goes to a core pre-existing perception problem, that his charm far exceeds his substance. Ratifying preconceived perceptions — such as Jeb Bush being low energy — can be extremely damaging to a candidate. More so than a specific issue problem.
It’s far from clear, however, that how the media and political opponents see a debate event is how voters see it. The Rubio campaign is reporting banner website traffic and fundraising, particularly after Rubio’s answer on abortion (as I predicted at the time):
Thinking this Rubio answer on abortion will help him more than Christie hurt him https://t.co/muuBkYzFNi but media won't see it
— Legal Insurrection (@LegInsurrection) February 7, 2016
But a lot of caution is also in order. Pundits haven’t misgauged the impact of a debate since … well, since only about a week ago, when the “smart take” was that Trump had won the final Iowa debate by not having shown up for it, and that Ted Cruz had a poor evening. Instead, Cruz won the Iowa caucuses a few days later, with Trump in second with a vote share well below where polls had projected him.
As I wrote after the previous debate, political reporters are in the “fog of war” phase of the campaign where our reactions aren’t necessarily good matches for those of voters at home. Some of the reason we reporters thought Rubio’s answer was so awful is because it confirmed some of our gossip about Rubio, namely that he tends to give pat, repetitive answers. But we tend to be more sensitive about that stuff, because we watch every debate from start to finish, and then we see lots of the candidates’ stump speeches and town halls on top of it. There’s a fine line between a candidate who seems stilted and repetitive and one who seems “on message” instead.
Is there any evidence that home viewers saw Rubio’s performance differently? Well, maybe. On Google Trends, there was a huge spike in searches for Rubio during the debate — but it came not during his glitchy moments but instead after an effective answer he delivered on abortion about two hours into the debate. Meanwhile, a Google Consumer Surveyspoll conducted midway through the debate found respondents thought that Trump, Rubio and Cruz (in that order) were winning the debate.
Rubio, for his part, is sticking to his story:
I think it’s something of a Rubio Rorschach Test. People will see into it what they want. I’m not sure it changed any minds, or votes.
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