Barone: GOP debate a good sign for the 2016 election
The Republican debate was the biggest night of the political year so far, for what happened on the stage at Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena and for what happened offstage as well.
The stage was the scene of the first two Republican presidential debates, hosted by Fox News, which together lasted some 200 minutes between 5 and 11 p.m. eastern. What happened there did not go unnoticed. According to overnight Nielsen ratings, the two-hour prime-time debate got a rating as high as the national basketball finals — almost triple the highest rating of a Republican debate in the 2012 cycle and more than half that of the first Obama-Romney debate that fall. It was apparently the most watched primary debate in history.
That may have helped Trump, the candidate whom many presumably tuned in to watch. He has a history of getting good TV ratings and has been leading most recent national and state polls. But it’s not clear that he gained (or lost) ground in this debate. He had some unhelpful testy interchanges but did nothing to disenchant those who already liked him.
The debate may also have helped, to varying degrees, the other nine candidates on the stage, each of whom had one or more memorable moments and showed he could handle penetrating, even hostile questions with aplomb. Even as Trump held up his hand and refused to abandon the threat of running as an independent — his “leverage” — the debate may have helped the Republican Party, whose national image has suffered.
That image may have been helped even more for those who tuned in for the 5 o’clock “happy hour” debate and saw the assured, aggressive performance of Carly Fiorina, footage of which the Fox moderators aired during the 9 p.m. main event.
Viewers hoping to see attacks on, or by, Trump were mostly (though not entirely) disappointed. What they saw instead was Trump acting more like a standard politician and his more conventional rivals expanding on some of his themes.
Trump had some basis, though he exaggerated, when he said that his (unsavory) comments on immigration got other candidates talking about the issue. His candidacy has also prompted rivals to acknowledge the frustrations of many voters with political gridlock and economic sluggishness today.
Some frustration is inevitable, thanks to James Madison and the other delegates who wrote a Constitution full of checks and balances — and to an electorate tilting usually to Democrats in presidential elections and Republicans in congressional contests.
But Trump’s campaign has prodded other candidates to expand on how they can overcome it.
Michael Barone is senior political analyst at the Washington Examiner.