New Hampshire and the Debate Hypothesis

By any reasonable measure, Marco Rubio struggled, mightily, during parts of the G.O.P. debate on Saturday night. Chris Christie savaged the Florida Senator for his inexperience and his reliance on canned talking points. Rubio responded, to a degree, with canned talking points, thereby demonstrating Christie’s basic critique that Rubio is an empty suit, similar to Barack Obama in 2008.* The conventional wisdom is that Rubio’s performance arrested his Iowa momentum and will blunt his support in the New Hampshire primary. At the same time, Christie’s performance, along with those of Jeb Bush and John Kasich, positioned the more moderate governors to excel in Tuesday’s contest.

All of this assumes that debates significantly affect electoral outcomes. Do they? The question is simple, but answering it is enormously complex. There are several issues to untangle.

The relationship between public opinion, political behavior, and persuasive information, like a debate, depends on the nature of the information and the consumer. In brief, highly informed citizens are the most likely to consume things like debates, but they are also the least likely to change their minds when presented with the information. Their attitudes and behaviors tend to be durable. Less informed citizens are indeed the most likely to be persuaded by new information, like debates, but they are also the least likely to consume that information. They are also less likely to vote, so even if persuasion occurs, it may not be linked to behavioral outcomes. The middle group, where the bulk of Americans are, know something and do consume some persuasive material, but they have to see it repetitively. Even given exposure, the information has to directly conflict with their conceptions and be persuasive enough to change actions.

So, for firm supporters of Rubio, Cruz, or Trump (or Christie, Bush, Kasich, or Carson), there is little chance Saturday mattered. For undecideds to be swayed, they would have to not only watch the debate, but interpret it in a way that is similar to the conventional wisdom stated above. The critique, to grasp it, required a particular impression of Rubio, some knowledge of his past, and the ability to contextualize Christie’s attack as it related to President Obama. That is not difficult for those who pay close attention to politics, but it may be beyond those for whom politics is only an occasional diversion.

Also, there are rival interpretations of what we saw. It is possible voters were turned off by Christie’s aggression, tone, and mockery. Rubio is also more telegenic than the New Jersey governor, and that positive disposition may have offset how voters weighed the information. After all, for many, images not only matter, but they are more critical than words. Was Christie able to scramble Rubio’s image with that exchange? And maybe more directly, did he help his own in the process?

The same is true for the other candidates on the stage. Yes, Govs. Kasich and Bush had solid performances, but will they be able to overcome perceptions that already exist? They are viewed, largely, as “establishment” moderates. Will a debate be able to make that an appealing pitch to an electorate that appears to be angry and tired of the system?

There is also the issue of media coverage of the debate. Debates may matter most when they create a uniform elite narrative that is then reported to consumers collectively. This sort of media coverage is critical because it extends the information beyond the actual event and if elite opinion is not fragmented, voters are more likely to be exposed to that narrative, incorporate it, and act upon it. Given the near universal agreement that Rubio suffered from the debate, there is a real chance the media’s portrayal of his performance will cost him more support than the debate.

Finally, when we think about debates and their possible influence, we have to remember some methodological concerns. If one wants to argue a debate (A) has a causal influence on an electoral outcome (B), there is much heavy lifting that must take place before that claim is respected. First, there is a temporal issue. Did A take place before B? Yes. Second, if A did not occur, would B still happen? In other words, if B exists without A, A cannot be the cause of B. Would the vote totals exist without the debate? This is a difficult counterfactual to measure outside of an experimental setting. Such research designs, as they relate to debates, indicate the information surrounding the debate (both pre and post) is more important than the debate (see above). Third, and this one is most difficult, are we sure A is the sole cause of B? Or, is it possible that variables C, D, and E also play a role in B? Perhaps demographics, advertising, retail politics, economic indicators, religion, or a host of other variables influenced the vote (either at the individual or aggregate level) as much or more than a debate performance.

My educated guess is that Rubio’s performance will indeed hurt him in New Hampshire. Why? There are large numbers of undecided voters in New Hampshire, so the potential for persuasion exists. Also, the particular attack actually worked to define and undermine Rubio’s particular image of youth and vigor. Christie’s salvo turned Rubio’s primary positives into negatives. Fairly or not, it seems like the kind of argument that could shift some outcomes. Additionally, the media coverage has been fairly uniform and negative, which suggests the debate’s impact lasted much longer than the debate itself, and that is bad for Rubio.

Even given that, it is difficult to determine how much the New Hampshire results will shape the rest of the campaign. Trump will win, it seems, and while there may be some short-term benefit to Christie, Kasich, or Bush, they are not well-positioned to turn South and compete in states that are more traditionally conservative. Rubio could be damaged. If his results bottom-out on Tuesday (and he finishes behind one or more of the governors), it may be difficult to overcome. If anything, the G.O.P. debate may have extended the contest, which actually strengthens Donald Trump. As long as his opponents are fragmented, which will continue as long as several of them are viable, he is more likely to turn his plurality support into electoral victories, which will give him momentum and a whiff of inevitability.


*I honestly think Rubio was right in the exchange, but his execution made Christie appear to be correct. To see President Obama as a failure due to inexperience is simply poor judgment on Christie’s part. It is a false association. Rubio should have explicitly attacked the premise of the question, instead he assumed he had made his thinking explicit, but he did not.

14 thoughts on “New Hampshire and the Debate Hypothesis”

  1. Thanks for your insight on this debate and communicating your thoughts. I agree that Rubio did seem to be somewhat “mechanical” up there and this past debate will hurt him. This does pave the way for the other candidates a little more nicely. However, I like Rubio and I hope that he can bounce back in the next debate.

  2. Rubio’s last minute surge in Iowa that gave him the momentum he’s had was, in no small part, due to his popularity among late deciders in Iowa. So I agree, I fear that late deciders in NH will not give him that boost he got in Iowa. The media has certainly taken off with the “robotic” narrative, which is a shame because the rest of his debate performance could have made it his best debate yet if not for that slip-up in the first ten minutes. The way I read the field right now, you have a few candidates standing in the “can with the nomination” circle, and some others standing in the “can win the presidency circle;” but the only one standing in the Venn diagram’s sweet spot is Senator Rubio. We still have a lot of time left in primary season for things to change, but as of right now, with that read of the field, I’m hoping Rubio will rebound from this pretty darn quick, for all our sakes.

  3. I appreciate the insight from the debate. It’s hard to watch and hear about the images of some candidates being tainted with the results ending in favor of Trump. I think your insight in this matter is crucial and correct in the sense that as long as republican candidates argue against one another (excluding Trump) it makes Trump look better, which is bad news…
    I hope Rubio can come back a little bit, or maybe like you mentioned, the debate really didn’t have a huge impact on swing voters.

  4. Thank you for giving your thoughts on the debate. It’s always nice to hear what other people have to think. I think this debate hurt Marco Rubio, and I cannot wait to see how he will bounce back in the next debate.

  5. Don’t count Jim Gilmore out yet. He almost pulled the upset several years ago in Virginia, almost defeating Mark Warner in the US Senate race. He could almost do it again.

    Let’s do the math.

    No other candidate received a higher percentage increase in votes between Iowa and New Hampshire. He went from 12 to 133. At this rate he should get 1400 in South Carolina, and then 15,000, and then 160,000 in the next state. He knows it too, which is why he hasn’t dropped out yet. He can feel it coming–even if the rest do not know he’s even still here.

    To paraphrase Lloyd in the original “Dumb and Dumber,” he’s got a chance. :-)

  6. I typically find your posts very interesting, but I especially appreciated this one because I was asking myself how much the debate would impact the voting in New Hampshire and also how much the voting in New Hampshire would impact future states. I think your evaluation would hold true in the next few states, especially the bit about how Rubio, Bush, Kasich and Christie all continuing in their campaigns will help Trump to maintain momentum.

  7. I thought your point about the impact (or lack thereof) of the debates can be minimal, whereas the media coverage of the debates can actually have more impact than the debates do, was very interesting. And looking back now on the NH results, the two candidates who did surprisingly well were the ones who had been camped out there for a while, hoping that that would be the spark that they need for this nomination race.

    We shall see if Rubio bounces back, and see how the next debate/media coverage of that affects the next few primaries.

  8. This is a really great post for those of us who don’t understand the election processes as well as others. The main question I have though, is if debates don’t really change people’s minds that often, then why bother with them. I think that they are interesting to listen to and a good way to hear what the candidate is thinking about, but if they rarely change people’s mind then are they worth it?
    Secondly, if I see one candidate berating another that generally turns me away from the candidate that is doing the berating, but I don’t think that is a very common thought process in our culture. There might not be any solid way to answer this question, but when one candidate tears down another does that ever negatively affect the initial candidate more than the one they are trying to bring down? (In this case would Governor Christie see any backlash from his actions toward Rubio?)

    1. Christie did nothing wrong to Rubio. As a former prosecutor, Christie knows how to ask questions pointedly.

      Rubio hurt himself with his canned, prepared, robot–like responses to Christie’s questions. It was embarrassing how Rubio panicked and how he could not resist going back to repeating his canned comments, even AFTER Christie called him on it.

      If Rubio cannot handle Christie, imagine how poorly he’d fare against someone like Putin, orKhamenei, when national security, and not merely a debate performance, is on the line.

  9. Having written this after the NH votes came in, I think that it is clear that the debate did affect Rubio negatively, I can certainly understand how that happened. I, for one, have yet to fully choose a candidate who I think will best serve as President for the coming election. Before the debate I was leaning towards Rubio, but now I am more hesitant. While I expected Christie, to attack Rubio after the FL senator’s success in Iowa, what surprised me most was Rubio’s inability to fend off these attacks and prove that he is more than just a good script. Normally I would agree that these debates do not have too much influence on voters, but I believe that this election is different in that there are so many undecided Republicans, and even those who think they are decided are not set in stone. Hopefully too much of this unsurety will not split the educated vote, and allow for a candidate like Trump to win.

  10. Rubio’s “blunder” was certainly unfortunate. New Hampshire was a bad place for this to happen to Rubio because of the large amount of swing voters. I agree that most people taking the time to watch these debates are not very likely to be persuaded from who they like when going in. This made me think: what happened to the Lincoln Douglas debates and the population who did their due diligence in electing a President? I realize that we are still in the primary election stage but I doubt we will ever see the prudence there once was in appointing someone to run the country.

  11. I enjoyed reading your article and found it rather insightful. I think Rubio was negatively affected due to the debate and its easy to understand why.

  12. I agree with what you say and especially being someone who is on the fence and has no clue who to vote for in this strange election I think Rubio hurt his case. Rubio has been rumored to have great advisors and basically just regurgitate what they say and I think he somewhat played into that in this debate. I don’t think this is a great attribute of a president being merely a good speaker. Great advisors are a good thing but it is kind of worrisome if all he says is what they say.

  13. Trump did much better than I thought he would. I’m honestly surprised so many republicans support him. His political views are so disjointed and ridiculous I have difficulty taking him seriously. My issue will be if Trump were to win the Republican ticket. I’m not sure how I would vote. I don’t support Trump, but I defiantly don’t support Sanders or Clinton. Hopefully it does not come to that.

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