Going into the seventh debate for the Republican presidential candidates, we knew in advance the gathering in Des Moines would be a qualitatively different kind of event. Donald Trump, feuding with Fox News, refused to participate, creating a void on the stage: the GOP frontrunner, the one whose antics many viewers tune in to watch, wasn’t there.
And yet, somehow Trump managed to win the debate anyway.
How does a candidate who wasn’t there come out on top? By my count, there were five relevant angles to this.
1. Trump won because his principal foe lost.
In Iowa, among other places, the Republican frontrunner’s principal foe is Ted Cruz. And while the Texas senator may have the best raw debating skills of any GOP candidate in many years, last night’s event in Des Moines was rough for the Republican lawmaker. With Trump out, the remaining candidates (and the moderators) largely directed their fire at the candidate whom they (a) are trailing in Iowa; and (b) dislike personally anyway.
Cruz turned in his worst debate performance of the cycle, appearing unsteady in the face of repeated criticisms, on the night he needed to shine. The result: Trump saw his closest competitor stumble, and he didn’t have to lift a finger to make it happen.
2. Trump won because his other principal foe also lost.
To my mind, the night’s most important exchange happened about mid-way through the debate, when one of the moderators asked Marco Rubio, “Within two years of getting elected, you were co-sponsoring legislation to create a path to citizenship, in your words, amnesty. Haven’t you already proven that you cannot be trusted on this issue?”
After the senator rifled through his scripted and unpersuasive response, Jeb Bush, of all people, lowered the boom. When Rubio accused Bush of changing his position on immigration, Jeb, showing unexpected agility, interrupted: “So did you.” The former governor added, “[Rubio] cut and run because it wasn’t popular amongst conservatives.”
Politico added, “Rubio seemed overly tense, hyper-emphatic and prone to his unflattering habit of delivering his answers in an annoying Gatling Gun crescendo of ever-increasing volume…. [H]is less-than-calm performance undermines the boyish senator’s contention that he’s seasoned enough for the big job.”
Somewhere, Trump and his team were no doubt smiling.
3. Trump won because the blood on the stage wasn’t his.
Jeb Bush quarreled with Marco Rubio. Marco Rubio tussled with Ted Cruz. Ted Cruz fought with Rand Paul. Chris Christie mocked Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul. The moderators tangled with each of them.
At one point, Cruz told a moderator, “I would note that that the last four questions have been, ‘Rand, please attack Ted. Marco, please attack Ted. Chris, please attack Ted. Jeb, please attack Ted.” What the senator neglected to mention, though, was that the rivals were happy to oblige.
After two hours of tense arguments, there was blood on the stage. None of it belonged to the frontrunner who wasn’t there.
4. Trump won because his vision has taken over the party.
Rubio used the word “apocalyptic” four times last night – and he’s the sonny optimist of the bunch. We’ve gone from a race full of candidates trying to defeat Trump to a race full of candidates trying to co-opt Trump by piggybacking on his themes and demagoguery.
Matt Yglesias explained overnight, “The spirit of Trump and Trumpism was the dominant force of the evening even without Trump in the room…. Every candidate in the race … has adopted Trump’s essentially dark and pessimistic worldview.”
MSNBC’s Benjy Sarlin added, “One reason it was so hard to pretend Trump wasn’t in the room is that – as becomes clearer every debate – candidates have absorbed so many of his positions and rhetoric. Trump may have been gone, but Trumpism hung in the air.”
The result was a Republican field that spent quite a bit of time effectively telling Iowa Republicans that Trump’s worldview is the right one.
5. Trump won as a quantitative matter.
In social media, during the debate, which candidate’s name was the hot topic of conversation? Take a wild guess. Here’s a hint: it was the guy who wasn’t in the building.
After the debate, the Washington Post’s Ed O’Keefe asked Cruz if he missed Trump’s presence on the stage. “He’s always with us,” Cruz responded.
As it turns out, that’s true. He’s always beating his rivals, too.