The biggest loser of the Republican Party’s presidential debate last week was former President Donald Trump. According to Ipsos polling of Republican primary voters, every participant in Wednesday night’s debate gained voters who are considering supporting them in the primary. Trump and all other candidates who failed to make the stage lost possible voters.
Some candidates performed better than others, and some, irrespective of their debate performance, are to be preferred over others.
It is time for several candidates to exit the race. Four candidates have what it takes to take command in the Oval Office. All would also be much more effective general election candidates, and presidents, than Trump.
Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL): There wasn’t a viral moment or memorable line from DeSantis, but he has a strong record and resume, which he stuck to on the debate stage. What DeSantis lacked in debate dexterity, he more than makes up for in substance. Republican voters noticed and gave him the highest approval in a post-debate survey from FiveThirtyEight.
The percentage of Republican primary voters considering voting for DeSantis rose from 63% before the debate to 67.5% after the debate, surpassing Trump, who fell from 66.2% to 61.4%. DeSantis’s net favorability rating also rose from +41 (67.5% favorable, 26.9% unfavorable) to +47 (72.4% favorable, 24.7% unfavorable). No one in the field comes close to his 72.4% favorable rating. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley is next at 65.5%, while Trump has fallen to 59.8%.
No one on the stage comes close to DeSantis’s record of delivering results for conservative voters. From school choice and protecting unborn life to creating an environment for economic growth, DeSantis’s resume is unparalleled. For a party, and indeed a nation, looking to turn the page from President Joe Biden’s befuddled chaos to youthful competence, DeSantis is a strong choice.
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley: No one improved his or her standing among Republican primary voters more than Haley. She advanced from a pre-debate 30.2% who were considering voting for her to a post-debate 46.7%. No candidate beat her 16.5-point gain, reflecting her strong record and suitability for a prime-time second look.
She also produced fireworks on Wednesday night, sparring very effectively with Vivek Ramaswamy on foreign policy and Vice President Mike Pence on abortion. Both times, Haley got the better of her male antagonist.
It has been six years since Haley was governor of South Carolina, and since that time, she has served as ambassador to the United Nations. Her foreign policy experience from that post showed on Wednesday night, and it is easy to see Haley as presidential material.
Vice President Mike Pence: Still underwater with most Republican primary voters (just 42.6% favorable compared to 53.9% unfavorable), Pence did manage to move the percentage of Republican primary voters who are considering voting for him up to 23.5%.
He also benefited from tangling with Ramaswamy on foreign policy, allowing him to make a principled case for the support of Ukraine against Russian aggression. Most importantly, he reminded voters of his steadfast defense of the Constitution on Jan. 6, 2021.
Pence lags in the polls, but his experience as vice president and Indiana governor and his constancy on conservative principles over decades make him a viable option for president.
Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC): Scott seemed to fade into the background for stretches during Wednesday night’s debate, but he also managed to raise the percentage of primary voters willing to vote for him up to 43.1%.
Just barely behind Haley on favorability (his 65.3% to her 65.5%), Scott now can boast better favorability numbers than Trump (59.8%). When he spoke, he established himself as an optimistic, dignified, forward-looking conservative in the mold of President Ronald Reagan, a formula that Republican general election voters would be lucky to end up with.
None of the other candidates on the stage Wednesday night, save Ramaswamy, have a snowball’s chance of winning the nomination. And while Ramaswamy is currently running third on the polls behind Trump and DeSantis, his flip-flopping on matters, his shallow, glib approach to serious and demanding policy questions, and his refusal to support strong allies, such as Israel, Ukraine, and Taiwan, are disqualifying. He should be a nonstarter.
We know from 2016 that the longer the candidates without a real chance of winning the nomination stay in the race, the better it is for Trump. Those candidates still in the race who say they want to make sure Trump isn’t the nominee need to take a long look in the mirror and ask themselves what their continued participation in the primary will accomplish.
The answer is that it will facilitate what they claim they don’t want and what the nation would benefit profoundly by avoiding. They should get out.