Sunday, February 7, 2016

Dealing with Glitches in the GOP Debate

Republican Presidential hopeful Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL)'s rapid rise in the primary political polls has been premised on strong debate performances.  Rubio is articulate, some say smooth talking, in giving upbeat bite sized morsels during his time on the debate stage.

 Rubio surprised many political observers by his showing at the Iowa Caucuses, where he came in third as expected, but only 1.5% behind second place finisher Donald Trump.Thus his rapid rise made him a prime target at the Republican Debate held three days before the New Hampshire Primary. So he should have known what to expect.

After seven prior Republican debates, astute observers know candidates' patterns of behavior.  Ex Governor Mike Huckabee always slung "canned ham", hokey pre-written one line zingers designed to make him seem like the funny every-man's candidate.  The Iowa Caucus echo of Adele "It's Me" was expected but still amusing. Donald Trump (when he deign to show up for a debate) will start being subdued but eventually with squabble with Jeb! Bush. Dr. Ben Carson will joke about how little time he is being allotted and will do a data dump on questions not posed to him.Governor John Kasich (R-OH) will wildly flail his hands when speaking at the podium with occasional karate chops for rhetorical punctuation.

Governor Chris Christie (R-NJ) inevitably will slip in a reference that he was a former Federal Prosecutor named just before the 9/11 terror attacks.  Christie also loves to look directly into the camera and address the television audience. Christie's blunt, confrontational approach should appeal out the outsider aura, those who are fed up with the District of Calamity (sic) and presumably blue collar voters.

Senator Rubio was wont to retell his family's remarkable American Dream story, which loses its effectiveness after it has been used a few times. Rubio also had the habit of asking people for their vote in a close, which gets a bit cloying.  Wisely, Senator Rubio has dropped both tacts.  As for style, Senator Rubio shoots for the American Dream in some responses and then tries to focus attacks on Obama and Hillary, while subtly shivving other candidates in the back.  This approach has given Rubio great favorability ratings.  Along with his strategy of heavy paid media campaign advertising, it has precipitated his top tier status.

Governor Christie is staking the fate of his entire campaign upon doing well (placing in the top troika) in the New Hampshire Primary.  For the week before the Republican Debate in Manchester, Christie had been gunning to take Rubio down a couple of notches, deriding him as "Bubble Boy", who was not accessible to voters or responding to tough questions.   Other have ripped Rubio as being robotic. So the critiques were being telegraphed to Rubio. Yet the freshman Florida Senator displayed a glaring glitch.

It seems that Rubio got rattled after Christie repeatedly rubuked him for giving memorized 30 second speeches. Almost to prove his point, Rubio blurted out similar tracks about President Obama four times in four minutes. In post debate spin mode, Rubio claims that he is passionate about this position and wishes people would keep playing the clip. The episode inspired a parody Twitter account "Marco Rubio Glitch".

Unfortunately, that was not the only instance were over-preparation showed.  In his answer about the military, Rubio began his answer, then stopped and began again because his memorized stump speech had to be delivered in that order.  Again, this glitch contributes to the charge of being robotic and mars an otherwise good debate performance, with excellent responses about ISIS and defining conservativism.

I do not begrudge candidates doing preparation work prior to a debate.  In fact, it shows some respect for an audience and hones a message, unlike Donald Trump's flippant definition of conservatism as "conserving money".  However, it is most effective if the audience is unaware that you are prepared. For example, Huckabee's canned ham are groaners because you know there are not spontaneous and he stained to find the opening to launch the zinger.

Similarly, by regurgitating the same rhetoric several times in a short span sounds robotic and pre-programmed. Discerning viewers are prompted to question authenticity. It begs the question of how a candidate will stand stricter scrutiny in the General Election campaign.

Sometimes glitches underline growing perceptions.  Ben Carson had developed a whiney reputation from the debates for not getting enough recognition or time allotments. The Carson campaign seized on a kerfluffle over a CNN news report at the start of the Iowa Caucuses that Carson was taking time from the campaign trail prior to the New Hampshire Pimary. Both the Cruz and Rubio campaigns spun this news to their grass-root leaders in the Caucuses to garner more votes.  Carson took umbrage exclusively at Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX).  Cruz quickly apologized for not passing along subsequent reports. Carson claimed as a Christian he accepted the apology but then priggishly seemed to require conditional forgiveness.  Cruz apologized again at the Manchester Debate, but that did not seem to assuage Dr. Carson's animus.

But as the candidates were being introduced onstage at the Manchester Debate, there was a technical glitch to cue Dr. Carson so he remained waiting in the wings, even as a stage manager gestured for him to take his place.  The ABC News Moderator David Muir had to invite Ben Carson for him to go to his podium.  Afterwards, Carson complained about not being introduced second.

This strange stagecraft, combined with a perception of priggish prissiness in politics, made it seem like Carson was being stand-offish because of a pecking order failure.  Along with Carson's standard complaint about being ignored and his refusal to accept Cruz's repeated apology, it gave a bad impression.  The technical glitch may have be inadvertent, but the cascade of a candidate who stands on heirs and hardly seems like he is working to win was a tough impression to shake.

Most of the time, people do not remember the substance of a debate but their impressions. Famously, in the 1960 Presidential Debate, the radio audience thought that then Vice President Richard Nixon (R-CA) bested then Senator John Kennedy (D-MA).  But the vast majority of the audience was on television, and they remember Nixon's five o'clock shadow vis-a-vis a tan, rested and telegenic Kennedy.

 In the 1980 Republican New Hampshire scheduled with then George H.W. Bush one on one debate, all people remember is  then former Governor Ronald Reagan (R-CA) saying: "Mr. Dean [editor's note- which was actually the wrong name], I paid for that microphone."  It showed assertiveness and authority.

Or the 1992 Richmond Town Hall debate when President George H.W. Bush was caught on camera looking at his watch. It gave the perception that Bush looked bored.

Then there was Vice President Al Gore's audible sighs in the 2000 Debate, which in retrospect he may have wanted to keep in a lock box.

How much the Rubio Glitch or the Carson miscue sticks in the minds of Granite State primary voters remains to be seen. At the very least, Rubio's less than stellar Manchester debate performance has halted his meteoric rise in the media and may prompt another antagonizing reappraisal by the GOP establishment of which horse to back against insurgent outsider candidates. 

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