Roger L. Simon

It's Not the Debate. It's the Focus Group

(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

I don’t blame Donald Trump for passing on the seventh Republican debate Thursday night.  It was pretty boring, even for a political junkie like me, though I did enjoy Rubio’s one-liner about Bernie Sanders running for president of Sweden. (Frankly, I think even the terminally PC Swedes might not even be able to handle Bernie in the end the way things are headed.)

I heard some of the spin-room pundits nattering on about how serious the debate was, ostensibly because of the absence of Donald, as compared to the previous encounters. I didn’t see it. Fox had promised new and interesting questions but they weren’t much (except perhaps from some minor video assist). It felt to me like everything had been “asked and answered” before, maybe several times before. And I found it hard to sit through all that spin-room blather about who did or didn’t win the debate. Did Jeb rise above his low expectations?  Yawn.

(FULL DISCLOSURE:  During the debate I was simultaneously streaming Trumps’ veterans’ benefit on my computer, turning the volume up and down on each as I went, so I may have missed some key minutes. The benefit was intermittently entertaining and it was heartening to see them raise so much money for disabled vets.)

The essential difficulty of these debates is the distinctions between the candidates are so narrow that mostly they seem manufactured, even between the so-called insiders and outsiders.  In actuality, the only real outsider in the Republican field is Dr. Carson.  Trump has been wheeling-and-dealing with politicians for decades, Cruz is a senator, and Fiorina is an ex-CEO of a major corporation who has spent years negotiating with politicians and jetting around the world for major foundations.  During Thursday’s debate, the only ones with substantive policy differences were Rand Paul and possibly Kasich, who sometimes appears to been running for the nomination of the Democratic Party.  Maybe he should, because all they have at the moment is a semi-felon and that “Swedish” president.

Something did surprise me though — and it was Frank Luntz’s focus group.  I have never seen them so unanimous in their reaction.  Almost all of them seemed to think Rubio had won the debate and the vast majority said they had decided to switch their votes to the Florida senator.  Virtually all of them thought he could defeat Hillary Clinton.

Now it’s not that I didn’t think Rubio didn’t win the debate.  He nearly always does, or comes close, and I thought he did again tonight. In many ways — it’s early, obviously — he seems the most gifted Republican politician since Ronald Reagan.  I was just surprised at the extent this group of voters agreed with me.  I suppose I’m used to the comments section of this site where, almost always when I write something favorable to Rubio, I am attacked as if I were somewhere between Attila the Hun and the half-brother of Valerie Jarrett.  That’s the Internet, I guess.

Anyway, we shall soon see if the unanimity of Luntz’s group means anything.  Is this a harbinger of one of those famous, crazy last-minute turnarounds in the Iowa caucuses (Rick Santorum going from 7 to 24% in a week in 2012) or merely an outlier?  Rubio has been moving up of late, but is it enough to make an impact?  We don’t have long to wait to find out, just until Monday.  I will be in Iowa  myself then, heading for Des Moines on Saturday.  Watch this space, as they say.