As a legitimately undecided Georgia voter, I was genuinely curious to see how the first RNC debate of the 2024 cycle would play out last night. I watched the debate in real time, and reviewed clips later. But I wanted to base my analysis on the way an average undecided voter would have seen things, without obsessively replaying every moment of the debate. I’m also intentionally writing this before reading other analysis and opinion from my GOP friends, so as to ensure these are strictly my own thoughts free of outside biases. So, without further ado, here are my initial, not-a-deep-dive impressions of last night’s winners and losers.
Haley had the best showing of the night, making an effective case for why her combination of experience and conservative policy positions best qualify her for President. She proved she could stand up to the others on the debate stage, specifically landing some well-timed blows against Vivek Ramaswamy and Tim Scott, and avoided any noticeable gaffes. I expect Haley to start getting more attention after her performance last night.
Christie is in the race as an explicitly anti-Trump candidate, and while he got his shots in against the former President, he also made a point to promise being open and honest with the American people regardless of the issue (even if part of this promise came as a response to an inane question from the moderators about UFOs). Christie gave the audience the impression he’d be an effective leader, unafraid to stand up to both Democrats and fellow Republicans when need be. If Trump’s ongoing legal issues do start costing him support, Christie is well-positioned to pick up that slack, but that’s a big “if” at this stage.
“Who?” is the question most people would have asked prior to this debate. The billionaire tech entrepreneur and North Dakota governor offered some focused and well-reasoned policy positions during his limited speaking time. In a vacuum, he seems like a candidate who would be worth looking into. Unfortunately, he’s starting in too deep a hole as a relative unknown from a tiny state for a solid debate performance to translate into much polling success. His best path forward at this point may be to work as a surrogate for a better-known candidate and parlay that role into a Cabinet position.
Bonus winner: Brian Kemp
Although our governor has repeatedly insisted he’s not running for President this year, he continues to raise his national profile by attending events like last night’s debate and providing commentary. Since his reelection as Governor, he’s becoming increasingly willing to take shots at Donald Trump’s actions, while specifically avoiding criticism of the former President himself. I don’t think it’s particularly likely he’ll enter the race himself, and I selfishly would prefer he stick around here in Georgia to beat Jon Ossoff in 2026, but he’s set himself up to have increasing national influence in a party that’s trying to figure out where it needs to go in a post-Trump future, whenever that shift happens.
I very much want to like Tim Scott. He has a great background story, as he referenced multiple times last night. He’s also received a lot of discussion as a potential consensus candidate who can present an optimistic, forward-thinking view of conservatism without resorting to antagonizing real or perceived political opponents. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a lot of that vision in his debate performance. He didn’t make any major errors, but in a crowded field he needed to generate some energy to move out of the also-ran tier, and we really didn’t get that in the debate. The bright spot for Scott is that he’s very well positioned to be a great addition to almost anyone else’s ticket as the vice presidential candidate.
The former Arkansas governor wasn’t on quite the same “who?” level as Doug Burgum before last night, but he wasn’t far from it. Hutchinson was the only other candidate on stage besides Christie to stake out a firm anti-Trump position. But not liking Trump isn’t really a platform on its own, and we didn’t get much else to distinguish Hutchinson from the rest of the field. His most memorable choice last night was wearing a lapel pin with crossed Israeli and American flags; while I support Israel (as do the rest of the candidates, with the exception of Ramaswamy), wearing the flag of any other country seems like an odd and distracting choice for a debate about being president of the United States.
DeSantis has long been the candidate with the most support in the polls outside of Trump, and has been looked at as a way to potentially move the party forward with a candidate who can attract both Trump and non-Trump voters. As such, he had the most to lose last night. He didn’t make any major errors, but he also didn’t have anything particularly new or exciting to say. Perhaps he was coached not to be as aggressive as he might otherwise have been due to polling concerns about “likability”, but that also let other candidates steal the spotlight. This debate was an opportunity for DeSantis to really shine and make the primary a two-person race between him and Trump, and he wasn’t able to do that.
It’s become a little difficult to understand exactly what lane Pence is running in. He still presents himself as totally loyal to Trump and proud of everything the administration did, which doesn’t make him popular with the anti-Trump wing of the party. But his almost singular focus last night was on how he did the right thing in refusing to overturn the 2020 election, even to the point of insisting the other candidates on stage state whether they agreed with him. His other major focus was his faith, which I believe to be genuine, but GOP voters have explicitly prioritized political alignment over religious agreement in the last few cycles. I don’t think he’d do a bad job as President, but I also wasn’t left with any particularly good reason to support him over anyone else on the stage.
The good news for the 38-year-old businessman is that he’s not actually running for President. If he were, his combination of inexperience and flat-out crazy policy ideas – “faith-based mental hospitals” is the answer to a question absolutely no one is asking, as just one example – would have long since disqualified him. He opened up the debate by cribbing a line from Barack Obama, for which he got absolutely bodied by Chris Christie, and the night didn’t get better for him from there. If he were running for President, it’s not clear who his target market is – “voters who love everything about Trump but don’t want to vote for Trump again” is approximately zero people. But we understand he’s just there to get a job in either a new Trump administration or right-wing media, for which coherent, reasoned policy is neutral at best and negative at worst. From that perspective, maybe he deserves to be in the “winners” list.
Bonus loser #1: Donald Trump
You can’t win if you don’t play, as Brian Kemp pointed out in his pre-debate commentary. Trump may be correct that he has such a significant lead that he can win without debates. But for someone who spent most of 2020 complaining that Joe Biden was running a campaign from his basement, skipping major campaign events isn’t a good look. The Artist Formerly Known As Twitter streamed Trump’s prerecorded interview with Tucker Carlson at the same time as the debate, but we’ll never know (and Elon Musk will never tell us) how many of the claimed eleventy billion views were actually American voters who watched the whole thing, as opposed to people who simply scrolled on after a few seconds, or just foreign bot farms being paid to raise the view count. Trump surrogates including Marjorie Taylor-Greene, Matt Gaetz, and Donald Trump Jr. also got caught in a humiliating on-screen argument with Fox security, who wouldn’t let them into the post-debate “Spin Room” just because they are not, in fact, candidates for President.
Bonus loser #2: The studio audience
Cheers and boos from a lively political audience are a normal and expected part of any high-profile political debate. But last night, moderator Bret Baier literally turned around in his chair and reprimanded the audience like a bunch of rowdy schoolchildren when they refused to calm down enough to let the candidates speak. This was an embarrassingly bad look for the GOP base. We should expect better of our candidates, and we have to do better ourselves.