GOP debate 'winners': Three takeaways

Lists of winners and losers are everywhere this morning. But the debate's not over yet.

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters
Republican presidential candidates Dr. Ben Carson (l.) and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (r.) listen as businessman Donald Trump speaks during the second official Republican presidential candidates debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., Sept. 16, 2015.

Nobody’s won last night’s Republican debate – yet.

Yes, lists of winners and losers are everywhere this morning. They’re asserting with confidence that Carly Fiorina did great, Donald Trump took lots of hits, and Scott Walker was present but barely accounted for.

But these lists are subjective and probably premature. The consensus has almost certainly missed one candidate that will rise or fall in a manner the punditocracy will find inexplicable.

You’ll remember that happened after the first GOP debate. Ben Carson didn’t light the stage on fire. Some called his performance “sleepy.” Now he’s napped his way up to No. 2 in the polls.

Why does this happen? Here are our takeaways on the ephemeral nature of debate judging:

It’s not “Jeopardy.” Political debates have no scoring rules and aren’t an actual game. That means different people judge results differently according to their various biases and beliefs. (See “subjective,” above.)

The media sees a different show. Last night’s ratings will probably be huge. But how many normal voters watch debates the way journalists do – all the way through, while taking notes? Not that many, we’d wager.

Most viewers tune in and out, or read about it the next day on social media, or see clips and snippets on “Morning Joe.” The audience that consumes debate news that way is far larger than the one that sat rapt for three hours, as if they were watching their favorite reality show, “So You Think You Can Dance around the Iran Question?”

That makes brief highlights more important in the final tally and sustained performance less important.

“Journalists and political pundits don’t have so much in common with the Republican voters who are watching the debates at home,” wrote FiveThirtyEight founder Nate Silver on the data site’s debate live blog.

The debate’s not over. Last night’s show was exhausting for candidates and questioners alike. At three hours long, it seemed the length of a typical White House administration. But the secret is, it’s still ongoing. The candidates scramble to appear in spin rooms and on talk shows in an effort to reiterate their points and change voter perception of what went down in Simi Valley, Calif., in the first place.

Yes, the time on stage was important. But what happens after that is an extension of the political struggle that began when CNN’s Jake Tapper asked the assembled multitude to introduce itself.

That’s why it’s hard to predict the debate’s impact, writes political scientist Jonathan Bernstein in his Bloomberg View column.

“In the short run, what will matter is which clips play over and over in the media, and what opinion leaders and high-profile Republicans say about who ‘won’ and who ‘lost.’ ”

Carly Fiorina did do pretty well, though, didn’t she? See, we just can’t resist.

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