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The Lid: The Meaning of Winning a Presidential Debate

What impact can being declared a debate winner or loser have on a candidate?
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Welcome to The Lid, your afternoon dose of the 2016 ethos…. CNN announced that 22.9 million viewers tuned into last night’s debate, which somehow still feels like less than the amount of minutes the whole thing lasted.

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Political observers are largely in agreement over who the big winners and losers were after last night’s debate. Carly Fiorina made the most of her shot on the main stage, while Ben Carson seemed unprepared to seize his moment. Donald Trump looked sluggish and vulnerable while Jeb Bush and Chris Christie both eased supporters nerves with solid performances. So what impact can being declared a debate winner or loser have on a candidate? We can look to last month’s contest in Cleveland for some clues…

Winning: No one stood out in the Cleveland debate the way Fiorina did last night. But Marco Rubio and John Kasich were largely seen as winners. However, Rubio’s national polling average among Republicans, as compiled by Real Clear Politics, remained unchanged between the day after the first GOP debate and Wednesday. Kasich’s support also remained relatively unchanged. The Ohio governor did spike in New Hampshire in the weeks following the debate, though it coincided with ad buys in the Granite State. Fiorina’s performance will likely have a larger impact on her candidacy because she has generated so much attention from it. But the first showdown makes clear that winners can vary between pundits and GOP voters.

Losing: It just wasn’t Trump’s night. Carson seemed bored and passive. Both observations apply to the first and second debate, but did not have much impact on the polls. The real estate mogul remained on top while the retired neurosurgeon steadily gained on him, continuing the dominance of outsider candidates in the 2016 cycle.

And winning the undercard: Don’t forget about Lindsey Graham! The South Carolina senator was largely seen as the winner of the early debate between the lowest-polling candidates with memorable one-liners and sharp attacks on both Democrats and rival GOP candidates. His performance drew comparisons to Fiorina’s performance during the “happy hour” debate in August. That led to a fundraising boost for Fiorina, larger crowds on the campaign trail and, ultimately, a spot on stage at last night’s prime-time debate. But that came after a lengthy battle with CNN over how polls should be used to determine which candidates made the final debate stage.


  • A must read: Fiorina’s Super PAC is testing the legal limits of what does and does not constitute coordination with her campaign, NBC’s Alex Jaffe and Kailani Koenig report.
  • Here’s the NBC News fact check from last night’s debate.
  • In an exclusive interview with NBC News, Jeb Bush instead said that he'd like to see the American people decide which woman deserves to be on U.S. currency, suggesting that a question about the bill during the second GOP presidential debate Wednesday night was not "the most relevant thing in the world."
  • What were the most used words during the debate? NBC News political unit intern Elissa Nunez has your answer here.
  • And First Read breaks down last night’s biggest winners and losers.


Last night’s debate drew 23 million viewers, making it the most-watched program in CNN’s history.

FIORINA:Per the New York Times: After a debate performance that was steely, self-assured and at times deeply personal, Carly Fiorina’s biggest effect on the contest for the Republican presidential nomination may be to help correct a problem that her party has struggled with in recent elections: how to appeal more effectively to women.

The Washington Post reports on the 2010 ad run against Fiorina that could be a problem for her current campaign.

CRUZ: From the Texas Tribune: As Cruz Sours on Roberts, Past Support Draws Attention


“I think 3 hours is a long time for a debate, as you know. You know ‘Gone With The Wind’ is what, 3:20?”

  • Donald Trump to Bloomberg after the CNN debate.


Most Republican 2016 candidates appear at the Heritage Action Forum in Greenville, South Carolina.

Hillary Clinton campaigns in New Hampshire, while Bernie Sanders raises cash in New York City.

Bobby Jindal is in New Hampshire, Lindsey Graham is in Iowa and both Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz pop into Michigan to speak to the Mackinac GOP.