CONCORD, NH -- Saturday night's Republican debate in Manchester drew a robust 9.3 rating, attracting an average of 13.2 million viewers. This was up slightly from Fox News' pre-Iowa debate, likely due to three factors: High voter interest now that actual balloting is underway, its airing on over-the-air broadcast network, and the anticipated return of Donald Trump to the stage. Although these numbers are substantially down from the sky-high ratings of the first few Republican debates -- which ranged from 18 to 24 million viewers -- they're still historically high. ABC's forum held on the same weekend of the 2012 campaign was that cycle's highest-rated primary debate, at 7.6 million. Saturday's clash beat that number by more than five million viewers; every GOP debate audience in 2016 has exceeded 11 million. Another striking trend in 2016 is that interest in the Republican race far outstrips the Democratic nominating contest. Some statistics:
In this election season, debates on cable news channels have generally out-rated debates on broadcast networks. But ABC's debate was the highest-rated one on any broadcast network to date. ABC's Republican match-up also far surpassed MSNBC's Democratic debate earlier in the week. That forum, which was a late addition to the schedule, had 4.5 million viewers, a new low for the debates this season. The second lowest debate of the season was on ABC. There were 7.8 million viewers for its Democratic debate on the Saturday before Christmas.
Caveats about networks and air dates aside, the GOP's New Hampshire debate drew nearly
ABC also benefited from enviable timing, three days before the New Hampshire primaries, with all the major candidates fiercely fighting for votes. The debate ratings rose each half hour between 8 and 10 p.m., indicating that viewers stuck with the program despite an embarrassing flub during the candidate introductions. (Two candidates initially didn't come on stage, and then the moderators seemingly forgot to invite John Kasich on.)
This may come as welcome news at Rubio headquarters, given that ABC's audience continued to build after the Florida Senator's wince-inducing takedown by Chris Christie. Following that brutal exchange, Rubio improved dramatically over the remainder of the debate. Then again, the negative press focusing on that moment has been significant, as the lowlights have made the rounds online and on-air. The Weekly Standard's Jonathan Last has written a perceptive piece gaming out how Rubio's "repeat button" stumble might play out. He points out that the anti-Obama attack Rubio repeatedly advanced on Saturday is likely shared widely among the Republican electorate, also noting (as others have) that an unrattled Rubio seemed at ease and at peace on the campaign trail the very next day. Indeed, Rubio appeared on ABC's This Week and aggressively defended his message by thanking Democrats and rival campaigns for circulating clips of him describing how, in his view, Obama is deliberately and fundamentally changing America. "I'm going to keep saying it," he tells host George Stephanopolous. I've embedded the clip below. So that's the upbeat, bullish take. The bearish side of the equation is obvious and ought to be worrying for the Rubio camp:
The pessimistic case (if you're a Rubio supporter) goes like this: Rubio needed to close the sale with New Hampshire voters and he blew it...But it's worse than that. The best political attacks turn an opponent's strength into a weakness. By indicting Rubio's candidate skills—the fact that he's so polished and talks so well—Chris Christie was attempting not just to blow up Rubio in the debate, but to diminish his biggest advantage and poison everything voters hear from him going forward. Voters will wonder, Is that answer Rubio just gave on ISIS, or vaccinations, or the estate tax a sign of a smart, fluid candidate? Or just another rehearsed, scripted soundbite?
There's some thin evidence, based on meh data and several anecdotes, that Rubio may be weathering the storm. There's equally questionable data and anecdotes that suggest he's taking a real hit. We'll know the truth soon enough. Here's what I'm still scratching my head over:
Still mystified that Rubio couldn't toss his script on, say, round *3* w/ Christie and say something like this: pic.twitter.com/ca86Fnq89Y— Guy Benson (@guypbenson) February 7, 2016
There were so many avenues he could have taken to has at Christie and repackage his point, but instead, he fell directly into Christie's trap. Worse, he seemed self-unaware about what was happening and totally failed to adjust. Assuming he doesn't absolutely tank over one poor (partial) debate showing -- remember this? -- Rubio would be well-served in the next debate to poke a bit of fun at himself, with a smile and a twinkle in his eye. "You know what? Let me repeat what I just said..." As promised, I'll leave you with this:
He's better here, certainly, but has the momentum irreparably shifted? And if so, who is the primary beneficiary? If I had to bet, I'd put more chips on this guy than anyone else.