After eight months of rowdy and rancorous Republican debates, the remaining four presidential hopefuls stuck to policy discussions during a subdued CNN-moderated debate on March 10. Previous meet-ups have had a cage match aura to them, with candidates swiping at each other with personal attacks and schoolyard-type taunts, but Thursday’s debate was quieter and more substantive. According to tallies collected by InsideGov, questions about trade, the economy and foreign policy dominated the night.
The change in tenor reflected a shifting dynamic in the race, which has seen remarkable successes for anti-establishment candidates with a flair for tapping into voters’ fear and anger about immigration and the economy. Businessman Donald Trump has deftly walked that line since he announced his candidacy, embracing his frustrated voter base from the beginning. However, after a string of primary wins gave Trump a lead in delegates, the frontrunner has started to talk more like a general election candidate, calling himself a “unifier” for the GOP.
But the frustration among Trump supporters has bubbled up at his rallies, where several instances of violence against protesters have been captured on video. Earlier on Thursday, a Trump supporter was charged with assault for punching a protester during a rally the day before in North Carolina. The continued reports of violence led CNN’s Jake Tapper to ask Trump on Thursday if he creates a “tone” where violence is acceptable.
Although a relative newcomer to politics, Trump handled the question skillfully, turning the exchange into an opportunity to talk about how passionate his supporters are. He said he didn’t “condone” the alleged violence, but observed that when his supporters “see what’s going on in this country, they have anger that’s unbelievable. … They don’t like seeing bad trade deals, they don’t like seeing higher taxes, they don’t like seeing a loss of their jobs where our jobs have just been devastated. And I know — I mean, I see it. There is some anger. There’s also great love for the country.”
Later on in the debate, when discussing Trump’s recent comment that “Islam hates us,” Trump doubled down and said he would “stick with exactly what I said.” When Florida Sen. Marco Rubio pushed back a bit and said political leaders can’t say things like that, Trump connected Rubio’s comment to political correctness. “I don’t want to be so politically correct. I like to solve problems. We have a serious, serious problem of hate,” Trump said to applause from the audience.
With fewer candidates on the stage, each presidential hopeful had more time to speak directly to his supporters and try to win over those undecided in the upcoming primaries.
As the above InsideGov visualization shows, Trump spoke the most of the night. But unlike previous outings, Trump’s speaking time came in measured answers as opposed to interruptions and crosstalk. During post-debate coverage on CNN, Trump noted the different tone, saying Thursday’s debate was different because “it has been harsh” among candidates previously. “I found this to be a very elegant evening,” Trump said.
Trump looks poised to collect a good amount of delegates come March 15, when voters go to the polls in Florida, Illinois, Missouri, the Northern Mariana Islands, North Carolina and Ohio. Two of the remaining Republican candidates — Florida’s Rubio and Ohio Gov. John Kasich — need to do well in their home states that day to justify staying in the race. Both are very far behind in the overall delegate count, with 151 delegates and 54 delegates, respectively.
But polling averages from RealClearPolitics give Trump a double-digit lead over Rubio in his home state of Florida. The race is much closer in Ohio, where Kasich has stayed within striking distance of Trump in the last few days.
For his part, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz contends the race has effectively narrowed to a two-man contest, seeing as he has 359 delegates to Trump’s 458. But Cruz is down significantly in Florida and Ohio, whose delegates are doled out winner-take-all style. (So far in the primaries, delegates have been awarded proportionally depending on how well candidates performed in each state. That system changes next Tuesday.) If Trump wins those two states, he will have 623 delegates — 50 percent of the 1,237 total delegates needed to secure the nomination.
Cross-posted from InsideGov