Winners and Losers of the Second GOP Primary Debate

Kash Jain ’24

Opinion Editor

On Wednesday, Sept. 27, seven candidates vying for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination met for a second debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.

Absent for the second time was the decisive frontrunner, former President Donald Trump. While he continues to enjoy a 40-point lead over the candidate polling in second, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, it’s still worth evaluating the performance of those who seek an upset win in the coming months.

The clearest winner of the debate was the man who didn’t even show up: Donald Trump. While much of the race is still ahead, it is difficult to look at the polling results and the rally around Trump caused by the indictments against him and envision a path for another candidate. Additionally, many of his opponents appear unable to provide a clear answer as to why primary voters should choose them over someone who has already sat in the Oval Office. This is especially true for Mike Pence, Nikki Haley and Chris Christie — all three served in the Trump Administration, yet now run against the man they served under.

Ron DeSantis can also be regarded as a winner of this debate. He improved on his lackluster performance in the first round, where he placed fourth in speaking time, this time getting to speak more than his rivals.

DeSantis’s polling has slid for the duration of the race and his campaign has floundered, struggling with poor messaging and questionable staffing decisions. As an ally turned main opponent to Trump, the Florida governor has struggled to explicitly take a stand against the former president. However, on Wednesday, DeSantis called Trump out for being “missing in action” from the debate and policy conversations in Washington. He also criticized Trump’s record, particularly the over $7 trillion in debt accumulated under his tenure.

While DeSantis’s policy stances gave him some credibility among Trump’s base, that was never enough to win the nomination with both of them in the race. No path to victory avoids conflict with Trump himself, and by finally attacking him, DeSantis took a step towards the nomination, however unlikely he still is to receive it.

Doug Burgum’s performance was surprisingly strong. While the North Dakota governor lacks any realistic shot at the nomination, he delivered coherent, substantive answers to the questions he was asked — unlike his opponents. In a party governed by populist extremists, even a solidly right-wing candidate like Burgum will get nowhere by only offering serious policy stances. However, he at least did what he was supposed to do in a presidential debate: talk about the issues that he would want to address if he won.

The most jarringly poor performance came from Mike Pence, who did the exact opposite of Burgum. In a moment emblematic of the night, the former vice president responded to a question about whether he would scrap Obamacare by calling for a death penalty for mass shooters. His answers were consistently off-topic, forcing the moderators to prod him two or three times to get a response to the question they had asked him.

As the most direct link to the Trump Administration of any member on the stage, Pence also appeared as something that no candidate can survive looking like: a failure. His inability to achieve his policy goals while Vice President, coupled with his part in the countless missteps of Trump’s tenure, stood out. It’s easy to see why Republican voters are uninterested in his candidacy, and it’s hard to imagine that changing.

Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley’s performance was a remarkable step down from her sharp, focused delivery in the first round. While she did continue to deliver substantive answers, much of her airtime was spent sparring with entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and South Carolina Senator Tim Scott. Haley had distinguished herself in the first debate as the grown-up in the room, a serious, policy-focused candidate who could sidestep the pettiness and populism of Trump and Ramaswamy. She was akin to Burgum but with foreign policy experience and name recognition, someone who was maybe in a position to actually progress as a policy-focused candidate. Now, she forfeited that standing to get a few soundbites.

While taking the gloves off is inevitable in this race, she should’ve waited until the last possible moment instead of getting bogged down in fights now. Deciding to fight, she punched everywhere except where she absolutely needed to: the candidate polling 50 points ahead of her.

The final loser of the debate was America itself. Those two hours cemented a trend of the Republican Party, a complete abandonment of serious policy discussions in favor of riling people up for political gain. While some gain from strife, the nation itself suffers when an entire party loses all interest in seriously trying to govern. The constant fighting coupled with the half-baked policy ideas like invading Mexico and scrapping the Department of Housing’s funding demonstrate that the Republican Party has become completely unserious, and it will be unable to produce a presidential candidate who can come anywhere close to meeting the challenges of our time.

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