By 9/14/15 5:03 PM
The Texas senator has been on a slow rise in the polls ever since the first debate, moving from sixth place in the RealClearPolitics average of national polls on the eve of the debate to fourth position today. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Ted Cruz doesn't hesitate to express his gratitude to Donald Trump for bringing 24 million-plus viewers to the first Republican presidential debate last month.
"There is no doubt Donald Trump caused a whole lot of people to watch that debate who wouldn't have otherwise turned on the television," Cruz told me at a campaign event in South Carolina a few weeks after the Fox News debate. "So I am grateful for his attracting a whole lot of people who had the opportunity, perhaps for the first time, to hear my positive, optimistic, conservative message."
Without Trump, the first debate might have drawn six, eight, maybe ten million viewers — the same or a bit more as the most-viewed GOP debates in 2012. So the Trump effect meant that somewhere between 14 million and 18 million more people saw Cruz than would have been watching without Trump. Cruz is right to be grateful.
Of course, that's because a lot of those millions of viewers thought Cruz did well. The Texas senator has been on a slow rise in the polls ever since, moving from sixth place in the RealClearPolitics average of national polls on the eve of the debate to fourth position today.
On the flip side, if a candidate didn't do well in that first debate, Trump's presence meant a lot more people saw that, too. Take Scott Walker.
Some Republican candidates — not just Walker — approached the first debate believing it would be the Donald Trump show no matter what anyone else said or did. So they concluded their best bet was to play it safe, do a good enough job, and avoid any big mistakes. Hit a single and move on while the world buzzed about Trump.
But as it turned out, the debate wasn't just the Donald Trump show. Yes, news reporting focused incessantly on Trump. But a lot of Republican voters saw a bigger picture.
In the days after the debate, as the candidates resumed their campaign travel around the country, they realized viewers wanted more from them than playing it safe. Voters who were considering supporting Walker, in particular, wanted to see what he had to offer — and they didn't see much.
In the weeks that followed, Walker suffered a near-catastrophic drop in the polls — not all the result of the debate, but that certainly played a part. On the eve of the Fox News debate, Walker was in third place nationally, with 10.6 percent in the RealClearPolitics average of polls. Today, he's in seventh place with 4.2 percent.
In Iowa, Walker was in second place on the eve of the first debate, with 18.7 percent, less than a couple of points behind Trump. Today, Walker is tied for fourth place (with Carly Fiorina) with 5.7 percent.
In the first debate, Walker sought to present himself as a Washington outsider — a reasonable position for a governor of Wisconsin. But he has found that voters, at least for now, are most attracted to candidates who stand outside the entire political system.
Walker, with a career in government, can't do that. So he has doubled down, perhaps tripled down, on his image of himself as the Washington outsider. Starting with his recent speech at Ronald Reagan's alma mater, Eureka College, Walker has pledged not only to reform Washington, but to "wreak havoc" on Washington.
One dictionary definition of "havoc" is "great destruction or devastation; ruinous damage." Another is "a situation in which there is much destruction or confusion." It's not at all clear whether that's what voters want Walker or any other candidate to do.
On the eve of the debate, frustration is evident in the Walker campaign. "He is an outsider," one Walker team member said recently. "I cannot imagine people cannot look at his record and not say this man is truly an outsider, and he will take on these things and be a great president."
On Wednesday, thanks in large part to Donald Trump, Walker will have a chance to make a second impression on perhaps tens of millions of potential voters. This time, he and other candidates will realize that no matter how much the press fixates on Trump, voters will be looking closely at them, too — and expecting more.