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Why GOP candidates should go positive at next 2024 debate

White House field must walk a tightrope to avoid turning off Trump loyalists

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley got a small bump from the first GOP presidential primary debate.
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley got a small bump from the first GOP presidential primary debate. (Bill Clark)

Dana Perino and Stuart Varney, the Fox anchors who will moderate the next Republican debate later this month, have their work cut out for them. With seven or eight candidates on the stage, ensuring each of them has the opportunity to make a case for their candidacy and their ideas is no small task — especially if the last debate is any kind of indicator.

Post-debate polling shows that, despite two hours of sparring and arguing and some actual discussion of issues, the Aug. 23 debate changed little. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley got a small bump, although she, like almost all the rest of the field, remains mired in single digits. Former President Donald Trump, post-debate, maintained his significant lead at 52 percent in last week’s Economist-YouGov survey, while Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis remained a distant second, at 16 percent.

For many of the candidates, the critique has been that they need a more aggressive tack against Trump. But most of the candidates find themselves in the untenable position of generally agreeing with Trump on most issues while also trying to avoid the dicey territory of the four Trump indictments. A recent Wall Street Journal poll found that 48 percent of Republicans said the indictments made them more likely to vote for Trump. The rest of the field must walk a fine line during the coming Sept. 27 debate to not alienate Republicans in the primary who see the indictments as purely political while positioning themselves to appeal to independents.

But there are some distinctions with a difference between the candidates and Trump on a number of issues from foreign policy to abortion to government spending, but the key isn’t to take Trump on directly as some would like. With so many candidates on the stage, the ability to detail their plans for the country is admittedly limited, but they are on firmer ground if they differentiate themselves from each other and Trump in three key areas: their policies on issues that matter to voters; their leadership skills and competency; and why they believe they would beat President Joe Biden in the 2024 general election.

When it comes to outlining policy differences, the focus should be on substance and how the candidate will implement their policies, not taking aim at fellow Republicans or Trump. Voters, especially independents, are turned off by bickering and personal attacks, and the polls show that it’s costing the Republican field and the party support.

Talking about leadership and competency should be a no-brainer for most of these candidates, who have solid records and can contrast their style of governing with both Trump and Biden. A positive recitation of their accomplishments and ability to get things done may be a better way to go than going on the attack.

When it comes to electability, Republicans believe the top priority is to beat Biden but also believe he is going to lose; and at this point, Trump’s ability to beat him is seen as more likely than the other candidates. In a recent CBS News poll, 61 percent of likely Republican primary voters said they believe that Trump would definitely beat Biden. Only 35 percent thought DeSantis would definitely beat Biden, and the rest of the field had much lower numbers than his. But, an average of several polls compiled by RealClearPolitics has Biden leading Trump by 1 percentage point, so there is an opening for the rest of the field to effectively define how they would be more likely to win.

In the last eight presidential elections, the only Republican to win a majority of American voters was George W. Bush in 2004. This is where Trump faces a real challenge. The ability to build a majority coalition is essential. In the 2020 election, Trump lost independents by 13 points, and his favorability with this key voter group hasn’t improved since. The last major-party presidential candidate to do worse with independents was Democrat Walter Mondale in 1984.

But this is not just a Trump dynamic; it is a Republican challenge as well. While there were great expectations of a red wave in 2022, it did not materialize. The reason? After winning independents in 10 consecutive congressional elections when Democrats controlled the White House, Republicans lost them by two points in 2022. This despite the electorate’s very negative, according to just about every poll, view of Biden.

So back to the debate — and the state of Republican candidates.

The most recent incarnation of the Economist-YouGov survey found independent voters hold a negative view of the 12 Republicans running for president. The two leading candidates, Trump and DeSantis, had unfavorables at or above 50 percent; more than 60 percent have a negative view of the Republican Party as well.

However, it’s become a race to the bottom as independents don’t like Democrats either, with over 60 percent saying they have a negative view of Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris — and the Democratic Party.

So what about the next debate?

The reality of presidential primaries for candidates is that they don’t elect you to anything, but your performance during the primary shapes voter opinions of you and also your party. So the question becomes how can this next debate help create a more positive impression of Republicans among independents while addressing the concerns of the Republican base?

The first thing that is needed is the opportunity for candidates to outline their priorities and policies behind those priorities. Clearly, the economy is the leading issue and every candidate must have the opportunity to define their policies to fight inflation and spur growth.

Candidates should have the time to answer questions, to provide the needed depth voters want.

Unfortunately, some of the candidates have used their time to make the kind of statements that social media loves but voters hate. Many of those statements are negative, which drags down everyone onstage and the party.

In debates, candidates have two responsibilities. First, defining the rationale of their presidential candidacy to the electorate. And then, collectively, as the Republican field, to present the Republican Party in a positive light that connects with voters.

If these candidates want to lead the Republican Party, their debate performance must reflect an understanding that governing will require more than winning the presidency. It will take a majority coalition that delivers a Republican House and Senate. If they want to lead the country, they must begin to bring the country together now, by showing voters in the debates that Republicans can deliver the solutions the majority already favor.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, as well as serving as an election analyst for CBS News.

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