There are usually three types of candidates going into a primary debate, frontrunners, middle of the pack and bottom rung candidates.
And if they have smart campaign advisors each candidate knows their role and acts accordingly: the bottom rung just tries to draw attention, the front runner stays above the fray and the muddled middle tries desperately to punch upwards.
But what happens when the conventional roles don’t apply anymore? What happens in a Republican field that is horribly lopsided in talent and notoriety but incredibly fluid in the polls?
It’s time for candidates to employ a new strategy, and the candidate that plays smarter—and not harder—in tonight’s debate may just jump themselves from the muddled middle to the top of the pack again. It goes without saying that primary season can be incredibly fluid and hard to predict from month to month.
And the history of where candidates happen to be in September a year out from the election isn’t particularly sound in predicting the future.
September 16, 2007
Rudy Giuliani 28.3%
Fred Thompson 23.5%
September 16, 2011
Rick Perry 29.9%
Mitt Romney 19.4%
Only one of the top four GOP candidates in the last two cycles ended up being the nominee and the other didn’t even make it until Super Tuesday. So it’s very possible that in a small field we’ll see some changes in poll position before the leaves begin to turn.
This year’s nomination, with so many candidates on the GOP side, could be even more unpredictable. There is no clear frontrunner going into Wednesday’s debate. Donald Trump is averaging around 27 percent of the Republican electorate in Iowa (and nationally) while Ben Carson is nipping at his heels with around 23 percent.
The rest of the field is all in single digits. In fact the gap between Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Carly Fiorina and Marco Rubio is less than 4 percent. Essentially you have two frontrunners and the rest of the field has fallen back into a political oophagy no one seems to be able to get out of.
Reports have been circling that the candidates will employ the tried and true method of going after the front runner—Trump—but there are two huge problems with this strategy. First, Trump is wittier, more TV savvy and confident than any of his challengers and he will bury them verbally if they come after him. Trump has taken down Rand Paul, Jeb Bush and even Megyn Kelley, it’s unlikely Scott Walker or Chris Christie is going to land any punches tonight.
So when there are too many frontrunners and the middle of the pack is too wide and narrow to sift through where should a struggling Republican candidate take aim tonight? The researchers at Public Policy Polling give clues to an excellent debate plan B.
Public Policy Polling has done a great service for the American voter and the GOP candidates this year by publishing all of their polls with Ranked Choice Voting methodology. In simplest terms this means polling which candidate voters support first, and which candidate voters would support if their favorite dropped out.
With 17 candidates there’s a good chance a Republican primary voter’s first choice may not make it. So it stands to reason to assess who would be the second option when the eventual attrition of the long campaign season takes hold. This method not only gives real insight into what the voters want in a candidate but also who they think is viable (able to win a primary) and electable (able to win a general election).
Ranked Choice Voting polls should be a guide for candidates in the second (and subsequent debates) who are stuck in the vast undifferentiated wasteland that is not Donald Trump or Ben Carson. Rather than blindly attack the a frontrunner like Trump, who will smack you down and turn you into an internet meme before the first commercial break, candidates should look at which candidate is really stealing from their cookie jar when they aren’t looking.
The Public Policy Polling survey of Republican voters on September 1st lays out what should be the attack strategy of the top tier candidates heading into the second GOP election.
If you look at the table above, on the left is the candidate and to the right are the top two choices of their supporters should that candidate drop out of the race.
For example, amongst Ted Cruz supporters 26% of them would supporte Donald Trump if Cruz dropped out, and 18% would support Scott Walker if Cruz dropped out. So what does this information offer to the ambitious candidate? An effective attack plan for the non-frontrunner.
Imagine you’re Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, and you’ve seen your support dwindle from as high as 18% this summer to as low as 4% heading into this second debate. However you notice that you are the strong second choice for Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz supporters.
The best strategy in the debate would be to focus attacks on Cruz and Rubio, if Scott Walker can demonstrate that these two Senators have no chance of winning the nomination, or worse would lose to the eventual Democratic nominee, their supporters will most likely trickle over to his side.
This same strategy would be the wiser choice across the board for most of the GOP. Going after Trump is a losing proposition in a debate, don’t go tugging on Superman’s cape when you don’t have any kryptonite.
And going after a candidate that has no overlap with your supporters is worthless as well, as we’ve seen the testy exchange between Chris Christie and Rand Paul in the first debate helped both of their numbers crater in the last month.
But if I’m Governor Mike Huckabee and I see that 13% of Ben Carson’s voters would support me if Carson dropped out, I’m aiming for the soft spoken Doctor from Detroit. If I’m Ben Carson and I see 14% of Jeb Bush’s voters would support me if Jeb faltered I would hammer him on common core and leave Trump alone.
Of course it’s much less sexy to point out the flaws in Marco Rubio, or Scott Walker or even Ben Carson than Trump, as least as far as the press is concerned. Nevertheless if this campaign has shown us anything it’s that the candidate who makes their own news by striking out a new path is more likely to drive the narrative than the other way around.
A sophisticated well thought out take down of your electoral peers as opposed to the front runner just might be the kind of outside the box thinking that helps a candidate stand tall in the hurricane that is Donald Trump coverage.
But you have to be careful and precise in who you attack and the polls are the best tool to employ. If you’re Chris Christie, or Rand Paul, or John Kasich and you’re interested in winning instead of just getting soundbites on stage you have to go after your opponents with a scalpel not a chainsaw.
This article originally appeared online at NBC BLK.