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Scoring the GOP Debate: Why Ted Cruz won in Milwaukee

Written By | Nov 11, 2015

SALT LAKE CITY, November 11, 2015 — Teachers use rubrics to help grade assignments. They are good tools to help quantify a qualitative judgement. Put another way, they make a subjective evaluation more objective.

Through the first three GOP debates, countless pundits have offered assessments on candidates’ performances. A rubric boils down all those judgements into a standard formula by which to judge them all comparatively. I’ve created such a rubric; now we can ignore the impressions and feelings, because the results are in.

First the winners, then the criteria.

According to a proprietary, patent-pending rubric, last night’s three debate winners were: Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, and Marco Rubio. The trio earned high marks for energy, feistiness, and going after the Democrats.

How did they get top placement? I boiled recent debate analyses to ten criteria. They are, in no particular order: time on screen, clarity of argument or policy position, winsomeness, responsiveness, feistiness, uniting Republicans, gravitas, applause lines, attacking Democrats, and challenging media bias. A quick note on the last one: the moderators on FOX Business were so good that no one had to challenge media framing or assumptions, so no candidate registered a score on that criterion.

Rubrics are valuable because they categorize performance against a standard. Most of the candidates met standards on most criteria. But this isn’t a standards-normed race. It’s a competitive one. So I took a page out of track and field competition and simply ranked them in order of finish. Thus, the candidate who got the most talk time (Cruz) got 8 points. Next up, Kasich, got 7, and on down to 1 (Carson).

Time on screen is often cited as the most important variable. Candidates and their surrogates fight over it and it seems to play a lot in much of the analysis. It’s also an indicator of energy and competence. According to the Los Angeles Times, the top three talkers were Cruz, Kasich, and Trump.

Clarity is a measure of effectiveness because voters consume information in soundbites and headlines. Rand Paul was the most clear. Cruz and Fiorina tied for second.

Winsomeness goes to overall likability and presentability. Nobody likes a scold, and they often vote for someone whom they feel they can relate to. Winsomeness includes smiling, laughing, and general good nature. Ben Carson is normally winsome, but Kasich, Cruz, and Bush got higher marks last night.

Feistiness means defending oneself. Mitt Romney effectively won Florida in the 2012 primary after vigorously defending himself against Newt Gingrich’s “anti-immigrant” attacks. Ronald Reagan’s “I am paying for this microphone!” moment in 1980 was the quintessence of feist. In Milwaukee, Fiorina, Kasich, and Paul were feisty. That Kasich was able to come across as both winsome and feisty is a feat. That he wasn’t able to score high on other criteria is a shame for his campaign.

Maybe the most important criterion for party loyalists is the ability to land blows on the Democrats. Republican primary voters want a nominee who will “not pull punches,” in Carly Fiorina’s words. She, Trump, and Cruz fought the hardest.

While attacking the opposition party is important, so is sowing unity among Republicans. On uniting the party, only Trump went out of his way to praise the entire stage when he gave kudos to everyone’s tax plans vis a vis the Democrats. He earns points for that.

Gravitas: one of those words brought back into currency by modern politics. Who had it last night? Rubio, Kasich, and Fiorina.

Finally, these debates are show business. Applause lines matter. They drive conversation and excite voters. They create an emotional connection and get remembered. Fiorina, Paul, and Rubio had the most.

Some caveats are in order. Just as in sports, winners of a competition don’t necessarily attract more supporters. Just ask the thousands of Cleveland Browns season ticket holders. And one debate does not a campaign make. Still, these are important markers and deserve some sort of systematic appraisal.

So who lost, according to the rubric?

Ben Carson underperformed. He wasn’t clear in some of his arguments, showed little desire to mix it up with either his Republican opponents or Democrats, and is reliably soft-spoken. He came up last in talk time.

Donald Trump was non-specific, unable to manage a single smile, and rambled on nearly every answer.

Finally, Jeb Bush was middling to low in all performance categories. Finding someone who is surprised by that might make the biggest surprise of all.

Rich Stowell

Rich Stowell is a writer, a teacher, and a soldier. He dares you to visit him at