By Noah Lieberman
Just like last month’s debate and just as many predicted, tonight’s debate was only ever going to be won by one of two candidates, Senator Marco Rubio and Senator Ted Cruz. Though each candidate on stage had their moments in the spotlight, the market never wavered, holding these two far above the rest of the crowd (though Christie and Trump both made runs at double-digits). More importantly, the market never wavered on its ordering of the two candidates, holding the Florida senator far above his Texan counterpart.
The two largely avoided each other for the night, with Cruz being more occupied in fending off attacks from Trump than anything else. But at just past 11 PM, already leading by double digits on the market, Rubio pulled out all the stops and began a full assault on Cruz, critiquing his record on everything from defense spending to pandering and flip-flopping for Iowans. The risk proved to be too much for Rubio, who allowed Cruz the opportunity to respond harshly without it seeming overly cruel or unprovoked. Cruz built on this with a strong closing statement after the break, pulling to within seven points by the end of the night, his smallest deficit of the day.
This error would prove to not only be Rubio’s undoing on the market, but also the final vote, where he not only did not win, but failed to even claim sole possession of second place. Senator Rubio finished tied with Governor Chris Christie and, surprisingly, Donald Trump, who all ended the night with 20% of our focus group’s vote. The biggest news out of these results is that Donald Trump’s bravado and swagger finally earned him some respect on the market, which was quite a surprise given his lackluster night on the market, complete lack of votes in past debates, and the barrage of boos he faced from the raucous South Carolina audience tonight. We’ll have more on what this means for future markets and perhaps the state of the race in our full analysis next week. Governor Jeb Bush earned a small amount of love from the focus group, a solid 10 percent.
But the big winner tonight was indeed Senator Cruz, who took the remainder of the focus group vote and first place for the second straight debate. This should lead him to continued success in Iowa, where he is possibly poised to win the first vote in this primary campaign. Our focus group praised how we handled himself against all attacks, and against Trump in particular, which should bode well for him as he faces increased challenges from his rivals as the new man to beat in the Hawkeye State.
The big takeaway tonight is that even though the market was quiet for much of the night, Ted Cruz was by far the best performer of the last twenty minutes. If you’re waiting until the last minute to place your bet on the night’s ultimate winner, it isn’t always wisest to go with the candidate on top. Go with the candidate with the most momentum, who will be leaving the freshest impression in the focus group’s mind.
End of Debate: 12,125 (+2,125)
End of Night: 18,500 (+8,500)