Dartmouth Primary Watchers Handicap GOP Debate

Setting aside the obsessive coverage of Donald Trump and the process of picking the other nine candidates who will share a stage with him at Fox News’ Republican debate on Thursday, Dartmouth political analysts offer a tip sheet for what to watch for beyond the circus parade.

Andrew Samwick, director of the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy, says he would advise the candidates not to be drawn into debating Trump.

“That's the way to wind up being dead right. You're dead right when you take pains to win arguments that ultimately don't reflect well on you,” says Samwick, the Sandra L. and Arthur L. Irving '72a P'10 Professor of Economics.

“If you're asked the question, ‘What do you think about Donald Trump's comments on immigration?’ The answer is, ‘I don't think about Donald Trump’s comments on immigration?’ I think about my comments on immigration.”

Governors Chris Christie of New Jersey and Scott Walker of Wisconsin are perhaps best positioned to take this tack as Republicans’ elected in traditionally Democratic states, Samwick says.

"As governors in blue states, they would be able to talk about governing a country that is part red and part blue," he says.

Ronald Shaiko, the Rockefeller Center’s associate director of curricular programs and a senior fellow, points to the performance of 14 GOP candidates at the Voters First Forum at St. Anselm's College on Monday, hosted by the Union Leader and media outlets in Iowa and North Carolina.

Without Trump (who refused to take part because the Union Leader editorial page was critical of him), “the party elevated itself by having 14 really competent people make their case as to why they should be president,” Shaiko says.

The candidates, who took the stage one by one, spoke highly of all their opponents, he noted. “If one gets the nomination and wins, I could imagine every one of the 13 being willing to serve in the cabinet.”

On Thursday, Shaiko says, it will be interesting to see how the candidates play off each other with Trump at center stage.

Associate Professor of Government Joseph Bafumi says the candidates all know that caucus goers and early primary voters are not the people driving Trump’s polling numbers.

“They all want to be the candidate that everyone coalesces behind if Trump is still No. 1 in the polls in the fall,” Bafumi says. “So they may be more careful about attacking the other candidates and alienating their supporters."

And so far, it is not in the interest of the 17 other declared Republican candidates to attack Trump directly, says Assistant Professor of Government Brendan Nyhan.

“The party faces a tricky balancing act to contain Trump without alienating supporters,” he says. "As we get closer to the first primary we may start to see more aggressive pushback, but for now everyone is waiting for someone else to take him down. No one wants to get in the mud with Trump.”

The push must come from a recognized Republican critic, he says. “Criticism from the media is not effective with most Republican primary voters. Many like it when a political figure challenges and criticizes the media.”

Charles Wheelan, a senior lecturer in economics, says the Republican Party and politicians on all sides have created a partisan political monster.

“The Republicans, for the better part of 20 years, have created these red meat issues for primary voters that are populist in nature—immigration is a good example, tough on crime used to be, no new taxes of any kind. Most of these are impractical from a policy standpoint or even from a political standpoint,” Wheelan says.

“Well now Donald Trump comes along and he's doing it better than they are. In some ways he's their Frankenstein,” he says.

He hopes this is a wake-up call prompting political leaders to move away from polarizing tactics, Wheelan says. “But I’ve said that before.”

In the meantime, the Republican candidates are likely to focus on being the second or even third choice of the most voters, analysts agree.

“The presumption is that, if nothing changes, that candidate will be Jeb Bush, but it is not clear that he’ll get enough support from all the groups to push back the challenges,” says Samwick. “But Trump looks like he’s the one who is capable of prolonging that inevitability.”

Few seem to doubt that Trump's lead in the polls will fade. But will it?

“I’m not sure he will have real staying power, but he might,” says Bafumi. “Anything’s possible in American politics. He might just be the nominee.”