Fox Debate Preview: Is it time to forget conventional wisdom?

Could Ben Carson’s media woes actually help him?

One Ted Cruz line from the last TV debate demonstrated why the current race for the Republican Nomination has blindsided the commentariat and remains of deep concern to the party establishment.

Spelling out precisely how the moderators had gone after each candidate, Cruz opined that “The questions asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media.” Veteran focus group watcher Frank Luntz said it registered better with his group of Republican voters than any line in his memory.

The CNBC moderators certainly went on the offensive from the start. Cruz was right to observe the attempt to stir up a fight, by encouraging John Kasich to attack outsider candidates Donald Trump and Ben Carson. Why expect anything less from a TV network chasing entertainment and ratings?

Nevertheless, while hostile and hard-hitting, they were legitimate questions. Yet none failed to land a blow. Trump even managed to deny one of his past quotes, and turn his fire on the questioner. The post-debate scrutiny focused on CNBC, not the candidates’ answers.

The critical point for gamblers to consider is whether Republican primary voters, (or indeed voters in general), have become completely detached from the mainstream media conversation. Just as left-wing Jeremy Corbyn supporters stand accused of creating an echo chamber via social media and friendly networks in the UK.

If so, we can rip up much of the old election-betting rule book (as I did when backing Corbyn). In all recent elections, the Republican Party has chosen mainstream presidential candidates. The conventional wisdom is therefore that the two non-politicians leading the polls will crash and burn, but Trump and Carson have thus far proved resilient.

Indeed, these GOP poll respondents saw a very different debate to me or most commentators. I felt Marco Rubio and Cruz fared best while Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina did pretty well. By toning down his usual stream of abuse, though, Trump seemed irrelevant. Carson looked a lightweight. Their novelty factor was wearing off.

What happened in the polls? Rubio and Cruz indeed got a good boost but remain a long way behind the leaders. Carson actually rose despite that soporific performance. Christie remains stuck on 2%, forcing relegation from tonight’s main stage. Fiorina made little headway either.

This week’s headlines have been dominated by Carson. His past is being scrutinised like never before, by media and opponents. He appears, by conventional wisdom, to be handling it terribly – ridiculously complaining that nobody has ever been scrutinised like this before.

At the weekend, Carson’s ratings fell significantly, from 10% to 6% for the nomination. But is this premature? If GOP voters think the media is out to get them and rewards the candidates fighting back hard, Carson’s refusal to take criticism lying down could work to his favour.

Progress is at last being made in shrinking the field. Eight candidates will share the main stage tonight, among whom Rand Paul has no chance of winning. Kasich, Fiorina and Jeb Bush urgently need a boost.

If the polls don’t start shifting over the next month, we could be looking at a four-horse race, including three candidates that seemed unimaginable at the start. Two non-politicians, apparently beyond scrutiny. The ultimate Washington outsider in Cruz (still my main trading pick), plus Rubio.

No wonder the favourite’s odds are hardening. Rubio is now rated a 39% chance for the nomination. Having starred in all three previous debates, tonight is another good opportunity to cement his status as the mainstream pick. But in a race that has proved so unpredictable to date, dare one take such short odds?













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