On Thursday night, the presidential primary process really kicked off in earnest, thanks to the folks over at Fox News — it was the first debate of the 2016 campaign season, and it certainly lived up to its high-profile billing. With real estate mogul (and classy necktie magnate) Donald Trump polling in first place going in, it meant that he'd be stationed at center stage, giving him one of the unlikliest political limelights in recent memory. And boy, did he pay for it — he got some tough questions, and responded in just the style you'd expect. So, what will Donald Trump supporters think of him after that debate?
Obviously, we'll get an empirical answer to this question sometime soon, by virtue of the next round of presidential polling, and that'll tell a big story. It was fairly apparent that Fox News isn't very sweet on him anymore — he was hit with some very pointed questions about his history of boorish, misogynistic behavior on Twitter, and he got called out with some follow-up questions, too.
This stuck out, considering some of the other candidates made glaring deflections which were allowed to stand without additional challenge — Wisconsin Govenor Scott Walker may have taken the cake on this, refusing to directly say that he'd sooner allow a pregnant woman to die rather than let her get an abortion. The question, basically, is this: will Trump's supporters turn tail after a ragged, touch-and-go debate, or will they hold tight?
There are a number of ways to look at this. On the one hand, you could easily argue that any Trump supporter who was turned off by his performance last night had no business backing him in the first place.
Absolutely everything that transpired — from his refusal to rule out a third-party run, to his testy exchange with Megyn Kelly (the sole female moderator, it bears mentioning), to his blustery inability to back up his "Mexico's government is sending rapists" claim, to his casual explanation of how he's bought off politicians — was all pure Trump, top to bottom. If his polling numbers noticeably suffer after Thursday night's performance, all that says is that he had a bunch of people behind him who really weren't paying attention.
On the other hand, you could easily see his numbers holding tight, because it's possible — however harrowing — that this kind of brute-force politics is genuinely appealing to a lot of people. His incredibly lacking defense that his years-long track record of misogynistic attacks was strictly about Rosie O'Donnell (which is flatly untrue), for example, earned a round of fairly thunderous applause.
More to the point, Trump has been sucking up an immense amount of coverage, and a lot of it's been dismal, at least by left-leaning or even centrist standards: broad-brushing Mexican immigrants as "rapists," questioning Sen. John McCain's war record, sexistly sneering at a female reporter, you name it.
Considering that many people have blamed his surprisingly strong polling on the amount of attention the media's been giving him, and that he's been behaving like this more or less the whole time, you could easily imagine a scenario where the Republican establishment gets a nasty shock when the next poll hits. Personally, if I had to stake a wager, I'd guess you'll see some slight slippage, owing to other candidates like Carly Fiorina and John Kasich turning in well-regarded performances.
But would that actually be enough to topple Trump from his perch? Hell if I know why anyone who could be convinced to back Kasich, Fiorina, or even Marco Rubio or Chris Christie would've supported Trump in the first place. Suffice to say, this is going to be a very illuminating round of polls.