Well that's that, folks. We all made it through yet another Republican presidential debate! It was the fourth of the season, and it actually ended up being a less chaotic, more subdued experience than the prior three. The answers were slightly more technical, the follow-up questions were less aggressive, and attacks on the moderators were at a minimum — besides the occasional complaint about speaking time, obviously. So who actually won the fourth Republican debate?
Obviously, your mileage may vary. Different types of rhetoric appeal to different people. It's truly difficult, if not impossible, to quantify winners and losers. Sometimes, a candidate can be confident, polished, and in complete command of the facts, but it doesn't help their poll numbers. And sometimes, somebody with an obvious deficit of experience — looking at you, Dr. Ben Carson — can still come out smelling like a rose.
But if by "winner," you mean the person who comes out in the strongest position, there's a strong case to be made for both of the men currently sitting atop the primary field: Ben Carson and Donald Trump. And considering Trump actually drew some boos for attacking Carly Fiorina, that works as a pretty good tiebreaker: Ben Carson was the winner of the Fox Business Network / Wall Street Journal GOP debate.
There's a brutal truth about the landscape of the GOP primary right now, and it's almost surely causing some gnashing teeth among the Republican establishment: Trump and Carson are polling at 28 percent and 20 percent of party support, respectively, amounting to nearly 50 percent of the vote. As long as both men stay in the race and command those levels of support, it'll be monumentally difficult for any of the other candidates to outpace them.
In other words, for Trump and Carson, a bloodless debate is a successful debate. Both of them want the status quo to keep on rolling along. If you've ever wondered why they seem to attack each other so sparingly, that's a huge reason — each one depends on the other to help stave off a handful of far more experienced potential contenders. In a certain sense, they're locked in a mutually beneficial relationship.
Despite how often pundits like to write Trump off based on failing conventional wisdom, nothing that he did in Tuesday night's debate figures to hurt him one bit. Even with his poorly-received attack on Fiorina, there's nothing new to see for any Trump supporter that would cause them to jump ship. Remember, this is the same man who boorishly attacked Fox News host Megyn Kelly, and who weeks ago intimated that Fiorina was too ugly to be President. In short, the Republicans who're supporting Trump right now know that he likes to attack women, and they're clearly at peace with it.
But Carson may be the one who truly took the debate, by virtue of perhaps the most memorable line of his night. He accused Hillary Clinton of lying about the Benghazi attacks, at the same time deflecting from addressing recent questions about inconsistencies in his personal biography. And in both cases, he fared very well — his non-political, good-natured demeanor has helped him dodge difficult questions in two consecutive debates now, and the conservative base loves to think of Clinton as a liar and a manipulator, especially regarding Benghazi. Marco Rubio got a big reaction in the third GOP debate by basically making the same argument.
In short: If Trump holds strong and a few more doses of that soft-spoken Carson charisma go over well, then there can really be no doubt that those two are the runaway winners of this debate. Things can change, of course. Maybe someday soon, Trump and Carson will fade from the polls and into history, but this was not the debate that caused it.