Who knows who won.

Photographer: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Rubio's Broken Record: Will It Matter?

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
Read More.
a | A

With apologies to Donald Trump, who went out of his way to insult the audience at Saturday night's Republican presidential debate, the consensus on Twitter was that the event's big moment belonged to Marco Rubio:

Rubio, when criticized by Chris Christie for repeating pre-programmed sound bites, could not stop himself from repeating one of those sound bites (that Barack Obama "knows exactly what he's doing").

It was an awful moment for Rubio, since the media has been hitting him for the same thing. The remainder of Rubio's performance was up to his usual solid standards, but his exchange with Christie dominated Twitter discussion during the debate, and the clip will likely be the most featured in the post-debate commentary.

Of course, there's no way to know if this gaffe will hurt him with voters. The polls can change quickly in New Hampshire, and be far off the mark when the results come in. This doesn't mean the polling is "wrong." It could just mean people are making up their minds at the last minute. And the Super Bowl on Sunday (even with the New England Patriots sitting at home) will knock everything else out of the news for a bit. By Monday, something else might have happened in the presidential race to divert attention even more. 

Meanwhile, the campaign ads will continue, and get-out-the-vote drives (at least for those campaigns that have them) will be in high gear. 

This is where having support from Republican Party actors helps Rubio. Those who have swung in his direction will support him, and voters who follow their lead will be more likely to give Rubio the benefit of the doubt. Even those party actors who are more neutral may care more that Trump or perhaps Ted Cruz loses. 

It's even possible that the extra publicity (if there is some) will help Rubio, just as Trump was sometimes helped in the polls just by capturing attention. The Florida senator has moved to a solid but relatively small lead for second place in New Hampshire polls, and has been gaining on Trump. 

But if New Hampshire voters see the video clip 100 times between now and when they head to the polls on Tuesday, it might erode some of his recent gains, and he could easily finish behind several of his rivals. Don't forget, too, that Rubio's support from party actors is hardly overwhelming so far.

For their part,  Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Christie were all at their best in the debate. But this is unlikely to be enough to save any of their candidacies. They also need Rubio to slump. And the three governors may limit each other's gains. 

Cruz gave his typical debate performance, but New Hampshire is a tough state for him. Ben Carson was there too, for whatever that's worth.

As for Trump, he returned to debating, and had a fairly quiet night other than when he attacked the audience, which he claimed -- falsely, apparently -- was filled with rich Republican donors. Debates usually hurt Trump because they reduce him to being just one of the candidates. That seems likely to continue. 

The effects of debates are not entirely unrelated to candidates' performances, but media and party reactions can be far more important than whether anyone objectively did well or not. We'll just have to watch to see how this one plays out.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net