Well, that was fun.
If you haven't yet seen the debate between Dave Brat and Jack Trammell, you can find video and photos here. A few takeaways:
- It was very clear that Trammell had the better night just in terms of performance. Randolph-Macon held a post-debate town hall (I participated as a panel member) where we took a quick online poll of the room. While the results were far from scientific, the room thought Jack had the better night by a 2-1 margin. The same poll showed about a 10% swing in favor of Trammell in terms of preferences before and after the debate. Of course, the demographics of the room were nowhere near as Republican-leaning as the 7th District, so this says nothing about Jack's chances of victory - just that he had a good debate.
- Brat's performance wasn't great. He had trouble handling the time limits and making clear points. But as my colleague Elliott Fullmer pointed out post-debate, Dave should be happy with the night as well. He stayed on message, hitting his key themes repeatedly. After the 7th or 8th time he mentioned he was an economist, he'd lost the audience in the room. But the more important audience was watching at home on TV, or would see only snippets in later news coverage. (And indeed, most of the subsequent media reports made little mention of Dave's more disjointed performance.)
- Part of the difference between the two candidates is related to broader differences in political style between Republicans and Democrats. The metaphor I often return to in order to explain this is the hedgehog and fox: while the fox knows many things, the hedgehog knows one thing, but knows it well. (As I noted at the post-debate panel, I have no idea WHAT a hedgehog knows. But whatever; it's a metaphor.) Dems are foxes; they make nuanced arguments and try to appear moderate and pragmatic. Republicans are hedgehogs; they stick to a few key points and hammer them home. Brat and Trammell followed that script.
- Brat's debate strategy was clear: tie Trammell to Obama. But a secondary strategy was fascinating: support "businesses" while decrying "crony capitalism." If Dave wins (as is still the likeliest outcome here), it will be interesting to see how he navigates a Republican Party that serves crony capitalism for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. (Plus brunch and elevensies.)
- Libertarian candidate James Carr was a presence on campus, and attended our post-debate event. To his credit, I thought he avoided disrupting the event, asking a restrained question that matched his theme for the night: if we want to get money out of politics, how did we feel about the college's decision to exclude him due to fundraising totals? I tried to be honest in response - as I've already written, Carr's exclusion was an injustice. But he's screwed by the electoral system, not just the college. As my colleague Elliott noted, third parties contribute a lot in terms of new ideas and issues, but they rarely win.
- Carr told me after the debate that he expects that many will be surprised with his actual performance in the election next week. It seems to me like standard pre-election candidate optimism - in general, ALL candidates are hopeful leading up to an election, no matter how hopeless their campaigns might be. But Trammell supporters themselves have to hope that Carr is on to something: one of the only ways that Trammell can overcome the demographics of the district is for Carr to siphon off votes from Brat. I'm still skeptical, but we'll see in a few short days.