First GOP Debate Recap and Grades: Trump Acts Like Trump, Jeb Fails To Impress, Kasich Suprises

On Thursday night, for the the first time during the 2016 election cycle, we were able to see all 17 major Republican candidates duke it out in what was apparently a contest to see who despised Hillary Clinton, women’s health clinics, teachers unions (?), and ISIS the most.

As the field of 17 candidates was so large that it was physically impossible to put all of them on stage last night in Cleveland at the same time, the field was broken down into two tiers: candidates polling between 11th and 17th place faced off at 5 PM while the big shots like Donald Trump and Jeb Bush, candidates polling in the top 10 nationally, earned the prime time spot at 9 PM.

The junior varsity debate at 5 PM, was what you’d expect it’d be: seven candidates trying desperately to become relevant in an already over-bloated field.

Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard and 2016 Republican Presidential Primary candidate
Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard and 2016 Republican Presidential Primary candidate

Rick Santorum compared the recent Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court case that legalized same-sex marriage across the nation to the 1857 Dred Scott decision that declared that African-Americans could never become citizens of the United States and overturned any bans on slavery. George Pataki and Lindsey Graham argued we need to use government surveillance agencies to monitor mosques to combat radical Islam in the United States. Carly Fiorina arguably performed the best, staying on point and on message in regards to foreign policy, so much so that even Texas Governor and fellow Republican Presidential candidate Rick Perry remarked that she would make a better Secretary of State than John Kerry.

The marquee debate later lived up to the hype. Rather than overviewing the debate as a whole, each individual candidate’s performance will be analyzed and graded, based on their performance. Each grade will be relative to expectations of the candidate entering the debate, as for example, obviously Trump had a much different strategy for the night compared to Rand Paul and Rand Paul had a much different strategy for the night compared to Ted Cruz.

Donald Trump: B

Trump, without a doubt, dominated the discussion throughout the debate. One could even argue that the debate wouldn’t be any where near as publicized if the fearless Donald did not have his hat in the ring. He was given the most amount of talking time at 10 minutes and 30 seconds throughout the debate and almost all questions directed at him forced him to defend his bizarre campaign and record.

It seemed like whereas other candidates were asked questions about their tax policies, or why they loved America or why God believed they should run for President, Trump’s questions fielded by the moderators were more along the lines of, “why are you such a bad person?”

This shouldn’t come as a surprise, however. Rupert Murdoch, the owner of Fox News, has a well-known distaste for “the Donald” and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say there was an ill-concealed effort to stop the recent Trump surge.

The debate kicked off with a question not so nonchalantly targeted at Trump and speculation that if he fails to win the GOP nomination, he’ll run as a Third Party or Independent candidate, splitting the Republican Party and virtually handing the Presidency to the Democratic. The moderators asked, “if there’s anyone unwilling to make a pledge tonight to eventual nominee of the Republican Party and pledge to not run an independent campaign against that person,” to raise their hand.

Trump Debate Fox

Trump, not surprisingly, raised his hand, to a mixed chorus of boos and cheers. He admitted he’s discussed potentially running as an independent, but has made it clear he’s in the race to win the Republican nomination and the general election.

Moderator Megyn Kelly later commented on allegations of Trump’s misogyny and how Trump has called women he disagreed with as “fat pigs” and “slobs,” wondering if that sort of immature language should be used by someone who wants to be President? Trump responded that he only calls Rosie O’Donnell that, to cheers of applause (or utter shock). He said that he, nor America, has time for that sort of political correctness.

Moderator Chris Wallace also questioned Trump over his recent remarks that the Mexican government sends rapists and criminals to the United States and asked Trump to present evidence backing this claim up (which was rated as “Pants on Fire” by Politifact). Trump instead responded that illegal immigration wasn’t on anybody’s mind prior to Trump’s campaign announcement speech (Politifact rated this claim as ‘false’). He said reporters are “dishonest” and misconstrued his statement, while also reiterating his proposal to build a giant wall across the border. When asked again by Wallace to provide evidence, Trump argued that said “people” on Border Patrol said “this is happening,” and he contended that our politicians are “stupid” and that the Mexican government is “smarter than us.”

When asked about statements in his past support for a single-payer system, Trump answered by saying firstly, he was against the Iraq War (?), and promised to replace Obamacare with a better system, of which he did not describe.

Hillary Rodham Clinton and Bill Clinton at Donald Trump's wedding in 2005
Hillary Rodham Clinton and Bill Clinton at Donald Trump’s wedding in 2005

Trump was later grilled for contributing to Democrats Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi in the past, to which Trump replied that he did so in order to win favors. He alleged he donated to Clinton and Pelosi, as well as “many of the candidates on stage,” in order to gain favors (like getting Hillary and Bill to go to his wedding), because of the “broken system” the country has in regards to campaign finance. Whether he meant to or not, Trump actually illustrated why this country needs campaign reform, showing how politicians who receive funds from wealthy donors for campaigns act more obligated towards their donors than their constituents.

For the remainder of the night, Trump stayed on tone about how he will “Make America Great Again” and use his financial knowledge to do so.

Though the night was set perfectly for a Trump-tastic failure, from the hard-hitting questions to first interactions with experienced politicians, Trump handled it well and didn’t fail apart. Even though his answers were largely nonfactual, hyperbolic, misogynistic, disrespectful, and contained little policy details, he still somehow received much applause throughout the night and proved to the average viewer that he’s “in it to win it.”

Jeb Bush: D+

Jeb had to perform in this debate to prove himself and he simply failed to deliver. With the ruckus field that is the 2016 GOP Primary, Jeb was supposed to emerge as the calm, level-headed, intelligent candidate with legitimate policy experience. Instead, his campaign has been filled with untimely gaffes, most notably last week suggesting in regards to Planned Parenthood, “I’m not sure we need half a billion dollars for women’s health issues.”


What we got on Thursday night was an obviously nervous man who was unable to keep his message clear throughout the night.

Top-Polling GOP Candidates Participate In First Republican Presidential Debate

While he did start stronger early on, proclaiming that he’s “his own man” and not tied to the Presidencies of his father and brother, clearing his position on the Iraq War by contending “knowing what we know now,” and touting his successes of balancing the budget and growing the state economy as Governor of Florida.

He had taken slack from other Republicans for his support of an earned legal status for undocumented immigrants (where offenders would not receive amnesty, but rather pay a fine and apply for citizenship) and for Common Core. He reiterated his support for earned legal status, but tip-toed around support for Common Core and instead discussed why he disagreed with federal education standards.

Jeb was set up to easily take on the ludicrous statements made by Trump, yet didn’t act on it when he would have won the argument. His message became muddled as he tried to walk the line between being the common-sense candidate and appealing to the ideologues. He seemed nervous and even admitted to being nervous at the beginning of the debate.

Bush didn’t “fail” the debate, but he did fail to capitalize on the current situation and truly stand out.

Scott Walker: C+

One commenter during the post-debate wrap-up on Fox News described Scott Walker’s performance as “aggressively neutral” and I couldn’t agree more. Walker entered the debate polling third place among Republicans, and instead of attempting to take shots at other candidates or set forward an agenda to separate him, he essentially “parked the bus,” and gave stereotypical “politician” responses.

The Wisconsin Governor didn’t appear nervous, but rather sterile, defending his state’s economy which is ranked 35th in job growth by touting his election victories and recall victory as proof Wisconsin voters still believe in him (or proof of what large out of state donations can do).

Walker in first GOP presidential debate

He stated the basic broad conservative talking points of late that we need to repeal Obamacare, lower taxes and reform the tax code, rescind the nuclear deal with Iran and implant harsher economic sanctions, and fight back against unions.

Walker took shots at Obama and Hillary, but not at any other candidates, which may be also because he only had 5 minutes and 43 seconds of airtime, with only Rand Paul getting a lesser amount. Honestly, I forgot Walker was even on the stage towards the end of the debate.

He didn’t do much to improve his chances in the race, but did just enough to stay relevant and keep his podium position during the Republican primary contest.

Ben Carson: B+

Carson was easily one the crowd favorites throughout the night, speaking as an outsider hoping provide common sense solutions to Washington.

The neurosurgeon barely had a moment to breathe before he was questioned to defend his lack of experience in political experience in the debate and handled it well. He responded that while he admitted he didn’t have necessarily the most experience in the policy realm, he still believed that he possessed intellect and a commitment to American values that could be just as effective. He noted that the Founding Fathers weren’t career politicians (though I wouldn’t argue that the Articles of Confederation was the most successful document).

Carson made light of the fact that he wasn’t given a chance again to speak until 35 minutes later, humorously remarking he “wasn’t sure he was going to get to talk again.”

Carson Gop Fox Debate

In response to a question regarding whether or not he would bring back water-boarding and other forms of torture “enhanced interrogation” techniques, Carson contended that the United States shouldn’t broadcast to the world what methods of interrogation and the United States shouldn’t be fighting “politically correct” wars or “stupid” wars.

He later described Hillary Clinton as the “epitome of the secular progressive movement,” and believed she took advantage of “useful idiots,” which was well received by the audience.

Arguably Carson’s finest moment was when he was asked about the recent racial tensions across the nation, when he remarked that as a surgeon operating on patients, “the skin doesn’t make them who they are, the hair doesn’t make them who they are,” and that the strength of the America is being the “United States” not the “divided States.”

Mike Huckabee: C-

Huckabee’s debate performance was marred by just plain weird statements.

On the subject of abortion, the former Governor of Arkansas stated that we “clearly now know that the baby inside the mother’s womb is a person at the moment of conception,” because of the “DNA schedule that we now have clear scientific evidence on.” (Scientifically-literate people everywhere collectively cringe). He continued and suggested we invoke the 5th and 14th amendments which guarantee that neither the federal government, nor state, respectively, can deprive any person “of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” Unborn fetuses are just like corporations. They’re both people. Though suspected terrorists aren’t.


He also stated that the inefficiencies of Social Security rest in the fact that it is funded by the payroll tax, based on wages instead of consumption. Huckabee argued for implementing a Fair Tax on consumption, so money paid through consumption paid by “pimps,” “prostitutes,” and “drug dealers” can be taxed. Megyn Kelly warned Huckabee that he was getting a little too “R-Rated” for audiences.

Regarding the participation of transgenders in the armed forces, he said it wasn’t time for social experiments in the military and “the purpose of the military is to kill people and break things.”

One would think these statements would produce concerns, though these comments are actually pretty typical of Huckabee.

Marco Rubio: A-

As the youngest candidate on stage at 44 years old, Rubio’s main message throughout the night was that he represented the Republican Party of the future, and did so with almost John F. Kennedy-esque charisma.

The Florida Senator started the night with a dig at Hillary Clinton, dismissing the argument that Jeb Bush, former Governor of Florida, is more qualified for the office of the Presidency, stating “if this election is going to be a résumé competition, then Hillary Clinton is definitely going to be president,” suggesting the party must look to the future instead of the past.

He attacked Trump’s assertion that Mexico was the only offender of illegal immigration, noting that the country must focus on other Latin American nations like El Salvador and Nicaragua. Rubio was correct, though Mexico is the largest contributor to illegal immigration, only 52% of undocumented immigrants originate from Mexico.

Rubio argued against Common Core education standards, but contended the nation’s education system desperately needs immigration reform, but contended it should be done at the state and local levels.

The focus should be on helping small businesses and small banks, Rubio stated, proposing to repeal the Dodd-Frank law, a bill created after the Great Depression and reinstated in 2010 that overhauled regulatory standards for Wall Street banks following the 2007 financial crisis. “We need to repeal Dodd-Frank,” claimed Rubio, “it is eviscerating small businesses and small banks. Over 40 percent of small and mid-size banks that loan money to small businesses have been wiped out since Dodd-Frank has passed.” Harvard professor, Marshall Lux, contended these remarks and said that Rubio’s “40 percent” was in reference to changes since 1994, but Dodd-Frank was reinstated in 2010, and small banks/businesses have only decreased by 14 percent since then, and it is still hard to pinpoint Dodd-Frank as the cause. The Washington Post’s fact checking team gave Rubio’s assertion “three Pinocchios.” 

Rubio later stated that in the future, nations will look at the United States as “barbarians” for allowing abortion, and suggested passing a law that all life is worthy of protection.

Rubio continued getting massive applause throughout the night for his future-oriented approach and energetic vitality. Finally, when asked about the role of God in the campaign, Rubio remarked, “I think God has blessed us. He’s blessed the Republican party with some very good candidates; the Democrats can’t even find one.” Though recent rallies say maybe the Democrats have found one.

Ted Cruz: C+

While Rubio spoke with a more populist and united tone, Cruz kept with his classic “my way or the highway” approach. Touting the fact that in the past he’s been more prone to shut down the entire federal government than compromise.

The Canadian-born Texas Senator endorsed invoking “Kate’s Law,” a proposed law that would require any deported immigrants to return the United States to be jailed for five-years. “I have never supported amnesty,” Cruz reminded the Cleveland crowd.

Cruz GOP debate Fox

Cruz, a former national collegiate debate champion, argued ISIS cannot be defeated “so long as we have a president unwilling to utter the words ‘radical Islamic terrorist.'” ISIS is apparently like a reverse Beetlejuice in that saying ‘radical Islamic terrorist’ three times makes it go away.

In his closing statement, Cruz pledged to prosecute Planned Parenthood and repeal “every illegal unconstitutional action taken by Barack Obama” on his first day of office.

Cruz may not have won over any independents with his divisive tone, but still appealed to his base throughout the night.

Rand Paul: B-

Entering the debate, Paul’s campaign was spiraling. His main Super PAC had raised the least amount of any major candidate, his national polls have dropped from 14% to 4% over the year, and the head of his Super PAC was indicted on corruption charges.

Considering the state of Paul’s campaign at the start, the fact that he was limited to 4 minutes and 51 seconds of speaking time (the least of any candidate), and that he was used as a punching bag throughout the night, Paul performed decently.


The Senator from Kentucky came out hitting, attacking Trump’s refusal to pledge to endorse the eventual nominee of the Republican Party, suggesting maybe he ends up supporting Hillary and claiming “he’s already hedging his bets because he’s used to buying politicians.”

Rand Paul, a notable libertarian and major critic of the Patriot Act and other forms of government surveillance, engaged in a heated exchange with Chris Christie in regards to Christie’s support for extending wiretapping and NSA surveillance, stating that Christie “fundamentally [misunderstands] the Bill of Rights.” Paul pointed out that unrestricted surveillance is contrary to the 4th Amendment of the Constitution, and that a warrant must be required in order to survey a person’s records and protecting civil liberties.

Following Christie’s somewhat uncalled for personal attacks on Rand following, Rand responded with a cringe-worthy remark, “I don’t trust President Obama with our records. I know you gave him a big hug and if you want to give him a big hug again, go right ahead.” (In reference to Christie’s interaction with President Obama following Hurricane Sandy’s devastation of New Jersey).

Rand back tracked on his isolationist foreign policy and remarks that ISIS was created due to decades of faulty US foreign policy in the Middle East, explaining that “ISIS created themselves.”

After Trump responded to a question regarding Trump’s support of a single-payer system earlier in his career, Paul contended that Trump’s in the wrong party for believing in single-payer, to which Trump responded, “I don’t think you heard me. You’re having a hard time tonight.”

After being asked a question in relation to same-sex marriage, Paul answered, “I don’t want my marriage or my guns registered in Washington. When the government tries to invade the church…that’s when it’s time to resist.”

Chris Christie: F

The New Jersey Governor was easily the loser of the debate. He needed to prove himself, but was arrogant and aggressive instead of being assertive but respectful. Honestly, Christie came off as a jerk with little evidence that he could be an effective leader to most of the audience.


The moderators also came out swinging at Christie, questioning why Christie thought he could turn around the US economy when New Jersey has had nine credit rating downgrades since he took over, is ranked 44th in private sector job creation and has the third highest foreclosure rate in the nation. Christie responded, “If you think it’s bad now, you should have seen it when I got there.” That won’t make potential voters feel very confident.

Christie later used the 9/11 terrorist attacks as warrant for the expansion of NSA surveillance and collection of phone records. Unfortunately for Christie, this isn’t 2004, and appealing to 9/11 to encroach on civil liberties and privacy doesn’t work anymore.

Apparently Christie thought the debate would go like this:

After Rand Paul contested that Christie would be violating the 4th Amendment, an aggravated Christie replied that Paul is simply “blowing hot air” when he speaks against the Patriot Act. After Paul told Christie to go give Obama a big hug, Christie retorted that the hugs he remembers are those from 9/11 victims. (*cringe intensifies*).

Aside from saying 9/11 frequently, Christie contributed little positively to the debate.

John Kasich: A

By and large, John Kasich won the debate Thursday night. Kasich went from a relatively unknown figure that barely squeaked into the top debate to being shown as a confident, charismatic and common sense candidate who presented himself candidly and plainly, which might have been in part to his home field advantage in Cleveland.

Kasich was questioned about his acceptance of Medicaid funds from Obamacare as Governor of Ohio. He had previously supported his claim by contending:

Now, when you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he’s probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small. But he is going to ask you what you did for the poor. You better have a good answer.

He reminded the audience that the glorified patron saint of the Republican Party, Ronald Reagan, expanded Medicaid at least three times, and that by accepting the funds, thousands of mentally-ill Ohioans were now able to receive treatment.

Kasich also said that if he were to face off against Hillary in the general election, he would try to unite the nation instead of Hillary’s “narrow” campaign.

When asked about same-sex marriage and how a candidate respond if one of their children was gay, Kasich relatively shocked the audience by stating that he accepts the Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage and that “if one of my daughters happened to be that, of course I would love them and I would accept them.” He even brought up that he recently attended a same-sex wedding of a friend. That might not have resonated well with many conservatives, but is sure to when over independents, as over half of Americans support same-sex marriage along with 61% of independents.

While Kasich may not be the most conservative candidate, he showed on Thursday night that he is arguably the most authentic and electable.

Overall Report Card



John Kasich A
Marco Rubio A-
Ben Carson B+
Donald Trump B
Rand Paul B-
Ted Cruz C+
Scott Walker C+
Mike Huckabee C-
Jeb Bush D+
Chris Christie F

Photo Credits to Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty Image / John Minchillo / AP Photo / Maring Photography / Contour by Getty Images / Fox

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