Key Point: Of course, deciding who “won” a presidential debate is subjective. Early reactions have been all over the map regarding the GOP debate last night.
The GOP Debate: Who Won?
The first Republican presidential debate of the 2024 cycle took place in Milwaukee on Wednesday night, and the most prominent candidate in the race was not present. Donald Trump was referred to by moderator Bret Baier, as “the elephant not in the room.” The ex-president instead sat for a pre-taped interview with Tucker Carlson that streamed during the debate.
As always, who “won” a debate is subjective, of course, and likely to be determined by the effect in the polls afterward. After all, it’s not always clear what the criteria are for “winning” a debate- for some, it’s who performed best on the stage, for others, “winning” means, “that candidate said the things that I agreed with.”
Reactions to the debate varied wildly, but most seemed to agree that Trump did not lose much by not participating and that Ron DeSantis did little to break out from the pack. Most also agreed that Vivek Ramaswamy did stand out, although opinions differed on whether it was a good or bad thing for him. However observers also decided that the moderators failed in their task of keeping the debate on track.
The Washington Post, in a “winners and losers” column published Thursday morning, named Trump the top winner.
“The risk for Trump in not showing up was that he wouldn’t be able to defend himself. He didn’t have to,” the Post’s Aaron Blake wrote.
Ramaswamy was named the second-biggest winner of the evening.
“In Trump’s absence, second-place Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis seemed destined for most of the attacks. Instead, it was Ramaswamy, the momentum candidate in the race who has risen to third place,” Blake wrote. “Ramaswamy was unfazed through just about all of it. And over and over again, he benefitted from being pitted against the two most unpopular candidates in the field.”
The biggest losers of the night, per the Post? DeSantis, along with “the GOP’s political pride.”
The Hill, in its own “winners and losers” column, named former Vice President Mike Pence the top winner.
“Several rivals paid tribute, albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm, to Pence’s actions certifying the result of the 2020 election and withstanding Trump’s pressure to overturn it,” The Hill wrote. “At other moments, Pence’s fieriness — especially when directed at Vivek Ramaswamy — was the most startling element of the night.”
The Hill also named Gov. Chris Christie a winner and was nicer to Fox’s moderators than the Post was.
“The duo allowed clashes to run unimpeded when appropriate but also kept overall control of the proceedings — including, on one occasion, Baier turning around to admonish the crowd for excessive reactions,” the publication said, also naming DeSantis as the top loser of the night.
CNN asked several contributors to name their winners and losers of the debate. S.E. Cupp chose former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, praising both her calls for compromise and her “terrific clap-backs at the overly angry Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the overly annoying Vivek Ramaswamy.”
David Axelrod picked the absent Trump as the winner, while Karen Finney stated that DeSantis “delivered a flat debate performance devoid of any standout moments.”
“Time and again DeSantis came off as stilted. He consistently chose to ignore the question being asked and pivoted instead to overly rehearsed responses from debate prep that was devoid of passion or compassion and merely meant to check MAGA boxes. By adhering to those well-practiced responses, DeSantis demonstrated a lack of political agility, missing opportunities to connect with the audience,” Finney added.
Politico, meanwhile, also called the Florida governor a “non-factor,” while Natalie Allison named Ramaswamy the winner.
“He took all the hits — seriously, almost all of them — but Vivek Ramaswamy got all he could have wanted out of tonight: attention and the opportunity to reinforce the idea the party’s establishment is out to get him,” she said. “If you were a Republican who still hadn’t seen a clip of Ramaswamy on social media or TV, you learned who he was tonight. And the fact all knives were out for him shows that the other candidates see him not just as an annoyance, but as a threat right now as they’re trying to break through themselves.”
Sally Goldenberg said Pence had “the best night,” while Steven Shepard said it was DeSantis. Holly Otterbein stated “All in all, it was a pretty good night for President Joe Biden.”
And in an op-ed for Fox News, the host of the debate, Liz Peek was tough on Ramaswamy.
“Businessman Vivek Ramaswamy had substantial momentum coming into the GOP debate in Milwaukee. In just two hours, he blew that advantage, and – most probably – any chance he might have had of securing the nomination. He appeared smart-alecky and disrespectful of his fellow contestants; he interrupted constantly and displayed none of the sobriety and substance so needed by a 38-year-old eager to convince voters he belongs in the Oval Office.”
Author Expertise and Experience
Stephen Silver is a Senior Editor for 19FortyFive. He is an award-winning journalist, essayist, and film critic, who is also a contributor to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Broad Street Review, and Splice Today. The co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle, Stephen lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two sons. Stephen has authored thousands of articles over the years that focus on politics, technology, and the economy for over a decade. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenSilver.