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The VICE Guide to the 2016 Election

The Republican Debate from Hell

If CNN was trying to kill off Republican candidates, they nearly succeeded.

by Grace Wyler
Sep 17 2015, 9:46pm

Illustration by Drew Lerman

More of VICE's coverage of the GOP debate:

Who 'Won' Wednesday's Republican Debate?

Ben Carson Is V. Chill

The Most Surprising Moment from CNN's GOP Debate

If America learned one thing from CNN's three-hour-long Republican presidential debate Wednesday, it was that Republican presidential debates definitely shouldn't be three hours long. Sweaty and blinking under blazing lights in the Ronald Reagan presidential library, the 11 candidates looked more like the shipwrecked survivors of a corporate plane crash, dazed after being hauled out from the ocean and forced to give a press conference in front of the giant jet that rescued them. By the end of the night, Chris Christie was beet-red, Scott Walker had turned an alarming shade of pale green, and Jeb Bush looked around like he was surprised to be alive. Even the tirelessly high-energy Donald Trump was keeling over, clutching his podium for support.

Later, cornered by an eager reporter who asked what surprised him about the night, Trump responded matter-of-factly, "I was surprised I could stand up for three hours. Seriously, it must be some kind of record." It was not the answer the young man was expecting, I'm sure, but nonetheless an apt summary of the night. Three hours is too long to expect anyone to maintain a coherent narrative, let alone a bunch of sixty-somethings armed with talking points that weren't all that coherent to begin with.

In general, though, the debate went as everyone expected it would. Panicked by their flagging poll numbers, and desperate for a little airtime, candidates went after Trump like kamikaze pilots, only to be thrown off course by The Donald's one-liners and bored eyerolls. Trump kicked off the bloodbath when, asked to respond to Carly Fiorina's shot at his ability to handle the nuclear codes, he instead took an out-of-nowhere shot at Rand Paul from which Paul never really recovered. When Walker tried to hit Trump with a bad joke about not wanting an Apprentice in the White House (get it?), Trump reminded the Wisconsin governor that he has driven the state's economy into the ground.

Bush tried the hardest, dragging Trump into a prolonged back-and-forth that included a demand that Trump apologize to Bush's wife, who was sitting in the front row. Trump declined, and eventually shut it down with a casually back-handed, "High energy tonight, Jeb, I like that." In the end, the only candidate who managed to get the upperhand on the frontrunner was Carly Fiorina, knocking the slow pitch Trump threw with his comments about her face out of the park.

From there, though, the night got blurry. Questions blended into one another, setting off a chain of rebuttals that tended to end with the candidates shouting over each other. Sensing that the three debate moderators were out of their depth, the inmates eventually took over the asylum, and the whole event devolved into a soupy morass of war declarations, tax plans, and Reagan fellatio. By the end of the night, Bush and Trump were giving each other low-fives, Rand Paul was calling himself "Justice Never Sleeps," and multiple candidates had declared that they'd like to put their female relatives on US currency.

The countervailing narrative going into the debate was that this was going to be a fight between the political "outsiders"—Trump, Fiorina, and retired pediatric neurosurgeon Ben Carson, none of whom have ever held elected office—and the eight professional politicians on stage with them. In the six weeks since the first presidential debate, the former group has shown any momentum in 2016 polling, while the rest of the field has seen their support drop, or, in Walker's case, completely flatline. Most political handicappers have attributed the shift to voters' dissatisfaction with the Republican Party, and the political system in general. The latest New York Times/CBS poll, released the day before the CNN debate, bears out this theory, showing Trump and Carson leading the rest of the field by more than 20 points.

After watching Wednesday's debate, though, these numbers make more sense. While no one can actually "win" a clusterfuck, Trump, Carson, and Fiorina seemed to be the only one's who came out unscathed, and not simply because they lack political experience. In a debate that demanded no policy substance—or substance in general—and that turned spats about job numbers and casino permits into Real Housewives-style brawls—the candidates who win are the ones who the viewers like watching.

A decade of NBC ratings have already told us that Republican voters like to watch Donald Trump. And the fact that those voters rather watch a businesswoman and a very chill black neurosurgeon than a herd of slippery white politicians bragging about how they shutdown the government or Planned Parenthood suggests that perhaps these voters have better judgment than we give them credit for.

Follow Grace Wyler on Twitter.