Jaclyn Taylor’s search for a candidate got a little more complicated Wednesday night. Chris Mudd, on the other hand, ended the night exactly where he began.
So score the second Republican debate as a win of sorts for the candidate who was not on stage: former President Donald Trump.
“My mind wasn’t changed,” said Mudd, who owns a solar energy company in Cedar Falls, Iowa. “I still feel Trump would be the best for our country.”
Taylor, who owns a consulting firm in the Des Moines suburbs, vehemently disagrees. But as she watched Wednesday night, her evaluation of the candidates’ exchanges was overshadowed by a bigger, nagging worry.
“Without Trump there, what is the goal of this panel of candidates?” Taylor texted during the debate. “What can they accomplish? … What can this group do to make a difference? These are my questions and frustrations.”
Since we first met Taylor in August, she has voiced the hope that enough Iowa Republicans will ultimately rally around a single alternative to the former president. But her own search is just one example of why that hasn’t yet happened – and why the second debate does not appear to have changed the structure of the GOP race.
Taylor was impressed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in the first debate. Less so in the second.
“DeSantis is fading and not making any headway,” she said during the debate.
Thursday morning, this was her takeaway: “I have confidence in DeSantis and (Nikki) Haley. … It’s nearly a toss-up for me between those two.”
Then, back to the frustrating part for her and other Republicans desperate for a candidate other than Trump but who don’t see one emerging from the pack.
“The strategy, in my opinion, needs to be the candidate that can beat Biden but also overcome Trump, which is an enormous challenge for anyone and doesn’t look promising at this time,” Taylor texted while watching.
Taylor and Mudd are among those participating in a 2024 CNN project designed to track the campaign through the eyes and life experiences of voters in key states – and key places or voting blocs within those states. Such anecdotal reporting cannot replace larger, scientific public opinion surveys. But it can be helpful and telling in following the arc of the campaign through consistent voices, to see what – if anything – changes views on an issue or a specific candidate.
To that end, a few clear takeaways from voters in our project.
Mudd is one example.
Natalya Orlando in New Hampshire is another. “They should be taking shots at (President Joe) Biden and not at each other,” she said via text during the debate. “I am glad they are talking about economics and the high cost of everything.” But Trump would get her primary vote today. “The debate solidified that decision,” Orlando said Thursday.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie would never get Orlando’s vote, but he did get her to laugh: “I thought it was funny when Christie said Trump was watching the debate from wherever he was. LOL.”
Another member of our New Hampshire GOP group, commercial fisherman Andrew Konchek, watched the debate on Thursday after returning from two days of working on the water. “Still Donald Trump, as of now,” Konchek said Friday morning. “That debate was a circus, so it kind of did make him look better than a bunch of clowns arguing like fifth graders.”
Of the seven candidates at the debate, Konchek said DeSantis was “the best spoken and leans more my way of closing the borders with law and order.”
“I still think Nikki was strong and clearly now they see her as a threat,” texted Betsy Sarcone, a real estate agent in the Des Moines suburbs, shortly after the debate. “She knows her stuff on every topic and can back it up.”
Priscilla Forsyth, an attorney in Sioux City, also began and ended the night with Haley atop her list. “Even better this debate,” Forsyth said.
Navy retiree Pete Burdett of Laconia, New Hampshire, also held firm in his support of Haley, while adding some praise of North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum. “Sounding strong,” he texted at one point. “VP for Nikki?”
Even Trump supporter Mudd said this of the seven candidates who debated: “Nikki Haley stood out as the winner to me.”
Trump voters often compliment Ramaswamy. But those in our groups who don’t like Trump’s coarse tone tend to see Ramaswamy as a copycat.
“Ramaswamy is so disrespectful,” attorney Forsyth said. “I’m tired of him.” Ramaswamy’s debate performances have turned off Forsyth; back in August, she told us she attended a Ramaswamy event and was very impressed.
Sarcone was offended by Ramaswamy’s debate assertion that children who identify as transgender have a mental health disorder. “There are a lot of people hurting in our country – including people struggling with their identity,” Sarcone said. “Just because you don’t agree with it – or can’t relate to it – doesn’t mean it isn’t valid. … It reminds me of the Trump rhetoric. Being irresponsible with the platform they have been given. Words matter.”
“First thought: the moderators can’t control the candidates,” Taylor texted.
“The loser was the Fox News panel,” he said. “They lost control early. The interruption all night was hard to watch.”
“Stop talking over each other,” Burdett texted during the debate. The morning after, he added: “Should have done something else with my time.”
This story has been updated with additional information.