Donald Trump is perfectly exploiting Cruz’s and Rubio’s biggest weakness

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On Thursday night, for more than two hours, Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz pounded Donald Trump with facts and allegations. They said Trump had hired illegal immigrants, had shipped jobs to China and Mexico, and…

Donald Trump Ted Cruz Marco Rubio Houston Republican Debate 2016
Marco Rubio, left, Donald Trump, and Ted Cruz at a debate.

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On Thursday night, for more than two hours, Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz pounded Donald Trump with facts and allegations.

They said Trump had hired illegal immigrants, had shipped jobs to China and Mexico, and had defrauded people who paid tuition to his university.

If you scored the debate on punches, it looked as though Trump lost. But he didn’t lose. He won, because debates aren’t decided by punches. They’re won by the candidate who tells the best story, a story that frames his opponents’ arguments as part of his own campaign message.

Here’s an example of how that’s done: Three weeks ago, just before the New Hampshire primary, Rubio came into a Republican debate with a game plan. He was going to compete with Trump and Cruz for angry conservative voters by establishing himself as the candidate most hostile to President Obama.

At every opportunity, Rubio denounced Obama as an evil genius who had set out to change America and who “knows exactly what he’s doing.” On the punch scorecard, Rubio did well. But he was destroyed by Gov. Chris Christie, who framed Rubio’s message as part of a larger story: that Rubio was robotic, shallow, and unprepared for the general election or the presidency.

“There it is, the memorized 25-second speech,” Christie told the audience as Rubio repeated his message. Rubio plunged in the polls and was humiliated in the subsequent primary.

That’s how you beat an opponent in a debate: You anticipate his message, and you make it part of your message. When viewers see your opponent talking, they don’t hear what he’s saying. They see him doing what you said he would do. It’s like throwing a net over a guy who’s trying to hit you. His punches don’t land on you. He just tires himself out and looks foolish. The more he attacks, the more he loses.

That’s what Trump did to Rubio and Cruz on Thursday. The two senators came into the debate armed with information about Trump’s employment practices, his flirtations with liberalism, and his sketchy college. But the real fight wasn’t about that information. The real fight was about what it meant.

As they spoke, the three candidates weren’t just throwing punches. They were throwing nets. Rubio was casting Trump and Cruz as unelectable. Cruz was casting Trump and Rubio as unprincipled. Trump was casting Rubio and Cruz as politicians. The real fight was between these three stories, these ways of understanding the drama onstage. And Trump’s story won.

Marco Rubio, left, and Donald Trump.
Marco Rubio, left, and Donald Trump.
Houston Republican Debate 2016 Trump Cruz
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) shakes hands with Donald Trump before the Republican presidential debate at the Moores School of Music at the University of Houston on February 25, 2016 in Houston, Texas
chris christie and donald trump
Chris Christie and Donald Trump at a debate.

Read the original article on Slate. Copyright 2016. Follow Slate on Twitter.


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