While Donald Trump’s absence loomed over last night’s Republican presidential debate in Iowa, there were no such issues at the Republicans Overseas and London Press Club event, where a top panel from the BBC, House of Lords and more discussed the surprising straw poll and the campaign in general.
The poll was promoted by Republicans Overseas via email and social media and drew over 11,000 responses from 64 countries and tweets from candidates Jeb Bush, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio. The winner overall, with more than a third of votes, was Rand Paul, which RO European spokesperson Kate Andrews attributed in big part to his typically younger supporters being more engaged online. When US voting was excluded, Rubio was the winner, with 30% of the vote, and Trump narrowly beat Paul into third place.
Colin Bloom, director of outreach for the Conservative Party, chaired a panel comprised of Andrews, House of Cards author Lord Dobbs, Telegraph columnist Tim Stanley and Today’s Justin Webb at the Telegraph offices. At the start of the debate, former Fox News chief correspondent Jim Angle gave his thoughts live via Skype from the US. “No-one has ever seen a candidate like Donald Trump – and many wish they hadn’t! It’s like the movie – he’s “as mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. That’s his whole campaign. He’s sucked the air out of his room with his celebrity, his bragging and his insults.”
Angle said primary campaigns were usually about which lane each candidate was running in; Ted Cruz in the ideological lane, Rubio in the establishment lane, Trump swerving around the lanes and Bush “can’t work out what lane he is in”. On the possibility of Michael Bloomberg running as an independent: “I think he thinks Trump will blow up and Hilary Clinton may face indictment over her emails.”
According to current polling Trump is the clear leader, both nationally with 41% compared to second-placed Cruz, with 19%, and in Iowa where the first primary takes place on Monday. “I’m confused by current GOP polls; I feel like something is deeply wrong,” said Andrews.
Dobbs said that the anti-hero of his House of Cards books Francis Urquhart – Frank Underwood in the hit Netflix series – “would love this campaign”. Stanley said that Rubio leading the poll amongst overseas Republicans could bode well for the Florida senator as this typically reflected the wealthier and more educated Republicans who are ultimately more likely to vote.
“Why would anyone want to do the job?” asked Webb, previously the BBC’s Washington correspondent. “Is the campaign now so unpleasant that it only appeals to ‘bizarre’ candidates?” He forecast that traditional broadcast media was unlikely to be a key player in this election. “Trump is anything but the classic conservative ideologue, but is often represented that way in British media,” added Stanley.
The unusualness of this campaign, on both sides, was commented on by the panel. “America is going into a period, not just politically, of full spectrum division; this could be first time each party can win election just by appealing to grass roots,” said Webb. “There is radicalisation on both sides – it’s remarkable to see a self-proclaimed socialist (Bernie Sanders) leading in Iowa.”
The panel would not be drawn on their choice of candidate but did – with the exception of Dobbs who had left to vote in the House of Lords – reveal which of them they would like to go for a beer with. Andrew chose Paul, Stanley went for Sanders and, for Webb, “it has to be Trump, doesn’t it?”