Hillary Clinton won the third GOP debate. Here's why

In conventional terms Senators Cruz and Rubio won Thursday night’s debate. They were laser focused, quick, smart and passionate. They defended themselves, their records and went on the offensive at all the right times, calling out the moderators on unfair questions that were focused less on policy than on personality.

Rubio offered a palpable sense of optimism for the future, returning to his line that America’s greatest days lie ahead. He argued that his tax plan is the only one on offer that’s pro-family. And in a joust with the CNBC moderators over his lack of attendance in the Senate, he got the biggest applause of the night in calling out the liberal bias in the mainstream media.

For his part, Ted Cruz spoke of how important it is to support single mothers in America and used the example of many single moms in his own family. He was the first to call out Democratic policies as being bad for women, citing that there are now over 3 million women living in poverty. His point was so good that even Fiorina agreed with him. And, when he turned on the CNBC moderators, the audience cheered.

But we’ve learned that conventional wisdom doesn’t mean all that much in this election.

This is not a field that I expect to get that much smaller anytime soon. It is therefore very clear that the longer this goes on the more Hillary Clinton is benefitted.

In the latest CBS/New York Times poll, 60 percent of Americans said that they wanted to see an outsider in office. And although Cruz has marketed himself as an outsider in the Senate, there are no bigger outsiders in this race than Donald Trump and Ben Carson.

It follows that it’s not altogether clear that Trump and Carson will be hurt by this third GOP debate.

To be sure, neither candidate performed badly. Trump had some great lines -- as we expected him to have -- and he was particularly strong in discussing his record of creating jobs. If we want to cut the size of government, as Republicans desire, then he has the greatest case for why he can deliver on jobs for Americans.

Ben Carson battled through tough questions on his tax plan where he didn’t come off as particularly confident, but muddled through. He defended his views on gay marriage in such a way that will satisfy the GOP base and, crucially, he continued to emphasize how important it is to get government out of the lives of average Americans.

Indeed, getting government out of the lives of Americans was the underlying theme of the debate. Each candidate made mention of it at least once with Carly Fiorina – the first and only candidate to mention “crony capitalism” – offering that we need to get power out of the hands of the big and powerful in order to give it to the small and powerless.

Jeb Bush had perhaps the most disappointing performance of the evening. He needed to do well on Thursday night, but he telegraphed his attacks on Rubio -- and Rubio was more than ready. At a time when Bush is cutting back on spending and donors are getting nervous, he needed to offer more. And he didn’t.

John Kasich inserted himself into the conversation. He led by defending Medicare and calling out the candidates for attacking seniors. He touted his record in Ohio of turning an $8 billion deficit into a $2 billion surplus and pointed out that he’s the only candidate who has balanced a budget. But Trump tore him apart, quipping that Kasich “got lucky with fracking” and worked at Lehman Brothers when the bank crippled the world’s economy. Kasich didn’t recover well from that.

The upshot is that I don’t expect the polls to move much. We’re looking at a Republican electorate that wants outsiders and that isn’t going to change anytime soon.

Furthermore, the divisions in the Republican party remain strong and obvious. This is not a field that I expect to get that much smaller anytime soon.

It is therefore very clear that the longer this goes on the more Hillary Clinton is benefitted.

It follows that Clinton may have actually been the winner of the evening.