Wednesday, October 26, 2011

More Debates to Be Scheduled: Who Benefits?

Originally, the first contest in the 2012 Republican presidential primary--the Iowa Caucus--was scheduled to take place in early February 2012. In advance of Iowa, there were to be three debates held in January, two in December, and one in November. But the Florida Primary moved its own date up to January 31, forcing the other early states to move a month early. Now the sponsors of the debates originally scheduled for January are moving the debates up, too. In addition, good ratings for the most recent Republican primary debates have prompted debate sponsors (like CNN and Fox News) to schedule additional debates.

Now, instead of one debate in November, there may be as many as three; in December, there may be as many as five primary debates; in January, prior to the Florida Primary, there could be as many as six more. Which candidates benefit from all of these additional debates?

As a general rule, candidates who are behind in the polls want there to be as many debates as possible. Each debate represents an opportunity to shake things up. If you're behind, debates allow you to change that. Ordinarily, a candidate who is in the lead would rather there be fewer debates so that the status quo is less likely to be disturbed. Also, minor candidates--who have few resources--prefer as many debates as possible, since they are opportunities to get free TV time and to be taken seriously.

Mitt Romney is considered by most observers, including Elephant Watcher, to be the frontrunner in this race. Based upon the principles described above, wouldn't Romney have the most to lose by the scheduling of all these new debates? Not necessarily. One obvious principle not included in the preceding paragraph is the that candidates who are skilled debaters welcome the debates. Though Romney lacks charisma, and though he has occasionally been rattled by attacks at the debates, he has proven to be a skilled debater. The results speak for themselves: Before the September debates, he was polling behind, and now he's the frontrunner. If Romney can continue to deliver better debate performances than his foes--especially Rick Perry--then he is almost guaranteed the nomination.

Perry has proven to be the worst of the debaters. Again, the "before and after" picture of the polls speaks for itself. Yet if Perry can improve, the additional debates provide him additional opportunities to recover. His poll numbers at the moment are terrible. If Perry is at least mediocre in the future debates, the memory of his truly disastrous debate performances will fade. But if Perry is unable to articulate his thoughts in future debates, they will obliterate him.

Herman Cain is an interesting case. His entire campaign relied upon the debates, since he had no resources (and apparently little interest in running a conventional campaign). Yet he has peaked too soon. If he continues to poll well, the debates will simply provide an opportunity for him to be grilled by his opponents (and the debate moderators). He is good when speaking from his own turf, but otherwise he falls apart.

Newt Gingrich is often considered the best debater in the group. He usually gets a lot of applause at debates, and his poll numbers have risen a bit. In reality, however, Gingrich has done little debating at the debates. He has tended not to attack or argue with his opponents, preferring instead to go for the easy applause line. Thus, Gingrich is somewhat untested. If Gingrich is as good at debates as advertised, and if he were to engage his opponents, the extra debates will be a boon to Gingrich. A word of caution: Gingrich has not yet been attacked by his opponents.

The remaining minor candidates have benefited little from the debates thus far. If Cain crashes early enough, the Tea Party will be in the market for a new favorite. This will open up an opportunity for Rick Santorum to move up in the polls based on his debate performances. If something unexpected happens and Romney becomes vulnerable, perhaps Jon Huntsman will have an opportunity of his own. Meanwhile, Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul have little hope.