The 2012 Republican debates may not yield much policy substance, but they have not lacked for carnage and intrigue. Over the course of the early debates, a string of anyone-but-Romney contenders has arisen--and just as rapidly dropped from the top tier. Newt Gingrich, a seasoned politician, comes across as steady and commanding in debates; and his first performance as front-runner in Tuesday's CNN national-security forum, he sidestepped the debate pitfalls that had disarmed his past anyone-but-Romney rivals Michele Bachmann and (especially) Rick Perry.
As you'll recall, Bachmann--who enjoyed a burst of early momentum thanks to her surprise win in the Iowa straw poll-- lost significant polling ground in the wake of her remarks regarding the HPV vaccine during and following a mid-September debate. For many early primary GOP voters and political insiders, that episode suggested that she is uniformed and careless in discussing policy. She stated that she met a woman who "told her [that] her daughter suffered mental retardation as a result of that vaccine." As she attempted to backtrack during the next few days, even many conservative commentators contended that she is unprepared for the presidency.
Rick Perry's fall from contention was a one-two punch: First he fell flat in a late September debate, and then he knocked himself out of any hope of serious contention for the nomination in an early November debate. Perry had considered taking himself out of future debates, realizing how disastrous they were to his credibility as a candidate, but has continued debating, without any significant boost in his poll standing.
Herman Cain can attribute his rise to his energetic debate performances, but also started his descent. He was sharp and witty in the early debate performances, leading to an increased interest in him, especially as Perry began his decline. Yet in his first debate has the anyone-but-Romney candidate he took a beating over his 9-9-9 plan, which has little economic foundation. Cain has obviously also suffered from the increased scrutiny that comes with a place near the front of the field, with raising questions both about his competency in policy and his personal conduct amid charges that he had sexually harassed several female employees while he ran the National Restaurant Association.
Now Gingrich is in the coveted-yet-treacherous position of challenging Romney's nomination. And even though he's drawn some criticism from the right over his more lenient approach to the enforcement of immigration law, he did not falter in his first debate in the spotlight. That pattern also seems likely to hold going forward. Gingrich is unlikely to forget policy or confuse world leaders--or to freeze up entirely on the debate stage the way that Perry has. The chart below, based on data from the prediction markets handicapping the chances that a candidate will win the nomination, shows the lack of movement surrounding the most recent debate:
Yet the chart also shows, Gingrich still has only a 14.9 percent likelihood of being the 2012 GOP nominee, way behind Romney's 66.0 percent likelihood--even though Gingrich is leading the polls with 23.2 to Romney's 21.0 in Real Clear Politics' latest aggregated poll findings.
The reason why the prediction markets aren't impressed with Gingrich's recent poll surge and debate performances is simple: Gingrich is already something of a known quantity to the GOP electorate--and as the media and his rival candidates continue scrutinizing his background, many Republican voters will remembers why they weren't all that taken with the former House speaker in the first place. They will rediscover the personal and professional issues that forced him out as Speaker of the House in 1999. They will learn all about his lobbying work over the last 12 years that runs counter to his image as an ideas man--and to his efforts to come across as a Washington outsider on the campaign trail.
With his polish and confidence, Gingrich looks and sounds like a much more plausible anyone-but-Romney candidate than his immediate predecessors in that spot proved to be. Yet the prediction markets still call out Romney as the heavy frontrunner, no matter what the polls may be saying today.
You can continue to follow real-time likelihoods of the Republican nomination here.
David Rothschild is an economist at Yahoo! Research. He has a Ph.D. in applied economics from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. His dissertation is in creating aggregated forecasts from individual-level information. You can follow him on Twitter @DavMicRot and email him at email@example.com.
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