If numbers don’t lie, then tonight’s GOP primary debate will definitely affect the presidential race.
Consider these numbers: 4 percent and 8 percent. The former was Herman Cain’s standing in a Fox News poll before his knockout performance at the South Carolina debate in May. The latter was his rating in a Gallup poll fielded a couple weeks after. What’s more, pollsters started including Cain as an option only after that debate.
Michele Bachmann’s commanding performance at the New Hampshire debate in June had a similar impact on her poll numbers: The day before the contest, a Gallup poll pegged her support at 5 percent. But when Rasmussen conducted a poll the day after, her support skyrocketed to 19 percent.
“Each time there’s been a debate where almost all of the candidates have been there, it moved the needle for one of the candidates in the race,” observes former Iowa gubernatorial nominee Doug Gross. “I think this one will, too.”
Making this debate even more crucial are its location (Iowa) and timing (two days before the Ames Straw Poll).
“A lot of Republican activists will pay attention to it,” says David Yepsen, a former Des Moines Register reporter who is currently director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. Because the straw poll comes so soon after the debate, “there really isn’t time for anybody to correct any mistake,” he says.
Gross notes that even a well-organized campaign’s Ames performance could depend on the debate, pointing out that supporters’ “level of intensity” could shift based on a candidate’s doing “particularly well or particularly poorly.”
For some candidates, the stakes are especially high. In the New Hampshire debate, Tim Pawlenty badly stumbled, refusing to criticize Mitt Romney’s health-care program to his face after blasting it on Fox News two days before as “Obamneycare.” The incident hurt Pawlenty’s campaign, which had begun gathering momentum in the weeks before the debate. Instead of building on that surge, Pawlenty was forced to spend much of the summer fighting news stories that suggested his campaign was dead. Cain followed up his stellar debate showing in May with an uneven performance in June, clumsily handling a question about whether he would appoint a Muslim to his cabinet. Questions about how he regarded Muslim-Americans dogged him afterwards.
Jon Huntsman is tonight’s debate debutante. The media darling has so far been unable to build a national following: He earned only 2 percent of the vote in the most recent USA Today/Gallup poll. But Huntsman rejiggered his campaign approach a couple of weeks ago, and aides have promised a more aggressive campaign from the candidate who once focused on civility. If Huntsman follows his campaign’s approach, it may be he — not Pawlenty — who criticizes Romney most severely in this debate.
Bachmann’s challenge is to equal — or surpass — her stellar performance from last time. Romney, whose frontrunner status has been threatened by Rick Perry and Bachmann in recent polls, will be working to solidify his head-of-the-pack status. Rick Santorum, meanwhile, will be looking to increase the number of his supporters with a breakout performance, and Newt Gingrich hopes to prove that he remains a viable contender, despite his massive staff exodus and financial woes. Ron Paul, no slave to political conventions, will be looking to rouse his base enough to generate a surprise win at Ames.
Matt Strawn, chairman of the Iowa GOP, thinks that the “fluidity of the field” of candidates means that the debate could determine the Ames outcome — or that there could be a significant swing in the level of support some candidates receive.
“Anytime the candidates gather on stage together, there’s the opportunity for that to happen,” he says.
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.