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If There's a Debate Winner...

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Will something that happens in tonight's debate spark a public-opinion surge for one candidate? It has happened before, as John Sides points out. The press judges a candidate the winner of the debate, creating more media coverage, leading to better polling numbers and prompting even more press attention.

Before you know it, we have a new early-polling leader. Nate Silver makes the important point today: Media attention almost completely explains the current candidate ranking in the polls.

Political scientists have no way of predicting which candidate will perform well, or whether the media will treat one of them as a debate winner. But we do have a pretty good idea of what happens next -- and it depends on which one (if any) becomes the new "it" candidate.

Jeb Bush, Scott Walker and Marco Rubio separated themselves from the pack by the end of last year, but none of them has taken the next step forward to become a true favorite to win the nomination. If any of the three of them surges forward after the debate, it's quite possible that party actors who have stayed on the sidelines so far will rally to him and put an end to the chaos. The "winner" could enter the fall at least as strong as Mitt Romney was in fall 2011 and perhaps even as dominant as George W. Bush was in fall 1999.

At the least, a surge by Bush, Walker or Rubio might push one or more of the other candidates out of the race.

Six other candidates appear to be plausible nominees, but haven't rallied much support so far. Mike Huckabee, John Kasich and Chris Christie will be in the main debate. Rick Perry, Rick Santorum and Bobby Jindal will appear in the matinee. If one of them "wins" the night and vaults into the top three in national polling, party actors who wrote him off will likely give a second look.

It isn't exactly the last chance for this group, but they are beginning to run out of time.

And then there are those who either lack conventional qualifications for the job, or are too far from party orthodoxy on issues important to powerful party groups, or just aren't prepared to run a full campaign. One of them could surge -- as Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann did at some point during the 2012 cycle and as Donald Trump has done this year. It won't make any of them viable nominees.

Of course, there are additional complications. Some candidates appear well-positioned to appeal widely across party factions. Others, we already know, will meet with resistance (very conservative Republicans will balk at Bush, for example, and business interests at Huckabee).

Some may prove to be inept campaigners, and unable to take advantage of a good opportunity. Any candidate can have a polling surge, but the question is how it plays out. 

  1. Silver is cautious about causation. Rightly so. But it's pretty clear that if the press focuses on one candidate out of 17, we'll see a significant polling surge.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net