After two debates Texas Governor Rick Perry’s lead over Mitt Romney for the GOP nomination has fallen by a bit over 5 points. When Perry entered the race he enjoyed an immediate 15 point net bounce in his polling versus Romney. That moved Perry from 5 points behind Romney to 10 points ahead. This lead remained steady across nine polls prior to the GOP debate on September 7 at the Reagan Library sponsored by NBC and Politico. Following that debate there may have been a slight decline in Perry’s lead, but following the September 12 CNN/Tea Party Express debate in Florida, that lead clearly declined to slightly under 5 percent. That amounts to giving up 1/3 of the sharp gain after Perry entered the race, but still leaves Perry ahead of Romney and in a considerably better position than before he entered the race. After Thursday night’s third debate we will look for new polls to say if this decline continues or not.
The New York Times’ Nate Silver notes the decline (previously quite apparent here.) Silver however seems unsure of the evidence, saying “Whether Mitt Romney has gained ground on Rick Perry in the Republican primary race is questionable.” I’m unclear what is questionable about it. These are all national polls of GOP primary voters and there are 9 polls after Perry entered and before the first debate, and 7 polls after the 9/7 debate. While more polls are always desirable this is a pretty solid set of polls.
Initial media reaction to Thursday night’s debate suggests Perry again turned in a less than winning performance. So far, those negative media reactions appear to have also been the reaction of GOP voters. What remains to be seen is if the GOP’s somewhat reluctant embrace of Romney will ultimately help Perry, as Republican voters focus on a Perry-or-Romney choice. Romney had considerable trouble in 2007 and 2008 in winning over high church attendance GOP voters. Perry’s initial jump in support strongly suggests that GOP voters were not ready to embrace Romney prior to Perry’s entry. The uncertainty I think that remains is whether the problems elites see with Perry’s performance will overcome the reluctance of many GOP voters to accept Romney as the party nominee.
At the moment the focus on Perry’s claims in his book and on the campaign trail have helped divert a critique of Romney’s past weaknesses that haunted him in 2007-08. Ironically, Perry may be running interference for the criticism Romney might otherwise be suffering. And so far, there is no other credible GOP alternative.