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In Florida Debate, Gingrich Ignores Lessons of Recent History

The two debates in Florida this week paralleled the two in South Carolina last week, only with the roles of Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney reversed.

Mr. Romney was defensive — and often evasive — in both of the South Carolina debates. Perhaps this strategy made sense at the first of the two in Myrtle Beach. Coming off a big win in New Hampshire, Mr. Romney held a lead in the South Carolina polls at the time and seemed to want to run out the clock. But voters did not react well to the strategy, while Mr. Gingrich had a strong evening. Polling showed the momentum in the race shifting to Mr. Gingrich almost literally overnight.

Rather than change gears, however, Mr. Romney adopted a similar plan at the next debate in Charleston. The result was the same: he continued to sink in the polls, turning a single-digit deficit in the South Carolina polls into a double-digit loss.

At Monday’s debate in Tampa, Fla., it was Mr. Gingrich who pulled his punches, adopting a subdued approach and declining opportunities to attack the other candidates. His strategy, like Mr. Romney’s a week earlier, perhaps looked good in the playbook: the initial polls after South Carolina had shown Mr. Gingrich surging to a lead in Florida, and perhaps Mr. Gingrich thought he could look more like a front-runner by adopting a less combative and more magnanimous approach.

But Republican voters, once more, did not react well: Mr. Gingrich has since lost considerable ground in the polls and now trails Mr. Romney in Florida. It is not necessarily clear that the debate was the only cause of this. Nevertheless, Mr. Gingrich entered Thursday evening trailing Mr. Romney in the polls and needing a win in the second debate.

Instead, Mr. Gingrich seemed to be playing for a draw. He passed upon several opportunities to push back at Mr. Romney, despite being expressly presented with opportunities to do so — on health care, on Ronald Reagan’s legacy, on immigration, and on Mr. Romney’s personal finances among other issues. The only exception came when Mr. Gingrich alleged that Mr. Romney had invested in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — but this was met with a strong rebuttal by Mr. Romney, who seemed well prepared for the attack.

I strongly suspect that Mr. Gingrich will extend the losing streak for this passive debate strategy. There aren’t any post-debate polls yet, but the betting market Intrade might provide a preview of them. By the time the evening was done, Mr. Gingrich’s chances of winning Florida had plummeted to 10 percent from 25 percent in the market, and his chances of winning the Republican nomination had dropped to about 5 percent from 10 percent.

The precipitous drop mirrored one for Gov. Rick Perry of Texas after his “oops” moment in a November debate. In this case, however, Mr. Gingrich had not committed any major gaffes. Instead, he adopted a poor strategy, failing to draw favorable contrasts with his opponents. It’s hard to win debates — and to win nominations — unless you make an effort to do that.

The FiveThirtyEight forecast of Florida envisions a wide array of potential outcomes because of the exceptional volatility in the polling there. Heading into the evening, Mr. Gingrich was projected to win 36 percent of the vote — but the confidence interval on his forecast ran from 22 percent to 47 percent.

Every now and then voters react much differently to a debate than pundits and analysts expect them to. But it seems to me like Mr. Gingrich is now at much greater risk of finishing toward the low end of the range, which could translate into something like a 20-point loss to Mr. Romney.

Frankly, were it not for the fact that a lot of people have already voted in Florida and that a super PAC associated with Mr. Gingrich will be running a significant number of commercials on his behalf, you could make the case that Mr. Gingrich was in some danger of finishing out of the top two. Rick Santorum, in third place in the Florida polls, performed quite well at the debate and could finish toward the top end of his forecast range, which runs up to about 20 percent of the vote.

With an outcome like that, it could be Mr. Santorum who emerges as the strongest challenger to Mr. Romney, albeit one with fairly remote chances of winning.

Mr. Santorum avoids two of Mr. Gingrich’s greater liabilities. He is not as disliked by influential Republicans — in fact, Mr. Santorum has pockets of support from some key constituencies. And Mr. Santorum can probably make a stronger case on the electability front. Right now, all of the remaining Republicans have net-negative favorability ratings with the general public. But Mr. Santorum’s score — a favorability rating of 30 percent and an unfavorable rating of 36 percent in an average of recent polls — is somewhat better than Mr. Romney’s and much better than Mr. Gingrich’s.

Would, say, an unexpectedly strong third-place showing by Mr. Santorum be enough to sustain his campaign? Perhaps, particularly if Mr. Gingrich does poorly enough that the viability of his campaign is called into question. The path forward would not be easy for Mr. Santorum, especially given that he would be at something of a delegate deficit to Mr. Romney. But Mr. Santorum could focus on two Midwestern states that are key in the general election — Michigan, which votes on Feb. 28, and Ohio, which votes on March 6. If there is truly an appetite for a “not Romney” candidate, then a state like Ohio would provide as good a testing ground as any.

Still, if the most interesting question after Florida votes on Tuesday is whether Mr. Santorum’s third-place finish is enough to keep him alive, that would qualify as an outstanding evening for Mr. Romney, who had come into Thursday night still at considerable risk of losing the state.

Mr. Romney, who performed well in the Thursday debate, can thank his new debate coach, Brett O’Donnell. But he can also thank Mr. Gingrich, who acted as though he was content to settle for second place. Recent history has shown that candidates who act that way usually get their wish.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.