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Questions Amid the Wreckage of Gingrich’s Campaign

It doesn’t require any deep thinking to determine that when virtually all of your most senior advisers suddenly decide to quit your campaign — as happened to Newt Gingrich on Thursday afternoon — your bid for the presidency isn’t off to the best start. Although Mr. Gingrich is insisting — at least for the time being — that he’ll remain in the race, betting markets now give him just a 1-in-200 chance of winning the Republican nomination.

A few questions in the wake of the news:

If Mr. Gingrich drops out, where does his support go? Mr. Gingrich’s numbers had already been on a downward trajectory — he was averaging about 7 percent support in recent polls after having polled in the double digits on many occasions earlier in the cycle. And about half of the Republicans who registered an opinion about him considered him to be an unacceptable choice.

So there’s not that much support to go around — one of Mr. Gingrich’s biggest problems, in fact, was that he lacked a natural constituency within the party, and wasn’t entirely trusted either by the Republican establishment or by insurgent voters who take their cues from the Tea Party.

The refrain that early polling is all about name recognition is a little exaggerated, but I think it holds in Mr. Gingrich’s case — most of his support is likely quite soft and comes from low-information voters. Temporarily, a recognizable name like Sarah Palin might see her numbers boosted by a couple of points if Mr. Gingrich were to exit the field, but those votes would probably come up for grabs again later in the cycle.

In the longer term, in fact, it might be some of the less recognizable candidates — including both insurgent candidates like Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain and establishment-endorsed ones like Tim Pawlenty and Jon Huntsman — who would benefit from getting Mr. Gingrich off the stage, where he otherwise might have eaten up news cycles at a time when they will need to introduce themselves to the electorate. But all of these effects are liable to be pretty marginal.

Does this mean Rick Perry is likely to run? Sometimes, when a candidate drops out, or when his campaign is imploding, people will pick up on pretty thin reeds of gossip about what this means for the other candidates. I was skeptical, for example, about the notion that when Haley Barbour decided not to run for president, Mitch Daniels was liable to jump in instead.

But as my colleagues at The Times and other news organizations are reporting, many of Mr. Gingrich’s now-departed staffers have extremely close ties to  Gov. Rick Perry of Texas. And as the National Review’s Jim Geraghty notes, staffers don’t usually just get up and quit unless they have somewhere else to go, since even hopeless campaigns still pay the bills.

There’s also the issue of timing. Although a candidate could theoretically enter the race very late — even after the first primaries had been held — he’d be relying on either a complete implosion of the Republican field (in which case he might hope to be selected at a brokered convention) or on running some sort of dubious, gadget-play candidacy. But we’re nearing the end of the period when a candidate could enter and run a more or less traditional campaign — and still have time to raise a lot of money, hire lots of staffers and compete vigorously in the early nominating states.

Mr. Perry’s strengths are that of a traditional candidate. He’s the four-term governor of the nation’s second-largest state, he has reasonably high name recognition, he should have no problem raising money, and he has the potential to be competitive in Iowa, South Carolina, Florida and the many Southern states that vote on Super Tuesday.

If Mr. Perry were to run, in other words, I’d expect him to run a traditional campaign — which means that I’d expect him to throw his hat in the ring sooner rather than later. Of course, Mr. Gingrich’s staffers could have decided to leave for any number of other reasons apart from going to work for Mr. Perry — but the theory that Mr. Gingrich’s loss is Mr. Perry’s gain passes the smell test.

Why is Mr. Gingrich’s campaign going so badly? One reason may be that he hasn’t run in a competitive race since 1990, when he won by less than a full percentage point over a Democrat, David Worley, to maintain his seat in Congress. (After that, Mr. Gingrich benefited from redistricting and began to win by blowout margins.) And that was a race for the House of Representatives, not for the presidency.

Which other candidates similarly lack experience in competitive races? Herman Cain, whose only prior campaign experience came in a Senate primary in 2004, is one obvious example.

Otherwise, it’s a fairly battle-tested field. Both of Tim Pawlenty’s gubernatorial elections were close, as you’d expect them to be in order for a Republican to win in Minnesota. Mitt Romney has run tough races for Senate, governor and the presidency, although he won just one of those races. Sarah Palin was on a presidential ticket and survived some strange Republican primaries in Alaska. Rick Santorum ran for Senate three times in a key swing state. Rick Perry has spent the past 25 years running for office. Michele Bachmann has never run for an office higher than the United States House, but her races in both 2006 and 2008 were quite competitive. Rudolph W. Giuliani made a lot of mistakes in 2008 — but at least he has that experience to draw from if he wants to run again, and he thrice ran for mayor of New York, with two of the elections being quite close.

Jon Huntsman is a marginal case; his gubernatorial race was only somewhat competitive in 2004 and he won very easily in 2008.

But in general, we’re not likely to see the sorts of rookie mistakes that Mr. Gingrich has consistently made. And we’re certainly not likely to see another candidate return from a Mediterranean cruise to learn that his entire staff has deserted him.

This post has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: June 13, 2011

An earlier version of this post misspelled Michele Bachmann’s given name as Michelle.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.