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Romney’s ‘Prevent Defense’ Yielding Big Gains to Opponents

Most football fans have learned to hate the “prevent defense,” a strategy that is employed when a team holds a lead late in the game. In theory, the strategy involves being willing to yield short completions to the offense in an effort to prevent a big gain. In reality, it seems to yield plenty of short completions — but also its share of big gains as the offense takes advantage of the soft coverage. Hence the aphorism “the prevent defense only prevents you from winning.”

During Monday night’s debate in Myrtle Beach, Mitt Romney seemed to be engaging in a political version of the strategy, avoiding direct confrontation with his opponents while giving evasive answers on issues ranging from his tax returns to the role of “Super PACs.” Fox News, which hosted the debate, encouraged viewers to use the Twitter hashtag #dodge to indicate when they thought candidates were not giving a straight answer — and Mr. Romney received considerably more dodges than the other candidates.

I wrote on Twitter during the Monday night debate that I thought this was a smart strategy for Mr. Romney. At the time, he held a reasonably large lead in South Carolina and was also in a very strong position in Florida and in subsequent states. Sometimes a risk-averse strategy is the right one, even if it isn’t viscerally pleasing.

What has happened since then, however, has frankly surprised me a great deal. The momentum in South Carolina shifted literally overnight; one pollster showed an incredible 22-point swing against Mr. Romney and toward Newt Gingrich over the course of a 24-hour period after the Monday night debate.

Although I thought that Mr. Gingrich had a strong debate on Monday night, and although I’m usually pretty careful to warn my readers that primary polling can be highly volatile, that’s not the sort of thing you see every day.

The conventional wisdom seems to hold that the story has more to do with Mr. Gingrich than with Mr. Romney. And there is some evidence of this in the polling: much of Mr. Gingrich’s gain has come at the expense of Rick Santorum and Rick Perry rather than Mr. Romney. Meanwhile, I had written a post on Tuesday that challenged the notion that there was a true “anybody but Romney” constituency among Republican voters, especially given his strong second-choice support in many surveys.

But now I’m wondering if that is the right interpretation. Mr. Gingrich’s gain in the polls has occurred so rapidly that few political writers have taken a step back to analyze it. What’s interesting, however, is that in each of the first three voting states, there is a different “not Romney” candidate who has surged late in the race: Mr. Santorum in Iowa, Jon M. Huntsman Jr. in New Hampshire, and now Mr. Gingrich in South Carolina.

Some of this, I suspect, is because voters in both parties seem to have developed a resistance to falling in line when the news media expects them to. There were numerous reversals of momentum in the 2008 Democratic primaries, some of which seemed to represent an open rebellion by voters against the news media’s expectations of how they might behave. Even candidates as strong as George W. Bush in 2000 — who may have been the best non-incumbent primary candidate ever, with exceptionally strong fund-raising totals and polling numbers — have encountered a few bumps along the road.

Where I think things become potentially dangerous for Mr. Romney is when he plays into this tendency by playing prevent defense, and behaving as though the nomination is his to lose. If Mr. Romney exhibited this tendency during Monday night’s debate, it may have been much worse during Thursday night’s debate in North Charleston.

At one point on Thursday, while delivering a somewhat rambling answer about his tax returns, Mr. Romney explicitly invoked the idea that he wanted to be careful about his disclosures so as to minimize the potential general election fall-out. That’s a perfectly rational strategy for a politician, but it just isn’t good politics to say it out loud in the context of an intraparty debate. (Mr. Romney has had these sort of problems before.)

Republican voters generally do like Mr. Romney, but they don’t like him so much that they’re ready to treat him as the presumptive nominee — particularly when voters in states representing 99 percent of the American population have not cast ballots yet.

The good news for Mr. Romney is that while voters often like to defy expectations in the early-going, they usually make fairly rational choices in the end. (Let me be bold enough to suggest that Mr. Gingrich, whose favorability rating is just 27 percent in an average of national surveys, does not ultimately have the stronger side of the electability argument.) Probably not since George McGovern in 1972 have voters nominated a candidate to whom the tag “unelectable” might be fairly applied. And Mr. McGovern’s victory came in part because of his superior understanding of the Democrats’ brand-new nomination system, which he had helped to design.

Meanwhile, candidates like Mr. Bush in 2000 sometimes took their lumps early — but nevertheless emerged with victory in hand.

In the short-run, however, I don’t think Mr. Romney has made things any easier on himself. Our forecasts now say that Mr. Gingrich has become the slight favorite to win in South Carolina. We will see whether that comes to fruition, but Mr. Romney’s prevent defense has allowed Mr. Gingrich to drive to his 30-yard line.

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