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Tonight’s Debate Deserves the Hype

Usually in this space, we get a lot of mileage out of diminishing the importance of any one day’s events during a political campaign.

The math behind this is pretty simple. Presidential elections are incredibly long affairs: they last for two years, give or take, counting the primaries and the “invisible primary” (candidates jockeying for position among party elites) that precedes them. There is some sort of lead political story just about every day, but most of them can’t possibly make all that much difference, in the same way that any one game does not make all that much difference during a 162-game baseball season.

But this time is different. Tonight’s Republican debate is exceptionally important.

Actually, let me qualify that slightly. The debate itself is somewhat important — but it’s the reaction to the debate (among the media and among party elites) that will really matter. Rick Perry’s polling numbers actually did not decline much in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 22 debate. If everyone had turned off their televisions and iPads after the debate, it might not have made all that much difference.

But after a week or two of negative reviews of his performance from commentators across the political spectrum — this is the sort of thing that begets the term “echo chamber” — the debate’s effect on Mr. Perry was very much amplified, and he lost 10 or 15 points in the polls.

The central reason for the importance of tonight’s debate is of course Mr. Perry’s predicament. None of the fundamentals that propelled Mr. Perry into the polling lead after his entry into the race have really changed all that much. As the thrice-elected governor of the nation’s second-largest state, he has very strong and very traditional qualifications. He has raised plenty of money. His policy positions, with one or two clear exceptions, are a reasonably good fit for that of the Republican electorate. He trails Mitt Romney in endorsements — a gap made wider by Gov. Chris Christie’s decision to endorse Mr. Romney today — but not by much. He is a capable and experienced retail politician. His regional strengths ought to match up in an advantageous way with the Republican calendar.

Rick Perry’s fundamentals are sound.

But he is also on the verge of being vetoed by the Republican establishment, which was never particularly enamored with his candidacy and has justifiable concerns about his electability. Establishment support is certainly not a sufficient quality for a candidate to win his nomination — otherwise the campaigns of Tim Pawlenty, Fred Thompson and Phil Gramm would have gone further — but it may be fairly close to being a necessary one. In the early years of the reformed primary process, which dates back to 1972, you had a couple of candidates — George McGovern and Jimmy Carter — who won without elite support. But that hasn’t happened recently as parties and candidates have come to a better understanding of the system.

So we should look toward how Republican elites react to Mr. Perry’s performance. A good early indicator of this might be how his performance is reviewed on Fox News. If you’re a Democrat not in the habit of watching Fox News, you might want to do so tonight, at least in the 30 minutes or so after the debate.

I also suspect that there won’t be a lot of middle ground in the reviews of his performance, given that the “Rick Perry’s campaign is imploding!” storyline and the “Rick Perry is the comeback kid!” storyline both make for pretty good headlines.

Imagine that you are grading Mr. Perry’s performance tonight, as objectively as you can, on a scale from 0 to 10. A debate that might ordinarily merit a 6 might well seem more like a 9 once it’s been through the wash of the echo chamber. In such a case, we might well be viewing Mr. Romney and Mr. Perry as co-front-runners in another week’s time.

But a performance that merited a 4 might instead be reviewed as a 1 or a 2, in which case we might be treated to another round of speculation about whether a last-ditch savior might enter the race (never mind that filing deadlines are imminent; this hasn’t been a barrier to such speculation before) — or even speculation about whether Mr. Perry might drop out of the race entirely.

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