With the final Republican presidential debate of 2011 now in the books, we can declare a clear winner: Mitt Romney.
That is, in face time at least.
A new study from the University of Minnesota’s “Smart Politics” project found Romney bested the rest of the field in speaking time by more than a half hour over the course of 10 of the year’s 13 candidate forums.
In total, the former Massachusetts governor has had about 2 hours and 16 minutes of speaking time. Rick Perry was closest behind him at 1 hour, 45 minutes and 27 seconds.
Newt Gingrich clocked in at 1 hour, 33 minutes and 33 seconds. Michele Bachmann was just five minutes behind Gingrich. Ron Paul had just about 1 hour and 19 minutes.
At the back of the pack is Rick Santorum, with just 1 hour, 13 minutes and 46 seconds -- more than a full hour of speaking time behind Romney.
Jon Huntsman and Herman Cain did not participate in two of the 10 debates studied. But in the eight that they were part of, each averaged about seven minutes.
The debates this year have proved to have considerable influence on the contours of the race. And so the findings present an interesting political twist on the old chicken-or-the-egg conundrum: polling inevitably dictates how much time moderators devote to a candidate, but without much face time, candidates have little opportunity to break through.
Santorum, especially, has made an issue of how few questions he gets to answer, to little avail. He’s consistently ranked toward the bottom in speaking time.
But performance can certainly change the dynamic. Consider that Perry got the least face time on Thursday night -- just about seven minutes’ worth. But he had been at the top of the list in earlier debates, after entering as a GOP heavyweight.
Gingrich, meanwhile, had ranked no better than fifth in speaking time through much of the summer and early fall. But after rising in the polls, with his debate performances seen as a contributing factor, he has now been first or second in speaking time in four of the last five debates.
The next debate is expected to take place in New Hampshire just before that state’s Jan. 10 primary. And if history is any guide, some candidates on the stage Thursday night may not last until then, guaranteeing more time for those who survive.