The GOP presidential race this year has been characterized by wild swings, with something like 10 candidates leading in at least one published poll. That’s not because Republican voters are crazy. Actually, it’s completely rational, and very functional, behavior.Here’s the thing: Most Republican voters haven’t paid all that much attention to the race so far. Why should they? After all, unless they live in Iowa or New Hampshire, or perhaps Nevada or South Carolina, they aren’t going to be choosing from the field of candidates currently on display in all of these debates. Instead, they’re going to be choosing from a much smaller field, after the losers drop out. Indeed, there’s certainly a good possibility that after South Carolina (and perhaps even earlier) the nomination battle will be effectively done, and voters in the other 46 or more states won’t really be making any choice at all.
So what these wild swings are all about – from Trump to Bachmann to Perry to Cain – is just voters echoing back whichever candidate has been in the news the most (and, given that we’re talking Republicans, it’s whichever candidate is on Fox News, or talked about by conservative talk radio, the most). Remember, Republicans expect to like all of these people, and in fact probably do like them all. So instead of choosing between people they like, which would require getting plenty of information, the easier path is to just pick the name they’ve been hearing the most recently. I haven’t seen a study, but I’m willing to bet there’s a high correlation of Fox News coverage of the various candidates and subsequent polling results.
And that’s fine. The people who have the largest effect on the nomination – party actors such as politicians, party staff, donors, campaign and governing professionals, and even most conservative activists – haven’t been swinging to the Donald Trumps or the Herman Cains. They know that the GOP will wind up with a proper candidate; more to the point, because they believe that only someone such as Mitt Romney or Rick Perry can be nominated (a group mostly made up of recently elected statewide officials with mainstream conservative views) then precisely because of that, only such candidates can be nominated.
Voters do have the theoretical capacity to upset the party consensus once they get involved, and they certainly have the ability to help nudge a close race one way or another. But most Republican voters probably won’t have much say in what happens, and therefore it’s perfectly rational for them to not bother learning the differences among candidates they’ll never have to choose between. After all, Republican voters may believe some very strange things about Barack Obama and about public policy – but they’re not crazy!