The American people, a small slice of them, have spoken, and they are none too pleased.
But let’s see if we can make any sense of this rambunctious story so far, and what the Republicans and independents in the first four states that held contests have told us about their hopes and fears — and volatility, insurgency and populism — in an unsettled America.
For now, they are angry and anxious and uncertain, sick of a bunch of elites in Washington who can’t fix their lives and suspicious of all promises, and their 2.6 million votes reflect the deep cracks in a party of people who can’t seem to get along.
This has been the most turbulent Republican presidential race in a generation. In a four-month span, four candidates have occupied the lead in national polls, boosted by a typhoon of unprecedented super-PAC spending and sometimes twice-weekly episodes of a wildly popular new reality TV series, “Tonight’s Republican Presidential Debate.” Candidates who might have been considered fringe in previous cycles, such as former pizza magnate Herman Cain, were lifted into the limelight before falling into disfavor among the public. For the first time in history, voters in the first three states to choose a candidate picked three different winners.
This is the work of an agitated electorate, fluctuating state by state in search of a candidate comfort they haven’t found.
In a South Carolina plump with social conservatives, Newt Gingrich received 41 percent of the votes of married women after he blew up at a debate moderator for inquiring about his personal life, which includes two affairs and two divorces. In Florida, 10 days later, he lost them, down to 28 percent; Mitt Romney, whose campaign and its allies dumped $15 million in ads questioning Gingrich’s steadiness, then grabbed 51 percent of the votes of married women.
What the voters keep telling us is that each state is its own special place, that conclusions are not yet possible, that they are still in a fickle state of mind.
Romney won 46 percent of the vote on Tuesday in Florida, where a clutch of white snowbird retirees, exurb dwellers, Puerto Ricans and Cuban emigres are said to most represent the diversity of the GOP in general. This made him the front-runner for, oh, the eighth time. But an unsettling 38 percent of those who voted for him indicated in exit polls that they would really like another candidate to enter the race.
The electorate is just as deeply conflicted about President Obama. One day this week, a Gallup poll deemed him one of the most polarizing presidents ever. Yet a day later, in a Washington Post-Pew survey, 55 percent of all respondents put him first, ahead of Romney and Gingrich, in understanding the problems of ordinary Americans.
The professional political class earns big money by analyzing statistics that relate to voter preference and behavior. This may be the year that those metrics produce static rather than clarity. And what if one talented, grandiose and volatile candidate can create volatility throughout a whole political season by tapping into the inchoate anger of people desperately trying to claw themselves out of a recession?