If political events have proved anything so far this year, it is the need for patience and caution in projecting the future. Voters may have their own ideas.
The loose-knit group of strategists, activists, talking heads and others known as the political community has been in a hurry all year to get the Republican presidential race shaped and charted. But that is work reserved to the voters. In due time, voters will clarify and resolve everything, but not this month or next.
Presidential campaigns operate according to a natural rhythm dictated by the seasons, the primary-caucus calendar and the way most Americans follow events. People pay attention sporadically and make their decisions only when they have to. Until then, they are free to change their minds, express contradictory views and shop the field of candidates.
That rhythm is at odds with the round-the-clock needs of a political-media culture that demands order when order doesn’t yet exist. Speculating about what might happen draws more attention than explaining what has happened. But somehow this year, little is going to form.
One week Michele Bachmann is the star of the show. Then it’s Rick Perry coming to the party’s rescue on a white horse, and everyone writes off Bachmann. Herman Cain was written off months ago, and yet he is enjoying a new burst of attention. Jon Huntsman is just a speck in many national polls but has shown movement in New Hampshire. What does that mean?
Ron Paul has his cadre of passionate supporters, but does he have enough to be a real spoiler in some early states? Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have been effective in debate, but they get little respect from the political class. Mitt Romney’s poll numbers remain steady but not particularly impressive. Donors pant after Chris Christie. Sarah Palin bides her time.
Making sense of all this is now an industry in overdrive, although what’s evident today was evident at the start: Republican voters are conflicted about their choices and only loosely attached to the candidates. They will need to see more before they settle on their choices, and they will probably be influenced by one another and by results in the early states. If history is a guide, there will be some embarrassments.
This has happened repeatedly over the years. What looked obvious or apparent in October got blown up once the voters began to get serious about picking a new president or a presidential nominee. Choose almost any campaign and there is an example of how the narrative sketched in the fall by those supposedly in the know had to be rewritten on the fly the following winter when the voters weighed in.
At this time in 1983, Walter Mondale was on a march to the Democratic nomination, with Sen. John Glenn seen as his principal challenger. Glenn was viewed as perhaps the party’s most attractive general election candidate. House Speaker Tip O’Neill thought he could be described as a Democratic Eisenhower, a national hero whose popularity transcended politics. But voters cast Glenn aside quickly when their time came.